The political landscape on Europe’s southeastern border has undergone a significant transformation as Turkish voters have made their voices heard. Initially, opinion polls predicted victory for opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, either in the first round or in the final showdown on May 28. However, it was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who secured 49.5 percent of the vote on Sunday, surpassing his rival’s 44.9 percent. With a decisive majority and taking into account the substantial voter turnout, Erdogan has secured a new term in office. Additionally, his AKP party emerged victorious in the parliamentary majority.
Erdogan’s likely victory spells troubling news for press freedom, human rights, and the Kurdish minority in Turkey. By extending his personal power for another five years, until 2028, Erdogan further solidifies his authoritarian grip, which he has maintained through various constitutional roles since 2003. The Democratic opposition, despite successfully rallying together, miscalculated the level of support for their opponent, resulting in a disheartening outcome.
The outcome of the Turkish election is also a cause for concern in Washington. The United States has made no secret of its desire to distance itself from the unreliable Erdogan, who has proven to be a tricky NATO ally. As a presidential candidate in 2019, Joe Biden expressed his support for helping the Turkish opposition “confront and defeat Erdogan,” emphasizing the need for him to face consequences for his authoritarian tendencies.
Nevertheless, it is important to consider certain nuances. Firstly, this result prevents Turkey from descending into the uncertain and potentially turbulent aftermath of the elections, similar to the situation the United States faced on January 6, 2021, when the incumbent president, in a fit of losing-induced madness, incited his supporters to stage a coup attempt. However, Turkey’s democratic institutions may be less robust, raising questions about the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power after two decades under Erdogan’s rule. The Democratic opposition, having demonstrated considerable strength and resilience throughout this campaign, will have another opportunity in five years. Much can transpire between now and then.
On the other hand, a status quo in Ankara saves the European Union a lot of headaches. Turning the page to a new chapter in the relationship requires great willpower, perhaps more than is available. Rejoicing over an opposition victory would quickly give way in Brussels and EU capitals to tough questions on two themes: EU enlargement and migration.
With regard to the first, it is to everyone’s satisfaction that the accession negotiations with Turkey have come to a complete standstill (as the member states noted without regret in 2018). The deep discomfort about Turkish membership in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Austria or Greece dates back well before the autocratic turn that Erdogan initiated from 2013. On the basis of reasoned Democratic objections, however, you are more firm to say No than with just ‘Muslim country’, ‘too big’ or ‘no more sense’.
Conversely, a new, democratic, EU-oriented government in Ankara would call on the Union for positive signals, such as the reopening of accession talks or visa liberalisation. Especially unpopular in the context of the Russian war, in which she already has her hands full with promises to Ukraine, Moldova and the countries of the Western Balkans. One analyst told Politico: “a democratic Turkey is a much more fundamental problem for the EU.”
Secondly, as far as migration is concerned, there will be some relief here and there. In March 2016, the EU member states concluded the famous agreement with Erdogan on the reception of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. It reduced tensions at Europe’s external borders at a time of closed internal borders and concerns about the far right. But in Turkey itself, the deal lost support in recent years. The social effort is therefore great. In a bad economic situation, the Syrians became scapegoats. The opposition campaigned to have them returned, which would jeopardise the EU agreement. Erdogan, on the other hand, kept to the agreements (unlike EU member states such as the Netherlands, which accepted fewer asylum seekers for voluntary resettlement than promised).
Turkey has been balancing between Europe and Russia since Ottoman times. The country may be a difficult NATO ally, just as it – as a strong Black Sea neighbor of both warring parties-can mediate in the war. Both Zelensky and Putin value their personal connection with the Turkish president. If he finished a miracle piece at the end of May, Kiliçdaroglu would also build it. Here, geostrategic continuity trumps the head or coin of the ballot box.