Turkey Has A Complicated Relationship With The West, And It May Not Be Solved By Its Upcoming Presidential Runoff

Zinger Key Points
  • A runoff could put an end to the 20-year long political reign of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
  • Despite promises from opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to heal relations with NATO and the EU, Turkey is likely to remain a wild card fo

The political fate of Turkey still hangs in the balance as the nation's presidential election was moved to a second round between incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and longtime civil servant Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Preliminary results seem to be benefiting Erdoğan, who leads with 49.5% of votes, followed by Kılıçdaroğlu with 44.89%

With 99% of the votes counted, neither Erdogan or his challenger Kılıçdaroğlu have reached the necessary 50% of votes needed to win the election in the first round. 

The path into a second round, to be held May 28, puts Turkey in suspense, as a win by opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu could break the country's status quo.

Read also: Elon Musk Under Fire As Twitter Complies With Erdogan’s Censorship Request Ahead Of Turkish Elections: ‘If The US Government Did The Same Thing …’

The Rise And Fall Of Erdoğan

Erdoğan has held the presidential role since 2014, previously serving as prime minister from 2003 to 2014. From 1994 to 1998 he was mayor of Istanbul, the country's largest city.

A constitutional referendum in 2017 abolished the prime minister role and gave the president full executive power as of 2018.

Erdoğan's grip on power appears to be loosening. In 2018, he won the presidency in the first round with 52.6% of the votes, with his closest contender receiving 30%. Now, the will of the Turkish people appears to be shifting away from a hypothetical third decade of rule for the nation's strongest political leader.

Initially leading a movement that pushed Turkey through a period of tremendous economic growth and industrialization, Erdoğan's entrenched power has been criticized recently for becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Turkey's almost 500% rise in GDP from 2001 to 2013 helped cement Erdoğan's leadership and several political reforms allowed him to stay in place for over two decades.

But the Turkish economic miracle saw its fate reverse in the last decade. A violent exchange between protesters and the Istanbul police in 2013, which left more than 8,000 civilians injured, followed by an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016, which killed over 2,100, marked a loss of confidence in Erdoğan's capacity to maintain Turkey's economic strength and political stability.

High inflation and high unemployment have worsened in the country since 2018. In April, Turkey registered 44% annual inflation, down from a two-decade peak of 85% year-over-year in late 2022.

A NATO member, Turkey recently came to the focus of attention for voting against Finland and Sweden's request to join the military alliance. Close neighbors to Russia, the two Scandinavian countries broke decades of military neutrality by applying for NATO membership after the war broke out in Ukraine.

Kılıçdaroğlu Might Not Be The West's Longed-for Friend

While Erdoğan was at the center of the blockade, Kılıçdaroğlu has said that he hopes to revitalize relations with NATO and the European Union in case of a win.

Turkey is a candidate to join the European Union, but the process came to a standstill in 2018 due to what the European Council has called "continuing backsliding in reforms in the key areas of the [EU's] enlargement strategy, in particular in the functioning of the democratic system, respect for fundamental rights and independence of the judiciary."

This means that in the eyes of the EU's ruling body, Turkey's policies in recent years have shifted away from the EU's ideological standards. A report by Freedom House called Turkey the world's "worst jailer" of professional journalists and "one of most challenging places in the European region to exercise one's right to free speech and expression." 

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said on Friday that "we all want an easier Turkey," in a sentiment that seems to reflect consensus across Western leaders. Boasting the second largest army in NATO (by personnel), Turkey's friendly relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin have been a regular source of concern for Western powers.

Under Erdoğan's pursuit of non-aligned diplomacy, Turkey refused to enforce sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, Putin returned the favor by providing oil at a discount, according to the New York Times. The two countries have maintained close economic activity since the onset of the war.

But while Erdoğan's views and policies have been too radical to reassure Western insecurities, there's no guarantee that a victory from Kılıçdaroğlu will turn Turkey into the West's new best friend.

A report by think tank Responsible Statecraft said that despite Kilicdaroglu's focus on liberal democracy, "he remains an ardent nationalist with little inclination to bend on issues" that are agreed upon by the population as Turkey's national interests.

The markets reacted poorly to Turkey's lack of decisiveness when picking a new president.

The U.S.-listed iShares MSCI Turkey ETF TUR was down 7.5% on Monday at the time of writing, while the BIST 100 index, following the Borsa İstanbul (the country's only exchange), was down 6.1%.

Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash.

Market News and Data brought to you by Benzinga APIs
Posted In: AsiaNewsSector ETFsEmerging MarketsEurozoneEmerging Market ETFsPoliticsGlobalTop StoriesMarketsETFsGeneralKemal KılıçdaroğluRecep Tayyip ErdoganRussiaTurkeyUkraine
Benzinga simplifies the market for smarter investing

Trade confidently with insights and alerts from analyst ratings, free reports and breaking news that affects the stocks you care about.

Join Now: Free!