An anxious future for Turkey’s economy and democracy

After claiming victory in Sunday’s presidential election run-off, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said “Turkey was the only winner” as he addressed jubilant supporters. Yet while the veteran president’s loyalists celebrate, millions of other Turks will be hanging their heads in dismay, agonising over what another five years of the strongman’s rule means for their polarised country. They are right to be worried. Even Erdoğan, who has dominated Turkish politics for two decades, must realise that he has no time to bask in his triumph if his nation is to avoid plunging deeper into economic crisis. 

The elections took place against the backdrop of an acute cost of living crisis, with Turkey’s currency trading at record lows and inflation hovering around 44 per cent. The crisis is largely a result of Erdoğan’s pursuit of unorthodox economic policies: he has railed against high interest rate rises while inflation soared and neutered the central bank’s independence. 

Pressure on the state’s diminishing resources will be increased by a string of blatant election giveaways, including changing retirement age regulations and increasing civil servants’ salaries. Its foreign currency and gold reserves tumbled $17bn in the six weeks before the first round of voting on May 14 as Erdoğan sought to prop up the economy and currency ahead of the polls, according to Financial Times calculations of official data. The state is also grappling with a near-record current account deficit. 

Yet Erdoğan’s policies, coupled with his penchant for picking fights with western allies and his drift towards authoritarianism, long ago scared off foreign investors who could provide much needed hard currency. This is not sustainable. The state is running out of resources to defend the lira. 

Erdoğan has to put aside his personal quirks, return to a conventional monetary policy and take serious steps to restore credibility to state institutions. Only then would Ankara have any chance of convincing wary investors to return. But if Erdoğan is true to form, the west can expect another era of unpredictable and testy relations with the Nato member. 

There are also concerns about what Erdoğan’s victory will mean for the country’s democracy. Since first leading his Justice and Development party (AKP) to power 21 years ago, he has consolidated power and centralised decision-making to unprecedented levels, edging ever closer to one-man rule. He has replaced Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an all-powerful executive presidency since pushing through a constitutional referendum in 2017. Elections take place on an unlevel playing field. The mainstream media has mostly come under the control of the government. Opposition politicians, journalists, academics and businessmen languish in prisons.

The list of those incarcerated includes Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), who has been behind bars since 2016. The spectre of a ban from politics — and possible prison — hangs over Ekrem İmamoğlu, Istanbul’s mayor and a senior figure in the Republican People’s party (CHP), the main opposition party, after he was convicted in December of insulting electoral officials. 

Many others will be fearful about their civil liberties. During the campaign, Erdoğan, who has courted ultranationalists, repeatedly attacked his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, for being pro-LGBT rights and for supporting terrorists, a thinly veiled reference to his outreach to Kurdish voters.

The president’s supporters will point to another victory at the ballot box as further evidence of Erdoğan’s enduring popularity. But the fact that he was forced into the run-off after neither he nor Kılıçdaroğlu garnered more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round underlines the political chasm between those who love or loathe the divisive leader. Constitutionally, this should be Erdoğan’s final term. If indeed it is, he would be wise to consider the legacy he intends to leave. But whatever course he charts, Turkey risks heading into worryingly stormy waters.

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