Recep Tayyip Erdogan won Turkey’s presidential runoff election May 28 with just 52 percent of the vote. That showed at least two things, Mark Meirowitz told participants in a Jewish Policy Center webinar on June 1.
One, that after 20 years in power—during which he has closed a number of critical news media and jailed some opposition politicians—Erdogan “is not a strongman” in the mold of many dictators in the Middle East or elsewhere. Though the election might not have been fair in that the president received more, and more favorable, press than challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, it was mostly free, Meirowitz said. Turn-out, 85 percent or more, “was tremendous.
And two, he added, Erdogan won his majority not so much by what his government has done lately—low interest rates have fueled high inflation, the lira continues to lose value and response to February earthquakes that killed approximately 50,000 people was much criticized. Instead, Meirowitz said, Erdogan’s voters backed the president for what he represents: apparent Turkish importance on the world stage.
A professor of American foreign policy and specialist in Turkish affairs at the State University of New York-Maritime College, Meirowitz said “there is an element of wishful thinking in the American media and among intellectuals” when it comes to Turkey. Wanting to believe Erdogan would lose, they looked at the 48 percent who cast their ballots for Kilicdaroglu, often the more urban and secular, as “the best and the brightest.” Those who returned Erdogan to office, often more rural and pious Muslims, appeared as Hillary Clinton’s caricature of Donald Trump’s voters in 2016, “deplorables,” Meirowitz suggested.
“Feeling they have been written off by the United States,” the Turkish president’s backers “look at what Erdogan has done,” Meirowitz said. This includes the deal by which Russia agreed to let Ukrainian grain transit the Black Sea, mediating the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, being an important figure in other areas including Europe and NATO, Africa and the Middle East. To his followers, Erdogan demonstrates that “Turkey matters in the world.”
Kilicdaroglu led a six-party coalition and “Turkey has not had a good experience with coalitions,” Meirowitz said. Erdogan also attacked one of the opposition parties, a Kurdish movement, as supporting anti-Turkish terrorists. The opposition had lost its parliamentary majority in earlier elections, so a majority did not see Kilicdaroglu as a presidential alternative, he added.
Noting positive messages from both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog to Erdogan on his reelection, Meirowitz said Turkish-Israeli relations continue to improve from previous periods of Israel-bashing by the Turkish leader. Erdogan, Meirowitz noted, publicly had praised Israel for its rescue and relief efforts after the winter earthquakes.
The Turkish economy “is not doing well,” Meirowitz stressed. Erdogan’s theory that cutting interests rates in a time of high inflation will boost growth “is not helping. … The key decision he has to make now is who will be his finance minister?” The professor said the Turkish leader is considering someone who is well regarded. The question is “will he be dissuaded from his interest rate theory?” Turkey cannot count on continuing to receive foreign economic support, Meirowitz said.
In the longer term, Ankara has a “very problematic” choice, he said. It either continues to improve relations with Israel, or with Iran. There are “worrisome signs” that Ankara and Tehran “are working out something with Syria.” Several million refugees from Syria’s civil war live in Turkey and their presence creates a contentious issue in the host country. Nevertheless, Meirowitz said Turkey’s “key trajectory” is with Russia, “not with Iran.”
The United States and other NATO members want Turkey to yield to Sweden’s accession before the alliance meets in July, he noted. Sweden following Finland into NATO is “an essential element in our foreign policy to push back against Russia” for its war in Ukraine. Turkey has demanded Sweden extradite Kurds it calls terrorist. Washington’s approval of F-16 fighters to Ankara hinges on Swedish NATO membership, Meirowitz said.
“The United States and the West have to be the indispensable ally of Turkey … and we have to stop Russia,” he asserted.