Today, Turks will head to the polls to elect a new president and parliament. The incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will be on the ballot. Previous elections have seen comfortable majorities both for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has enabled him to stay in power for twenty years—first as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, and then as president from 2014 onwards.
The upcoming elections, however, will prove to be the biggest challenge to his authority over the Turkish state. The deterioration of the Turkish economy and the damage caused by the massive earthquake on February 6 has turned much of the Turkish population against Erdogan, and there is the very real possibility of his party, and by extension Erdogan himself, being voted out of office, thereby forcing him to take a number of steps to bolster support. One way he has done this is by leveraging Turkey’s position in NATO to block Sweden’s ascension to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), by claiming that Sweden has been refusing to extradite suspected terrorists and not taking concrete steps to combat groups that Turkey considers to be security threats. While there might be some legitimacy in these claims, Erdogan’s belligerent stance towards Sweden can be more realistically interpreted as a means of portraying himself as a populist who will protect the Turks from Kurdish separatist groups and project Turkey’s influence as a serious player on the international scene to garner support ahead of the elections.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has become more confrontational in its foreign policy and is more willing to intervene in the domestic affairs of its neighbors. According to Kali Robinson, “Erdogan has engineered an assertive shift in foreign policy that focuses on expanding Turkey’s military and diplomatic footprint. To this end, Turkey has launched military interventions in countries including Azerbaijan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria; supplied partners such as Ethiopia and Ukraine with drones; and built Islamic schools abroad.” It should be recognized, however, that domestic factors have long influenced Turkish foreign policy, and that the country’s foreign policy positions have often changed to accommodate those factors. As such, while it is easy to take the current diplomatic spat between Turkey and Sweden at face value, it should be framed within the context of the upcoming election and the impact of Turkey’s considerable internal problems.
The greatest among those problems is the economy. Since he was first elected in 2003, Erdogan favored using aggressive pro-growth policies—such as encouraging foreign investors, undertaking massive infrastructure projects, and accumulating of debt—to stimulate the economy. Over time, this economic model proved to be unsustainable since the glut of cheap loans and low-interest rates that were implemented by the Turkish central bank put an increasing strain on the economy. Erdogan’s own views on economics run counter to reality, and he has continually insisted on keeping interest rates low out of the belief that high-interest rates cause inflation when the reality is the opposite. In an interview with TRT news, Erdogan stated that “interest rates make the rich richer, the poor poorer,” and has invoked Islamic teachings against usury and referred to interest on loans as “the mother and father of all evil.” It can be debated as to how much Erdogan believes in such ideas and how much of it is to pander to his more conservative base, but the reality is that his policies have had a severe impact on the Turkish economy. Property prices have skyrocketed by 241 percent as of October 2022, the value of the Turkish lira has been slashed by half, and according to official figures published by the Turkish Statistical Institute, inflation reached 85 percent, although unofficial figures have put the annual rate at 185 percent. The purchasing power of the average Turkish citizen has collapsed, and many goods and services have become too expensive for many people to buy. The situation has only been made worse by Erdogan’s stubborn refusal to listen to anyone who disagrees with his economic policies, to the point of firing three members of the central bank’s monetary policy committee who opposed Erdogan on the issue of interest rates.
There are several factors that work in Erdogan’s favor though. Inflation has slowly been decreasing, as Erdogan has been pumping money into the economy in the leadup to the elections in an effort to soften the blow of the crisis to the Turkish population. These measures have included raising the minimum wage by 55 percent, providing subsidized loans to small businesses and tradespeople, and launching a scheme to protect savers against exchange rate losses if they convert their dollar and euro accounts to lira. The devaluation of the currency has also meant that exports have become cheaper, with exports increasing by 13 percent in 2022, meaning that foreign currency in entering the country.
The situation became direr, however, after the February 2023 earthquake. The disaster killed around 50,000 people in Turkey alone, destroyed thousands of buildings, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 20 percent of Turkey’s agricultural production was damaged, affecting over 15 million people. To add insult to injury, floods caused by torrential rains killed a further two dozen people in March, and left thousands more homeless. All in all, the damage caused by the earthquake exceeds $100 billion dollars, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of Turkey’s GDP. Recovery efforts are expected to take years to yield results.
The earthquake also piles political pressure on Erdogan. The government’s slow response to the earthquake and its inability to provide timely aid to the victims has seen its popularity drop. Despite increased efforts by the Turkish government to provide aid, many survivors expressed criticism of the government’s initial response, with many stating that the authorities were nowhere to be found, with people left homeless in the middle of winter with nowhere to go, supplies running low, and the impression that the victims were left to fend for themselves. The earthquake also tainted Erdogan’s personal reputation. When the AKP party was swept into power in 2003, Erdogan made promises of good governance, a clampdown on corruption, and establishing a state that was more receptive to the needs of the people. These promises were music to people who were upset at the aftermath of a previous earthquake in 1999, which led to a reform of the country’s building codes to earthquake-proof Turkey’s infrastructure. Instead, corruption became more entrenched as contractors took advantage of a construction boom to cut corners while the authorities awarded contracts without competitive tenders or proper regulatory oversight. To address this criticism, Erdogan has issued arrest warrants for dozens of contractors and fast-tracking reconstruction efforts, although it is unclear if this will have an impact.
Erdogan’s opponents have taken full advantage of his dilemmas and have shown a remarkable level of unity and discipline. Six opposition parties spanning the center-left and center-right, have allied together to create the Nation Alliance and put forward veteran politician Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their candidate. Kilicdaroglu, who is nicknamed the “Turkish Gandhi,” has projected an image of an everyman appeal, and has campaigned on promises of tackling inflation and ensuring a return to parliamentary democracy. His prospects increased when the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which usually wins around 10 percent of the vote in national elections, decided not to nominate their own candidate—which is especially advantageous since Kilicdaroglu has, in the past, expressed a willingness to extend more political rights to the Kurdish community.
The final factor to consider is the impact of the Kurdish question. Since 1978, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has fought a guerilla campaign to force the Turkish state to give greater rights to the Kurds, and Turkey has labeled the PKK as a terrorist group. Early in his tenure, Erdogan supported greater political rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority but several factors changed his approach. While the AKP has consistently been the largest party in Turkey since 2003, it has had to ally with the far-right, ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to achieve a majority in parliament. Due to the MHP’s hardline stance towards the Kurds, Erdogan has had to adopt some of their policies to keep their alliance intact. The issue only grew more complicated with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The breakdown of the Syrian state apparatus in the north of the country allowed the Kurdish population there to establish an autonomous Kurdish enclave. This stoked fears of Kurdish separatism that would spill over into Turkey, which led Erdogan to order the Turkish armed forces to conduct military operations into the enclave in an effort to stymie the Kurds from consolidating control of the area.
So, what does this have to do with Sweden? The answer is that the Scandinavian country is an easy target for Erdogan to distract the Turkish citizenry away from Turkey’s internal problems and towards an imagined bad-faith actor. Historically, Sweden has been a favorite destination for political dissidents to seek refuge and, as a result, has a large Kurdish diaspora population. When Sweden submitted a joint formal application, alongside Finland, to join NATO in May 2022 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey initially blocked the bid. In June 2022, however, Turkey, Finland, and Sweden signed the Trilateral Memorandum, whereupon Sweden and Finland would agree to take a stronger stance against Kurdish separatist groups, drop all arms embargos by Sweden and Finland against Turkey, and extradite individuals that Turkey considers terrorists. The agreement fell apart, however, in December 2022, when Sweden’s supreme court rejected the extradition request of Kurdish journalist Bulent Kenes due to the “risk of persecution based on the person’s political views” if he were to be sent back to Turkey, which did not sit well with Erdogan. Kenes used to be the editor of Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper that was often critical of Erdogan. After the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016, Today’s Zaman was shut down and Kenes escaped to Sweden after an arrest warrant was issued against him alleging that he part of a network linked to U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gulen, who Erdogan blamed for the coup attempt. The situation only escalated in January 2023, after pro-Kurdish demonstrators in Stockholm waved flags of various Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey and is banned in the country, as well as hanging an effigy of Erdogan. This happened in parallel with another incident where far-right Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran during a protest in front of the Turkish embassy.