For years, the West has placated Turkey, hoping that economic incentives would push President Recep Tayyip Erdogan away from his authoritarian tendencies, but these efforts have failed. Time and again, we have seen the carrot of economic incentive gobbled up by autocrats with little in return for the West or their people. No place with as much potential as Turkey has been as badly mismanaged. A key bellwether in the authoritarian-democratic divide, the Turkish people’s path in the coming weeks will have a lasting impact beyond their borders.
On May 14th, the Turkish people will go to the polls and choose between extending Erdogan’s twenty-year rule or moving in a new direction with the leader of the opposition bloc, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. For the U.S., Europe, and Israel, it will be an opportunity to reset relations or figure out a way to navigate a rocky path with an often difficult partner.
Erdogan’s interactions with Israel exemplify how Turkey is already straddling the global divide. The rapprochement between Ankara and Jerusalem moved forward last year when Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey before exchanging ambassadors for the first time in six years. Erdogan has been less antisemitic and antagonistic in his rhetoric – a positive change – but as willing as ever to condemn Israel’s rightful efforts to defend itself in the face of attacks by Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups.
Turkey continues to nurture a Hamas presence in its country, too, and seeks to expand ties with Iran – with Erdogan most recently telling Iran’s President Raisi that they should unite against Israel. Which is to say, no one would be surprised if Erdogan did another about-face with Israel if he is victorious at the polls.
The Turkish-Israeli thaw was coupled with a charm offensive in Washington to mend the Biden-Erdogan relationship and repair Turkey’s relationships in Congress. The Turkish ambassador has led these efforts with minimal results thus far. There is a laundry list of serious issues which Washington rightfully has with Ankara, including Turkey’s purchase of the Russia S-400 missile system, which triggered U.S. sanctions, hostage diplomacy, terror financing, domestic political repression, targeting of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, hostilities towards key U.S. allies such as Greece, Cyprus and Israel, and its hold on Sweden’s accession into NATO.
These persistent acts of anti-democratic defiance are indicative of a Turkish leader feigning a return to the democratic fold but ultimately choosing to side with the authoritarian axis of Iran, Russia, and China.
On the other hand, Kılıçdaroğlu, a social democrat, would have an opportunity to continue strengthening ties with Israel without Erdogan’s baggage and reset elements of the country’s foreign policy. This could include clearing out Hamas terrorists harbored by Erdogan or a change in relations with Tehran. Should he be victorious, Kılıçdaroğlu should be encouraged by the international community to disengage from terrorists and tyrants, and he should be rewarded accordingly.
If Turkey is interested in freedom at home and being allied with free nations abroad, Ankara must address all the issues undermining its bilateral relationship with the United States and end its antagonism towards Israel. It is unlikely this would happen under a newly re-elected Erdogan.
If free and fair elections are held, and Kılıçdaroğlu is victorious, his work would be cut out for him if he indeed seeks to resolve these issues. Still, in Washington, Jerusalem, and European capitals, the new Turkish leader would be heard. Whether Kılıçdaroğlu will have the domestic political capital to make sweeping changes remains to be seen, but the free nations of the world would be well positioned to work with Ankara to right the ship.