Erdogan wins; Turkey and the West both lose

Erdogan wins; Turkey and the West both lose
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The re-election of Recep Erdogan as the president of Turkey is bad news for Turkey and the West.

Following a successful constitutional referendum in 2017, Erdogan now has greater powers than any leader of modern Turkey. Some of those enhanced powers include:

  • the power to issue decrees that have the force of law in the areas of political, social and economic issues;
  • the power to appoint multiple vice presidents; and
  • additional powers to appoint members of the highest courts.

The changes also allow Erdogan to stand for election one more time. With five-year terms, he could remain in office until 2028. 

Why is this bad for Turkey? 


Erdogan has used the ballot box to govern as an autocrat. This should be no surprise from someone that described democracy as being like a train — you get off when you reach your destination. The free press in Turkey is dead. Opposition media outlets are muzzled.


Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) controls the state media, and they acted as the party’s mouthpiece throughout the campaign. Political opponents are not just silenced, many of them are imprisoned.

The leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) came in third while running from a jail cell. He and other imprisoned HDP parliamentarians argue they are detained on politically-motivated charges.

The presidential election and the 2017 constitutional referendum were held under the specter of a state of emergency that began following a 2016 coup attempt. Since the coup, Erdogan has jailed over 50,000 people and fired over 100,000 civil servants.

Erdogan’s misrule is matched by economic mismanagement. Since his election in 2014, the Turkish lira has lost 56 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Official figures peg inflation at 10.2 percent per year, but experts believe the actual rate is 39.2 percent per year.

In an effort to protect the lira, interest rates were increased to 17.75 percent. Though Turkey enjoyed a growth rate of 7 percent last year, analysts say this has been driven by massive infrastructure projects, and budget deficits are high.

Erdogan’s populist rhetoric and actions make it unlikely that he will follow the lead of technocrats to right the economic ship. If the economy continues to deteriorate, we should expect him to do what autocrats do — seek more control. 

Why is this bad for the West?

Despite Turkey being a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, Erdogan has shown little interest in enhancing ties with Europe and the United States. Erdogan believes the EU has unfairly prevented Turkey’s bid to join the block.

His gripes with the U.S. include its criticism of his post-coup crackdown, its refusal to extradite Fetullah Gulen, a cleric living in Pennsylvania that Erdogan believes was behind the coup, and its coordination with a Kurdish militia that is fighting the Islamic State. Erdogan thinks the militia is also a terrorist organization.

Instead of looking West, Turkish diplomatic efforts seem focused on Russia and Iran. From Russia, Turkey has agreed to buy an S-400 air defense system, and President Vladimir Putin was among the first foreign leaders to congratulate Erdogan’s victory.

Turkey and Iran are bound by their opposition to the Kurds. Turkey sent troops to Qatar after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states diplomatically isolated Qatar for its support of Iran, and Turkey is a large customer of Iranian oil and gas — in violation of U.S. sanctions

What should the U.S. do?

The U.S. cannot ignore Turkey, and it should not burn all bridges with Turkey. As Eric Edelman, former ambassador to Turkey, pointed out in a recent podcast, its location is critical as it sits between Europe and Asia and north of Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Seeking its expulsion from NATO would push Turkey further into the arms of Russia, Iran and China, and it would require the U.S. to find a new location for its strategically valuable airbase in Incirlik, Turkey. But, the U.S. must recognize that Turkey is no longer a trustworthy ally.

The U.S. should limit the relationship to discrete areas for cooperation. This should include the campaign against the Islamic State and radical Islamic terrorism. It may also include agreements such as the one reached for stewardship of Manbij, Syria in which the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces will withdraw.

This new approach must also include firm responses to negative moves by Turkey. The U.S. should suspend sales of F-35 aircraft if Turkey completes its purchase of the S-400 air system from Russia.

Over the long term, the U.S. should continue highlighting Ergodan’s autocracy and support civil society organizations that seek genuine democracy in Turkey. This is the best the U.S. can do with a former and hopefully future ally. 

Matthew R. A. Heiman is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law. Previously, he was a lawyer with the Department of Justice’s National Security Division and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Iraq.