22 September 2019

Just How Strong Is Erdogan’s Hold on Turkey?

With his sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system in 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to cement his near-total control over the country. Though Erdogan just suffered the worst electoral setback of his political career in the Istanbul mayoral election, which was rerun June 23, his disregard for the outcome of the initial vote there was the clearest signal that he may be prepared to completely destabilize Turkey’s democracy to maintain that grip on power.

After the opposition won a narrow March vote, the Supreme Election Council sided with Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and overturned the results. The Supreme Election Council’s decision underscores how severe the erosion of democratic institutions has been under the AKP. Though opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, won the rerun, Erdogan’s interference with the initial outcome points to a future in which the regime may no longer even look for institutional cover when it decides to subvert democratic norms.

Brussels and Washington both publicly criticized the decision at the time, but their options are limited when it comes to exerting pressure on Erdogan. Turkish cooperation is critical to the European Union’s goal of blocking Syrian immigrants and refugees from reaching Europe, and Erdogan is very much aware of the trump card he holds. That effort has not been enough, though, to successfully jumpstart Turkey’s accession talks with the EU, though it is no longer clear how significant a goal that is for Erdogan.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system has highlighted the degree to which its ties to the U.S. and NATO have frayed. Washington has suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation fighter plane program over fears that deploying the U.S.-designed stealth fighter alongside the Russian system will make it more vulnerable to Russia’s air defenses. But Ankara insists it will go through with the purchase, which is only the latest in a series of irritants to bilateral relations with the U.S.

WPR has covered Turkey in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What long-term impact will the mayoral election in Istanbul have on Turkish democracy? Will Ankara continue to drift into Russia’s and China’s orbits? Or will U.S. President Trump and Erdogan reach a detente? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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