Voting concept - Ballot box with national flag on background - Turkey

National problems torpedo Erdoğan's bid to emerge as mediator in Ukraine war

Even before the devastating earthquake, Erdoğan was staging himself as a mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian war. But can he really be considered a successful global player? Can his international diplomacy distract from Turkey's domestic woes in the upcoming elections?

By Düzgün Arslantaş

Just some weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's campaign strategy was largely to score foreign policy points to distract from domestic problems. The catastrophic situation in Turkey's earthquake zones complicates this electoral manoeuvre. Erdoğan came to power in 1999 after an earthquake and, according to latest polls, it looks like he will leave the office with this earthquake because of its poor performance in preventing casualties and providing service to the affected people.

After siding with the US-led Western Bloc in the post World-War-II period, Turkey’s foreign policies remained largely non-interventionist. Erdoğan’s so-called “success story” was to radically drift away from this policy after his Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) outdistanced its rivals in the 2002 elections and became the longest ruling one-party government in Turkey. 

In the first term, the AKP’s foreign policy strategy focused on solving its existential crisis which arose from the fears of the hardline secularists who were suspicious of its hidden Islamic agenda. According to the AKP elites, only building strong ties with the EU would prevent the closure of the party for being the center of the anti-secular activities by the Constitutional Court. Such support would also help pro-AKP businesses accumulate wealth by integrating Turkey into European and western markets. Although this plan worked well and led to the accession negotiations with the EU in October 2005, the progress was swiftly halted as some EU members vetoed further openings of the chapters.

The setback in the EU front, however, did not curtail Turkey’s foreign policy activism as Turkey turned its eyes to the (Middle) East. The “zero-problems with neighboring countries” policy of the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu sought to restore Turkey’s historical hegemony in the region. Despite initial optimism as moderate Islamists won the first post-authoritarian elections in Egypt and Tunisia, the following turmoil made this scenario unlikely.

Meanwhile, the policy shift impacted domestic politics. First, turning its back to the West, the government started to adopt an authoritarian populist agenda colored with heavy Islamist and nationalist tones. Second, Turkey global refugee center by hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, the most worldwide.

Ever since the end of the Arab Spring, there has been an erosion of Turkey’s international image of harmonizing Islam and democracy in a peaceful manner. On the one hand, Turkey is increasingly associated with financing terror and money laundering. It is now on the gray list by the Financial Action Task Force. On the other hand, it has seen growing tensions with the EU over the Readmission Agreement on irregular migration, visa liberalization, and the status of the energy resources in the Mediterranean Sea.

Reentering the international stage as wartime mediator

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Erdoğan has once again turned to international politics to strengthen his grip on domestic power. However, to be an effective mediator, a nation needs a record of neutrality. This is not reflected in the AKP’s recent foreign policy, for example siding with the radical Islamists in Libya, and sending drones to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabagh conflict. This starkly contradicts the motto of Atatürk, “peace at home, peace in the world,” which remained in the orbit of Turkish foreign policy until 2002.

Although Turkey’s proactive stance is far from de-escalating the conflict, the celebration of its efforts by the US, the EU, and the UN showed that Erdoğan has so far played the game smartly. In fact, Turkey’s role in the war boils down to necessity: Amid the deepening currency crisis, Turkey does not want to lose Russian tourists, who numbered 4.6 million in 2021. Despite widespread condemnation of the Russian invasion and the delivery of armed drones to Ukraine, Turkey mostly has not joined the EU and NATO sanctions to be impartial. Russian and Ukrainian delegations meeting in the Antalya Democracy Forum in March 2022, leading to the export of grain from Ukrainian ports, and the exchange of prisoners was only possible thanks to Turkish efforts.

Turkey’s international role seeks to bolster domestic reputation

To what extent can the Erdoğan regime exploit the ongoing war to improve its domestic standing ahead of the national election? Apparently, Erdoğan seeks to increase the regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community in the context of democratic backsliding. Material concerns also matter, given Turkey's soaring inflation and trade deficit. In particular, the relocation of the assets of Russian oligarchs, which would otherwise be frozen in the West, is assumed to solve the currency crisis, at least until the elections.

However, this is far from a solution to the nation’s deepening political and economic problems. According to the Sustainable Governance Indicators 2022 (SGI) findings for Turkey, its democracy quality is lowest among 41 countries as the Erdoğan government imposed media controls, neutralized the judiciary, and arbitrarily punished the opposition (e.g., the former co-Chair of the pro-Kurdish HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been in prison since October 2016). Similarly, its economic policy rating is at the bottom of the international list (rank 37) amid Erdoğan’s record-breaking inflation (85% in October 2022, according to TURKSTAT).

With only two months to go before the 2023 elections, Erdoğan can only hope for a split among the six oppositional parties who are joining forces to end his rule. Given the sharp decline in clientelist resources amid the economic crisis as well as opposition victories in Istanbul and Ankara, the AKP does not have much room to win over disillusioned voters. The opposition has nominated the social democrat leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for the Presidential candidacy, a man known for his moderate and conciliatory stance, putting Turkey a step closer towards becoming an electoral democracy again.

Sealing Erdoğan's problems, opinion is hardening against him following the government’s inefficient and partisan policies regarding the many citizens left stranded by the devastating earthquakes. With nearly 45.000 dead and 2 million homeless, the catastrophe is likely to play a bigger role in the vote than Erdogan's bid to cast himself as a big diplomatic player in the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Düzgün Arslantaş is Lecturer and Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cologne, Cologne Center for Comparative Politics. His research lies at the intersection of comparative politics and political economy. He is an expert for the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI).

First published at “Die Presse”.