The United States and Europe have a vested interest in ensuring a free and fair electoral outcome in Turkey. On May 14, 2023, Turkish citizens will vote to decide if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has run the country for twenty years, will continue to do so for another five. Under present circumstances, if free and fair elections were held, it is a safe bet that Erdogan would lose decisively against Kemal Kilicdaroglu. (Several recent polls show Kilicdaroglu with a significant lead.) It is far from certain, however, that the elections will be free or fair.
The viability of a democratic Turkey is in the United States’ interest. Regional adversaries such as Russia and Iran would be further emboldened if Turkey continues to drift from the West. Rebuilding Turkey’s democratic governance and institutions will ultimately be up to the people and the country’s future leaders. Unfettered free and fair elections, however, will ultimately help them reach that goal.
Turkey is already drifting away from NATO’s orbit and moving ever closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Erdogan also threatens the stability and security of the eastern Mediterranean by recklessly pursuing broad claims to undersea gas exploration and antagonizing NATO allies. He threatens Syria’s stability by threatening to launch new military incursions against the Syrian Kurds. If Turkey is to once again become a trusted and integral part of the Western alliance system, a democratic change must occur that will oversee Erdogan’s departure.
Between 1950 and 2015, Turkey held relatively free and fair elections (although incumbent governments always enjoyed an advantage in the mass media given their dependence on government subventions), helping to represent citizens’ choices at the ballot box and electing its leaders. This is important not least because Turkey is a major NATO ally but also because it is arguably the only Muslim democracy in the region. Indeed, Turkey’s neighbors have found it difficult to match Turkey’s democratic credentials.
In his twenty years of ruling Turkey, Erdogan has unfortunately overseen the country’s dramatic transition into authoritarian rule. This has been carefully documented in the Department of State’s annual reports on human rights and Freedom House’s assessments of democracy. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that Turkey’s elections since 2017 have witnessed interference from the governing party. Since the coup attempt of July 2016, Freedom House identified Turkey as a country that is no longer “free.”
Unfortunately, Turkish voters lack important resources to choose their next president. Turks lack unfiltered information about all political parties and candidates. They don’t have a media environment free of government interference. And they desperately need bureaucratic institutions that can ensure the sanctity of citizens’ choices. Just recently, Turkey’s media watchdog refused to extend the license of the German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle—signaling that independent foreign media may be kept from reporting on the elections.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has been using the power of his incumbency to purchase the affection of voters by increasing the minimum wage and pensions and offering cheap credit to businesses—all short-term measures designed to win the election but destabilizing to the health of the overall economy. Such measures were already underway prior to the devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey in early February 2023 but now continue under the guise of relief and reconstruction.
In short, the outcome of Turkey’s presidential elections is heavily tilted in Erdogan’s favor. This is the case because Erdogan himself is in a race for political survival. Staying in power is not a simple matter of wielding power for Erdogan; it is existential. If he is no longer the president, it is likely he will have to answer for his numerous abuses of power in a court of law.
A unique opportunity exists for the United States to stand behind the Turkish people in their time of need. Washington must make a strong call to champion the cause of democratic elections in Turkey. The United States can continue to offer Turkey its support by promoting the cause of free and fair elections.
Sinan Ciddi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi.
Eric Edelman is a senior advisor at FDD. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.