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What Turkey's presidential election could mean for the U.S. and Europe

An election representative shows a ballot depicting a vote for Kemal Kilicdaroglu at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday.
Ali Unal
/
AP
An election representative shows a ballot depicting a vote for Kemal Kilicdaroglu at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday.

Updated May 16, 2023 at 1:57 PM ET

Turkish voters will return to the polls on May 28 for a runoff election after longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu both failed to win more than 50% of the vote on Sunday.

The presidential contest comes at a pivotal moment for the country, which is grappling with issues from high inflation to the aftermath of the deadly February earthquakes that left more than 50,000 dead and millions homeless. Many in Turkey have criticized the government's slow response and see the election as a referendum on it.

There are also implications on the world stage: Turkey, which straddles Europe and the Middle East, is a key member of NATO.

It has maintained relations with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine and played a major role in pushing for peace talks and brokering a Ukrainian grain export deal aimed at easing global food shortages. Turkey recently cleared the way for Finland to join NATO, but is blocking Sweden from joining the alliance (over concerns that Stockholm is harboring groups, including Kurdish militants, that it considers terrorist organizations).

Kilicdaroglu — a former bureaucrat who leads Turkey's main secular opposition party — has spoken about restoring Turkey's relationships with the U.S. and Europe (while maintaining its relations with Moscow).

Erdogan has taken steps to consolidate presidential power during his 20 years in charge, raising concerns about democracy and human rights.

Turkey has been fulfilling its commitments within NATO despite Erdogan's rhetoric — while also creating some difficulties for it, notes Alper Coşkun, a retired Turkish diplomat who is now a senior fellow in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He says the outcome of the election could potentially mean big changes for NATO and the region as a whole.

"A lot is at stake not only for Turkey but also for beyond," says Coşkun.

What an Erdogan victory would mean

Despite concerns about Turkish democracy and human rights under Erdogan's tenure, he remains popular with his conservative base and defied pre-election forecasts by taking 49.4% of the vote on Sunday.

Erdogan seems to have been able to "tap into the public sentiments" better than his opponent, Coşkun tells Morning Edition's A Martínez. But he adds that it wasn't exactly a level playing field, since Erdogan had the "full force" of state media behind him and could promote a certain narrative.

Erdogan's reputation has evolved in the years since he came to power, Coşkun explains.

The leader who once advocated for Turkey's accession to the European Union is "no longer seen very much as a like-minded person among Turkey's Western allies."

Coşkun attributes that to democratic backsliding, multiple forms of misconduct and the government's earthquake response, which many see as underscoring the problems with the centralized form of government and executive presidential system to which Erdogan had transitioned the country.

"Initially he's had a good relationship and good standing, including with the U.S. But with a changing trajectory and more disruptive actions on his part I think — though the U.S. or Europe doesn't say it in so many words — they wouldn't have minded a change in political guard in Turkey," Coşkun adds.

What a Kilicdaroglu victory would mean

Erdogan faces his strongest challenge so far in Kilicdaroglu, a former accountant with a reputation as a clean politician and champion of secular values. Kilicdaroglu is backed by six opposition parties and won nearly 45% of the vote in the first round.

Kilicdaroglu has campaigned on reversing Turkey into a parliamentary form of government, as well as restoring trust with the U.S. and Europe.

"The opposition has put forward a foreign policy agenda that seems to imply that they would reorient Turkey — not forfeiting its relations and the significance of its engagement with countries like Russia or even with China — but making Turkey's position in the Western security architecture more central, Coşkun says.

Analysts believe a Kilicdaroglu victory would mean a return to democratic norms, pro-NATO foreign policy (at least in some respects) and more cooperation with the U.S.

"The problems that Turkey has with its European allies, even with the U.S., I think, would become more manageable," Coşkun says. "So the relationship would become more predictable and easier to handle, despite many challenges that would probably continue to exist."

What the U.S. is saying

The Biden administration has so far avoided picking sides.

"I just hope ... whoever wins wins," Biden said on Sunday. "There's enough problems in that part of the world right now."

That hasn't always been his stance. In 2020, when Biden was still a candidate, video surfaced of him calling Erdogan an autocrat and suggesting the U.S. should support the opposition — comments that Turkey condemned as "interventionist" at the time.

Erdogan has actually been capitalizing on that criticism, Coşkun says.

"He has been referring to that, suggesting that the opposition is working in tandem with foreign forces against him," he says. "And that galvanizes his public support and consolidates his base, and he's done that during this campaign as well."

Both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are expected to meet with Nationalist third-party candidate Sinan Ogan, who has suggested his endorsement could secure someone the presidency. Analysts say a deal between Erdogan and Ogan could win him another term, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

If that happens, Coşkun expects Turkey to continue down its current foreign policy trajectory.

"Turkey and its Western allies and the United States have settled into a transactional relationship," he adds. "And that's really not a resilience form of relationship. It's more unpredictable and I presume that should Erdogan remain in power that would not change much."

The broadcast interview was produced by Shelby Hawkins and edited by Amra Pasic.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.