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As tempting as it might be to cheer the potential exit from authoritarian rule, we should be realistic about whether that will create more instability

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Banners in Istanbul promote Recep Tayyip Erdogan's re-election with the slogan 'For the Turkish century, the right time, the right man.'Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

Adnan R. Khan is an Istanbul-based independent writer and photographer.

Back on March 22, a brief but telling exchange played out between Bob Menendez, the Democratic Senator for New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The two faced off at the tail-end of a hearing on the State Department’s budget request for 2024 and its foreign policy priorities. One of the issues up for debate was the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, worth US$20-billion. Mr. Menendez, a vocal critic of the deal, rifled through the litany of Turkey’s perceived transgressions – both domestic and foreign – under the rule of its current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from its prolific jailing of journalists and opposition politicians to its violations of international borders and laws, ending his inventory with the question: “What do you call such a country?”

Mr. Blinken, smiling coyly, responded: “I think I would call that a challenging ally.”

The Turkish government, he seemed to be saying, is problematic but necessary. Under the authoritarianism of Mr. Erdogan, it has proven to be an ally begrudgingly accommodated and only tentatively trusted.

The reasons for mistrust, the ones Mr. Menendez listed, are long and indisputable – but the necessity of a reasonably functional Turkey that remains even conditionally allied to the West, Mr. Blinken insinuated, is equally compelling. Mr. Blinken’s casual acceptance of Turkish authoritarianism said something about the position Turkey occupies on the global stage. If geography is indeed destiny, then Turkey is destined to be at the centre of the world: a crucial partner, but also a volatile unknown, forever pulled in multiple directions simultaneously. It is not a country, Mr. Blinken suggested, that can be easily ignored or cut loose.

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Mr. Erdogan shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ankara beneath a poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.Burhan Ozbilici/The Associated Press

Those complications are set to take centre stage as Turkey’s May 14 elections approach. A century into its sometimes-rocky democratic era, Turks will now go to the polls for their country’s most consequential vote in at least a generation.

Domestically, opposition leaders are framing the stakes in the starkest of terms: Will Turkey remain a highly centralized presidency with an autocratic leader who has tanked the economy and isolated it on the international stage, or will it transition back to a parliamentary system governed by the rule of law based on Western norms? Mr. Erdogan and his ruling AK Party are offering an alternative vision: Will Turkey remain the strong, stable and independent nation the AK Party has made it, or will it return to being the lackey of Western powers, forever a second-rate partner in a rigged global system?

Mr. Menendez – alongside most leaders in Western capitals, including Canada – is likely keeping his fingers crossed for the opposition, dubbed the Nation Alliance. The idea of such a crucial country as Turkey finally transitioning to a Western-style democracy, guided by the same values as Europe and North America, would be a dream come true for Brussels, Washington and Ottawa.

But as tempting as it might be to cheer the potential end of Turkey’s authoritarian era, we should be careful what we wish for. To try to understand Turkey in either-or terms – either an ally or an enemy, a partner or a competitor – is to misunderstand the pressures it is under by the mere fact of where it is located. From that perspective, the ambiguity of Mr. Blinken’s “challenging ally” is a more subtle, and realistic, assessment: Turkey always has been, and likely will continue to be, challenging, well beyond the coming elections.

Indeed, there is no reason to believe that an opposition victory will produce the kind of ally Western powers are hoping for. In fact, a closer examination of the opposition coalition suggests that if it does come to power, even winning both the presidency and the majority in parliament, its ability to govern will be dangerously undermined by the vast ideological rifts dividing its members, a motley mix of six political parties spanning Turkey’s entire political spectrum, from leftist democrats to right-wing Islamists and nationalists. It may even mean more instability.

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Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance, addresses supporters in Tekirdag, east of Istanbul on the Marmara coast.Murad Sezer/Reuters

In Izmir, Mr. Kilicdaroglu and his wife, Selvi, greets a crowd with the heart symbol that has become a staple of his campaign. In Ankara, an Erdogan supporter makes the same gesture. Burak Kara/Getty Images; Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters
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Carrying flowers and a sign reading 'let's rebuild Hatay,' anti-government protesters gather in Hatay, one of the cities hit by the devastating earthquakes along the Turkish-Syrian border this past February.Burak Kara/Getty Images

Nothing is guaranteed, but as polls stand now the presidency is within the opposition’s reach while a majority in parliament is a statistical possibility. If the election is free and fair, which in Turkey is not guaranteed, Mr. Erdogan, 69-years-old and showing signs of ill-health, would face an uphill battle. His government’s botched response to the devastating earthquakes in February that left millions homeless and more than 50,000 dead further tarnished his already etiolated reputation. Before the earthquakes, Turkey’s economy had been on a steep downward spiral, fuelled by Mr. Erdogan’s unorthodox approach to its currency crisis – cutting interest rates even as the lira tumbled and inflation soared.

The opposition has promised that if it wins control of Turkey, it will immediately begin to repair the economic damage done by the AK Party by appointing an independent economic expert as head of the central bank and purging the bureaucracy of political appointees, filling key positions with technocrats instead.

That will be the easy part. Other challenges facing the opposition are much more daunting. Making the constitutional changes needed to take power away from the presidency and return it to the parliament – which requires a three-fifths supermajority – appears unattainable for the foreseeable future. Alternatively, the amendments could be made through a national referendum, but that would take time and resources, and a defeat would be devastating.

“If the AK Party becomes the opposition,” Ilter Turan, emeritus professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told me, “it will do everything it can to gridlock the new government. It will want to show that a parliamentary system is not right for Turkey.”

For at least the medium-term after a change in government, Turkey’s attention would be turned inward as the incoming coalition government tries to re-engineer a political system built over the past two decades of AK Party rule to serve the inclinations of a single party – and a single person. Institutions such as the judiciary and the police forces would have to be rebuilt, almost from the ground up. And there would be a very real risk of resistance and sabotage by bureaucrats loyal to the AK Party and its partner, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party.

Memories of the hostility that the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) faced when it won Istanbul’s municipal elections in 2019 are still fresh in the minds of city employees. AK Party-aligned officials at city hall refused even to shake hands with incoming CHP bureaucrats, current employees told me, and even today some pro-Erdogan bureaucrats refuse to interact with their CHP colleagues.

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In Istanbul, people with Ukrainian trident earrings and other pro-Ukrainian attire take part in February demonstrations against the Russian invasion.Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

Nationally, the resistance would be even stiffer. Much more is at stake. Turkey’s election is not only taking place during a tumultuous period domestically, but at a time when Turkey lies at the centre of major international upheavals. The war in Ukraine, for instance, has shifted the regional calculus. Turkey has tried to play both sides, maintaining its ties to its NATO allies by negotiating the transit of grain exports from Ukraine through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits and banning the transit of Russian warships heading to the Black Sea, while at the same time refusing to enforce Western sanctions against Russia. Its reliance on Russian oil imports has only deepened since the war started. Russian engineers are building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and Russian tourists continue to visit Turkish cities and beach resorts in droves.

The hope that an opposition-controlled Turkey will change any of that is misplaced, most experts tell me. In fact, the concern is that domestic instability will seep into its foreign policy. One of the first steps any new government will need to take is to reprofessionalize the foreign service, which, like the domestic bureaucracy, has become deeply politicized under AK Party rule. The process will be painful and laborious, and as with the purge of partisan bureaucrats, AK Party diplomats are likely to resist.

It’s hard to predict what effects this would have on Turkey’s foreign policy. In the absence of Mr. Erdogan, Turkey’s relationship with Russia would no doubt experience an awkward transitionary period. As authoritarian leaders, both the Turkish President and his Russian counterpart rely on personal contacts to communicate demands and de-escalate disagreements. A new president in Ankara, Mr. Turan told me – particularly an institutionalist like the Nation Alliance’s candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu – would lack the rapport that made it possible for Turkey to negotiate deals such as grain exports.

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Mr. Kilicdaroglu greets the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Pervin Buldan and Mithat Sancar.Alp Eren Kaya/Republican People's Party/Handout via REUTERS

Other foreign policy issues would face similar uncertainty. Most Turks support the Turkish military’s operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and its U.S.-backed affiliate in northern Syria. But the opposition is banking on the support of the Kurdish-led HDP, Turkey’s third-biggest party, to secure the Kurdish vote. The HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas, was convicted in early 2022 for statements allegedly insulting Mr. Erdogan. The party itself faces closing and its deputies a five-year ban from politics for allegations of supporting the PKK, charges the party denies.

Ferhat Encu, the co-chair of the HDP in Istanbul, told me the party’s decision to support the opposition is directly tied to issues such as releasing political prisoners, ending the closing case against the HDP, and restarting peace negotiations with the PKK. But he is skeptical that the Alliance can deliver. “There are members who hate the Kurds, who deny their existence,” he said. “For the moment, we are united, but for one reason only: to kick Erdogan out of power.”

Therein lies the crux of the opposition’s problem: its raison d’être is deconstructive, not constructive. The one goal it can agree on is dismantling the ruling structures erected by the AK Party and its allies. What it would build in their place remains either unknown or, in the case of re-establishing a parliamentary system, largely unattainable, at least in the foreseeable future.

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A Kilicdaroglu supporter holds a 'democrat vs. dictator' sign at a CHP rally in Kocaeli.YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

Overseas voters cast their ballots in Nicosia, capital of Cyprus, and Essen, Germany. Northern Cyprus is home to a self-declared Turkish Cypriot state, recognized only by Turkey. Germany is home to the largest Turkish diaspora in the world. Burak Kara/Getty Images; Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters
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Beside Istanbul's Taksim Square, Turkish police arrest a May Day protester near an Erdogan campaign poster. This month marks the 10th anniversary of massive anti-government protests centred on the square and nearby Gezi Park.BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

That’s not to say Turkey, or the rest of the world, would be better off with Mr. Erdogan retaining his absolute grip on power. The magic combination would be the relative internal stability the current government has brought and the predictability a more democratic government based on the rule of law can offer to the international community.

But wishful thinking gets us nowhere. The most likely outcome of this election, regardless of who wins, will be more uncertainty and more instability. If Mr. Erdogan retains the presidency and the AK Party maintains its majority in parliament, the economy is expected to continue its downward spiral. Turkey will continue to borrow heavily from Gulf countries and rely on spending to keep the economy afloat, pushing inflation – which, according to official government statistics, peaked at more than 80 per cent on a yearly basis last October, – even higher (independent economists say the rate actually topped 126 per cent in February).

Most economists expect inflation to ease if the Nation Alliance wins the presidency and the parliament. Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s promise to re-establish central bank independence would calm the nerves of foreign investors. Their return to Turkey, however, would depend on whether the incoming government is able to govern in the face of the ideological divides that are bound to develop once the common cause of removing Mr. Erdogan is gone.

Mr. Encu is not hopeful. Turkish political history is full of coalitions of convenience that ended in acrimony. Many Turks still remember the fractious days of coalition governments in the 1990s, a period which culminated with a massive earthquake in 1999, an economic collapse, and the rise of Mr. Erdogan and the AK Party in 2002. History may be on the verge of rhyming, he told me.

Mr. Turan is more hopeful, but still cautious. The defeat of the ruling party would be an important moment, not only for Turkish democracy, he told me, but for global efforts to push back on autocratic rule. Turkey was one of the early adopters of the transactional approach to global politics that has become more prominent in the 21st century. Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian style and support for a multipolar world order is now du jour for a new cohort of world leaders, from Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. And the chaos they are causing is exactly the kind of instability Russia’s Vladimir Putin needs to secure a seat at the international table. Russia’s strength these days is not a measure of its own successes, but the failures of everyone else. A weaker Western alliance means a stronger Russia.

Given all that, one can understand why Western leaders would be quietly cheering the diverse coalition that has come together for this election to defeat Mr. Erdogan: Turkey coming in from the authoritarian cold would deal a major blow to the likes of Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump and Mr. Orban. But that same diversity is its Achilles’ heel. “If the Alliance starts to fight itself, if it collapses, it will undo everything it has been working toward for these past few years,” Mr. Turan said. “It would be a disaster.”

If that happens – an increasingly likely outcome – the “challenging ally” is about to become even more of a challenge.

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