BUNDER THE Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, home to the Ottoman sultans, a monument to another imperious leader is on display. The Anadolu, Turkey’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, was sent to the Bosphorus last month as the country prepared for an election on May 14, the most important in the world this year. By showing off the warship, which is on a campaign tour along the coast, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to stir up patriotic voters. But his charisma, grand gestures and giveaways may not be enough. The man who has ruled Turkey since 2003, in an increasingly autocratic style, may face defeat.
Listen to this story. Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.
Your browser supports the
As we report, the election is on the cutting edge. Most polls show that Erdogan is slightly behind. If he lost, it would be a stunning political turnaround with global repercussions. The Turkish people would be freer, less fearful and – over time – more prosperous. A new government would restore battered relations with the West. (Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr Erdogan it was a disruptor in the Middle East and sought closer ties with Russia.) Most importantly, in an era where strongman rule is on the rise, from Hungary to India, the peaceful expulsion of Erdogan would show democrats everywhere that strongmen can be defeated.
Start with Turkey itself, a middle-income country of 85 million people at the crossroads between Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Like autocrats around the world, Erdogan has cemented himself in power by systematically weakening the institutions that limit and correct bad policies – and which his opponents, a six-party alliance with a detailed government plan, promise to restore.
Of the many ill effects of barely contained power, Erdogan’s economic policies have hurt ordinary Turks the most. He fired three governors of the supposedly independent central bank in two years, appointed his incompetent son-in-law as finance minister and has since forced the bank to pursue an absurdly loose monetary policy. This has kept growth fairly solid, but has led to inflation peaking at 86% last year and still well above 40% (according to official figures, which may not be reliable). Voters grumble that the price of onions has increased tenfold in two years.
If the opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins the presidency, he has pledged to restore the bank’s independence and bring inflation down to single digits; that, with luck, the collapse of foreign investment would also reverse. But it’s not just the economy that needs repair.
Democracy has also had livelihoods. Like so many other strongmen, Erdogan has castrated the judiciary through a tame council of legal appointments. He has muzzled the media partly through intimidation and partly through the orchestrated sale of outlets to cronies, another common ploy. He sidelined parliament through constitutional amendments in 2017 that gave him the freedom to rule by decree; Mr. Kilicdaroglu promises to undo this. Erdogan’s prosecutors have intimidated activists and politicians with trumped-up charges of “terrorism”. Turkey’s political prisoners include the leader of the main Kurdish party, the country’s third largest party, who is under threat of ban. The (opposition) mayor of Istanbul risks a prison sentence and a ban on politics. Former government heavyweights are afraid to criticize the president and demand anonymity before discussing him in a whisper. All this will get worse if Erdogan is re-elected, but improve quickly if he loses.
An opposition victory would also be good for Turkey’s neighbors and of great geopolitical value for the West. Turkey today is almost completely alienated from the rest of Europe, although nominally it is still a candidate to join the EU. That may never happen, but a President Kilicdaroglu promises to respect the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and start releasing Mr Erdogan’s political prisoners. Europe must respond by reviving a long-stalled visa program for Turks, improving Turkey’s access to the EU’s internal market and closer cooperation on foreign policy.
With the strongman gone, the rift between Turkey and NATO should mend. The block on Sweden’s entry into the alliance would be lifted. Relations with America, poisoned by Erdogan’s friendship with Vladimir Putin and attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria, would improve. However, a new Turkey would maintain Erdogan’s policy of tightrope walking over Ukraine. It would continue to supply Ukraine with drones but not participate in sanctions against Russia; it relies too much on it for tourists and gas.
More important than all this is the signal that an opposition victory would send to all Democrats. Worldwide, more and more so-called autocrats are undermining democracy without abolishing it altogether, by hijacking rules and institutions that limit their power. Fifty-six countries now qualify as “electoral autocracies,” estimates V-Dem, a research group, up from 40 by the end of the Cold War. The list could go on: Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has sought to undermine the country’s judiciary and electoral authority.
A beacon for the oppressed
If Erdogan loses, it will show that the erosion of democracy can be reversed – and how. Democratic opposition parties must recognize the danger and unite before it is too late. In India, a fragmented opposition has enabled Narendra Modi, a strong prime minister, to become dominant with 37% of the vote. Now the main opposition leader risks jail. The situation in Poland is less grim, but the opposition has also thrown election after election against the populist governing party.
The Turkish opposition party N Alliance has already done much better. Mr. Kilicdaroglu may be a little boring, but he is a dogged consensus builder and charmingly humble; the opposite of his opponent. If he won, it would be a huge moment for Turkey, Europe and the global struggle for real democracy. Mr Erdogan did some good things in his first years in office, but the steady accumulation of excessive power clouded his judgment and his moral sense, as it often does. We wholeheartedly support Kemal Kilicdaroglu as the next president of Turkey. ■
Subscribers only: To see how we design the cover each week, sign up for our weekly Cover Story newsletter.