Henri J. Barkey, adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR, and Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, discuss the elections in Turkey, what Erdogan’s victory means for the country and the Middle East, and the religious implications of his presidency.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be made available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the Apple podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Elise Labott, founder of Zivvy Media, a digital media platform, with us to moderate today’s discussion with our distinguished speakers on reflecting on Turkey’s elections. Elise Labott is a world-renowned journalist covering international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. She’s written for Foreign Policy, the Guardian, and Politico, where she is currently a contributing editor. She was a political correspondent for BBC News in the United Kingdom and began her BBC career reporting from Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement. She is also an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. And she serves as a global ambassador for Vital Voices, is on the advisory board of Global Kids, and is a member of CFR.
So, Elise, thank you for moderating today’s discussion. I will turn it over to you to introduce our speakers and to begin the conversation.
LABOTT: Thanks so much, Irina. And thank you, everyone, for being here. I’d like to introduce my stellar panel. There’s no two people I’d rather discuss an issue about—any issue about Turkey with, then Henri Barkey, Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at CFR, and Steven Cook, who’s the Eni, Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR. He’s also the director of international programs. Two really of the national experts on all things Turkey.
And we’re going to start with talking about the election. We were talking yesterday, Steve, that the election was about a hundred news cycles ago in May, but it’s worth kind of taking a step back and worth looking back to litigate how President Erdoğan won the election and what it means.
COOK: Well, thanks so much, Elise. It’s a great pleasure to be with you all this afternoon, especially my dear friend and dear colleague, Henri Barkey, who has been my professor on all things Turkey, and many other things, over the course of many, many years. It’s great to be around and with Henri. If you go through the bureaucracy, if you ever walk through the State Department or any other U.S. government agency, people come running up to him and say, oh, Professor Barkey, do you remember me? He has a legion of students from Lehigh University who he trained and who are now making an impact on U.S. foreign policy. So it’s great to be with Henri. And I suspect we’re going to disagree a bit on stuff. Anyway—
LABOTT: That’s the fun part!
COOK: That is the fun part.
You’re right; the election was a hundred cycles ago, it seems like. And it seems like many people have forgotten that there was this very important—at least in the minds of many, many millions of Turks—very important national election. This was an election, in the run up to it many people, many analysts, many Turks believe really the best opportunity for the opposition to knock off President Erdoğan after almost twenty years in office. It was not to be. The opposition did push President Erdoğan to a second round, but he eventually prevailed in in the second round of elections.
And I think it’s worthwhile to remind people what was at stake and what people were saying about the election. And the election came at a time when Turkey was grappling with very, very difficult economic headwinds. Specifically, a lira crisis, in which the Turkish currency had lost significant amounts of its value over the previous six months, but also the previous five years. Turks were confronting very, very high rates of inflation, with official rates of inflation somewhere near 80 percent, but analysts estimated that it was actually much, much more than that. And then last February 6, there was a devastating earthquake in Turkey, in Anatolia, in the southeastern part of the country. Tens of thousands of people were killed and injured. The official count is fifty thousand. It’s believed to be much, much higher.
And then add to the fact that President Erdoğan, as I mentioned, had been in power for almost twenty years. And there was a sense that he had worn out his welcome as Turkey had shifted from a country that had begun negotiations to join the European Union in 2005 to a country that had descended, quite rapidly over the years, into authoritarianism, in which politics revolved around President Erdoğan and his views. It became almost a one-man show. He certainly is the sun around which Turkish politics has revolved all of these years. Nevertheless, going into the elections, like I said, there was a belief that he was quite vulnerable.
It wasn’t—as I said, it was not to be. I think that there were credible allegations of some amount of voter intimidation, voter fraud, challenges to ballot boxes, ballots that were never counted. But all in all, when you take into account the kind of entrenched authoritarianism of Erdoğan, you take into account the fact that he can weaponize the state, you take into account that the vast majority of the media can be counted on to offer the government’s view on important issues of the day, in addition to the fact that that message, the message that Erdoğan carried to voters, resonated with large numbers of people, is the thing—are the factors that really carried him over the edge.
The opposition was unable to mount a very significant challenge to Erdoğan because instead of talking so much about the economy, in which he was weak, he emphasized issues related to culture and identity and religion. And there’s a core constituency for that in the country. And Turkey is quite polarized. And so he—as has been the case throughout much of his and the AKP tenure, about half of the country supports him and the ruling Justice and Development Party, and the other half doesn’t. And that little margin did put him over the edge.
Turkey is—it is difficult to define. Political scientists, like myself, have struggled to call it—is it a competitive authoritarianism? Is it an illiberal democracy? I think the concern now is that the opposition has been so bad, so decimated, that elections going forward really won’t matter all that much. One of the heartening aspects of this election is that so many Turks turned out, over 85 percent of Turks—so Turks clearly believe in their vote, and there’s meaning there, unlike other authoritarian systems in Turkey’s neighborhood. But one has to wonder, given how poorly the opposition has fared over all of these years, whether Turks will continue to believe in the power of their vote.
LABOTT: Yeah, Henri, pick up on that. I mean, look, Erdoğan used the imperfect democratic system. Clearly there’s an authoritarian streak there. The courts are packed with his loyalists. The media is controlled by him. There is a lot of repression in the country. And while people, as Steve said, Turks appreciate the power of their vote, can you explain the opposition’s loss? That the Turkish electorate isn’t necessarily—fell out of love with a democratic system in terms of democracy writ large?
BARKEY: Thanks for inviting me.
Look, first of all, when you look at the opposition they made, I would think, two strategic and one tactical error. The strategic errors were first the choice of the candidate. They brought in somebody who people are not enthusiastic about. He’s kind of a bullying bureaucrat who has lost elections in the past. There was no dynamism. He did better than people expected, but I think a lot of people went to the polls and voted for him not because they were voting for Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the opposition candidate, but because they were voting against Erdoğan.
So in that sense, even though 82 to 85 percent of the population came out and voted, the truth of the matter is that there was nothing that excited the people about the candidate of the opposition. What they should have done is go with somebody else. They could have gone with the mayor of Istanbul. What was interesting, of course, was that the mayor of Istanbul, because he’s amazingly popular, Erdoğan had initiated a court case against him, convicted them in order to prevent him from running in the elections.
The case was being adjudicated, so all they had to do is put his name up, and if Erdoğan banned him there would have been a backlash. And if Erdoğan had not banned him, he would have looked weak. So in a way, Erdoğan would have lost either way. But unfortunately, the leader of the opposition who ran, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, wanted to run. And he was not going to consider anybody else. In fact, he lost the elections. He lost—he was one party of six in the coalition, and he still refuses after all these years to resign. He’s so attached to his seat that it’s incredible. Anyway, so that was the strategic error number one.
Strategic error number two, which Steven alluded to, is that somebody who watches Turkish politics, I can tell you, I had no idea what the economic plan was—the opposition’s economic plan. They did not elucidate. They did not bring out an economic plan. They said they were going to bring a published one. In fact, they didn’t. In fact, there was nothing there is an economic plan, because they couldn’t agree among themselves. And third, the tactical error was that in Turkey when—at the ballot box, when the voting is over, every party has a representative and you look at the tallies. You register the tallies, and you send the tallies down to your headquarters in Ankara. Because in a way you don’t trust the government, because the government controls all the means of communications, all the means of counting, et cetera. So you really have to be there on the ground.
Well, in one-third to a half of the ballot boxes, the opposition had no one. And so we don’t know if it was cheating. Maybe there wasn’t any cheating, but the point is you’re supposed to be there. And the irony, of course, is that before the elections, on the run-up to the election, and when people asked the opposition, are you ready for the ballot box counting, oh, they said yes, yes, yes. We’re going to have people at every ballot box. That wasn’t the case.
So it was a terrible—I mean, Steven already mentioned some of the stuff with the opposition. Unfortunately, because of the leadership of the opposition—they did a good job. They could have won. I really think they could have won with a new face. Erdoğan’s been around for twenty years. There is fatigue. But the opposition candidate has been around for almost as long, and he’s lost. So why do you go with a loser? But that’s Turkish politics for you.
LABOTT: Well, I want to ask each of you what we can expect from it. You know, the loss was surprising, but now what can we expect from a third term? I mean, we’ve talked about how the Islamization of political institutions is already entrenched. Clearly, he’s having a lot of economic issues. What can we expect from a third term, Steve?
COOK: Well, I think that you’re going to see any number of adjustments to Turkey’s foreign policy. We’re starting to see some of this. Most of it is tactical in nature. And leading up to the Vilnius Summit. President Erdoğan leaned a little more heavily into Turkey’s Western orientation than he had previously, in at least the previous three or four years. It strikes me that that was theatrics ahead of the Vilnius Summit. Turks are mostly interested in establishing strategic independence. And that’s—you see that—
LABOTT: You don’t think they’re moving towards the West?
COOK: No. I think that the goal is to ensure Turkey strategic independence. And that’s why you see the way in which Turkish policy has played out during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has not necessarily been pro-Russian nor necessarily pro-Ukrainian. It has been pro-Turkish. President Erdoğan has said all the right things about Ukrainian sovereignty, but nevertheless maintain open line of communications with President Putin of Russia. And Turkey has helped the Russians on a number of levels, including on sanctions. And Turkish companies have moved in where Western firms have moved out of the country. Last summer Russians could use their credit cards in in Turkey. At the same time, the Turks have sold important weapons systems to the Ukrainians. So there is a balance that they try to maintain because of the desire to maintain strategic independence from the United States and its NATO allies.
On the foreign policy front, President Erdoğan and the people around him believe Turkey to be a Middle Eastern power, a Mediterranean power, a Muslim power, a power in the Caucasus, a power in Central Asia, and even a rising power in Europe in some ways. And that it should be treated as such. I think on foreign policy we’ll see a fair amount of consistency in pursuit of the goal of strategic independence. Now, that may lead Erdoğan in different directions, as we’ve seen. He was adversarial with his Middle Eastern neighbors. Now there’s been a major rapprochement with his Middle Eastern neighbors.
LABOTT: Yeah, we’ll get into that.
COOK: But nevertheless, I think on foreign policy you’re going to see a fair amount of consistency in terms of that strategic independence. Domestic politics is probably where the most interesting kinds of things are going to happen. There are, of course, the economic exigencies to which Henri alluded to. And there is a debate, including a debate between Henri and myself, about how they’re going to go about fixing the economy. I’m far more skeptical of Turkey reverting to more orthodox economic policies than Henri, which we can hash out throughout this meeting. But I think the most interesting thing that’s going to come up on the domestic political agenda is a new constitution for Turkey. I think most people would agree that Turkey does need a new constitution.
The constitution that Turkey has right now was written in 1982 at the behest of a military junta that had taken power in September 1980. It has been amended any number of times since and I think that Erdoğan, now going into his third term as president, on the heels of a number of terms as prime minister of the country, is thinking about how to institutionalize the changes that he and the Justice and Development Party have wrought over the course of the last few decades. And the best way to protect those changes, which, as you mentioned, was the—in part—the Islamization of Turkey’s political and social institutions. That’s Islamization of institutions, without Turkey actually being a theocracy.
Those kinds of things are the kinds of things that Erdoğan would like to protect. Keep in mind that we are on the cusp of the one-hundredth anniversary of the republic. And Erdoğan has—is the longest-serving leader in the republic’s history. And he very much wants to leave an indelible mark on the country. And the way to do that is by drafting a new constitution. Not going to be easy. He’s had a new constitution on his mind since 2007. Even Erdoğan, with all of his political power and skill, has been unable to do it. But it seems that he’s serious about making another try for it in this new term.
LABOTT: Henri, we’re going to talk a little bit more about some of the foreign policy moves, like the NATO summit and whether this brinksmanship really worked or not, and the Gulf. But talk to us a little bit more—just set the big picture. I mean, what does a third term for Erdoğan look like?
BARKEY: What do you expect from the third term? I would say a fourth term. (Laughter.)
COOK: That’s true. Excellent. I’m going to use that, but I will footnote you.
LABOTT: We can use that for any number of leaders, but anyway. (Laughs.)
BARKEY: So, look, he wants to stay in power, like all populist authoritarians. And you should not be surprised. So the new constitution that Steven talked about, will be one that will allow him to run again. It was already dubious whether he could run again this time, but then the Constitutional Court, which is in his pocket, allowed him to do it. On foreign policy, I think there will be some changes. I think Steven is right. Erdoğan is really about building a foreign policy that is about himself. He sees himself as one of the world’s great leaders. He thinks Turkey should have a permanent seat on the Security Council. He has big, grandiose ideas.
But I think the most important change—well, its continuation, I would say—is the increasing repression at home. What is striking to me is that you already had people being tried and convicted on very spurious grounds. Made up—cases made up, everything. But since the election, what do you see almost on a daily basis, the police raiding newspapers, what’s left of, I should say of newspapers, but mostly independent media which is on the internet, and arresting journalists for no reason whatsoever. I mean, it’s just, like, if you look left instead of looking right, then you should answer for that.
So it is really, truly amazing how much more the repression has increased in the weeks since the election victory of Erdoğan’s. And this is not just against journalists, but it’s against anybody. I mean, even the few times when the Constitutional Court ruled against the government or its minions, they just ignore it. I mean, they can’t be bothered to follow the Constitutional Court. But it’s also the Kurdish issue that’s going to, I think, get worse because he’s also going after Kurdish leaders, right, left, and center. And, look, the Kurds are mobilized. The Kurds are angry. This can lead to violence. And I’m not sure he necessarily wants to avoid that. I can’t tell.
But anyway, domestically, it’s the repression that’s going to increase. And we will see more parties, more news outlets going under. And they do it also, by the way, through many different means. They impose sanctions, or they impose fines on internet channels that cannot afford to pay those fines. So that’s one way of shutting them down. It’s not just by arresting people all the time. To change, you know, the focus a little bit. I mean, I would say in terms of the domestic picture, that’s what we will see. Also, because the economic crisis, which is coming, is going to be exceedingly painful. Erdoğan is deluding himself if he thinks that he’s going to be able to avoid drastic measures. But so far, the indications are that things are going to get a lot worse by the end of the year.
LABOTT: OK. This is where I think the program’s going to get kind of interesting, because I know my friends here kind of disagree on some of the kind of takeaways from recent few months in foreign policy. Steve, let’s let’s talk about the NATO meeting. Erdoğan created a big drama going into the NATO summit in Vilnius about dropping opposition to Swedish membership. He was against it then, he tried to get President Biden saying he needed some support for joining the EU. Then, at the eleventh hour, he agreed to the Swedish membership, then he suddenly was able to extract this commitment on F-16s. He got some concessions from the European Council about renewing support. Can he declare that he’s this master statesman and global player that he—that Henri said he purports himself to be?
COOK: I think he can. But before we do that, I thought you were going to ask us about the economy, because that’s really where we disagree. I do want to mention—
LABOTT: We’re going to get to the economy.
COOK: I do want to mention, though, Henri referenced the fact that people in Turkey are confronting the significant repression of the Turkish state, and people are being jailed on spurious charges, and so on, and so forth. Henri is one of those people. For those of you who don’t know, the Turkish government has engaged in now seven years of hounding Henri, accusing him spuriously and ridiculously of having a major role in the failed coup attempt in July 2016. And he is the subject of a criminal prosecution there. It is a terrible, terrible injustice that is happening to Henri, as well as many, many, many other Turks. I just wanted to make sure that people are aware of that.
LABOTT: Yeah, thanks so much.
COOK: If you think in terms of what I said in response to the previous question about Erdoğan needing and desiring to demonstrate that Turkey is strategically independent of its traditional allies in the West, and that he has a domestic political need to demonstrate that he is a great master and strategic thinker, there was always going to be drama in the lead up to and during the Vilnius NATO Summit. And you’re quite right, there was a year-long negotiation with Sweden over its bid to join the European Union. The Turks objected to the fact that there are supporters, activists—peaceful, however, activist—in support of the Kurdistan Workers Party, this terrorist organization that’s been waging a fight against Turkey since the mid-1980s, present in Stockholm and active in Stockholm.
Also raised objections to the fact that followers of Fatima Gülen, a Turkish cleric who’s based in the United States now who the Turks also pin blame for the coup, are also active. And so the Swedes changed their laws—and went as far as they could go. And the Biden administration believed that there was a deal in place in which Erdoğan and the Turkish government could accept Sweden’s entry into NATO. And Erdoğan at the last minute raised this objection and, out of nowhere, seemingly, raised the issue of Turkey’s EU membership. All of this was designed to create drama at the summit so Erdoğan could prove that he is influential, could extract from his allies, and that was among the big dogs of NATO.
And I think in terms of theatrics, he was wildly successful. The question of F-16s from the United States has been on the table since the summer of 2021. But once again, both in the lead-up to the summit and during the summit, it became a major topic of conversation. The long dormant Turkish bid to join the European Union, which has been basically dead for seventeen, eighteen years now, suddenly we had the head of the European Council tweeting that he looked forward to raising the level of relations and greater cooperation, which some interpret is the potential for a new customs union, which Turkey needs anyway given its economic problems.
In that way, Erdoğan was able to force people who really don’t want to do certain things to make public declarations in order to get Sweden into the European Union. I think that demonstrated a certain amount of calculated theatrics and recognition that Turkey had a lot of leverage going into Vilnius. And, of course, it perhaps—and I’m anticipating Henri—it may not have warmed the hearts of members of Congress to hold Sweden’s entry into NATO hostage like this. But it certainly went wild—people in Turkey went wild for this. The press painted him as the great master.
LABOTT: Well, yeah. Let me—Henri I mean—you don’t think he won. You both obviously, are correct in saying that the brinksmanship is designed for domestic consumption as much for an international audience. But do you think this kind of enhances his position at home? Or do you think that this kind of makes him look smaller?
BARKEY: Look, I think Vilnius was in huge defeat for Erdoğan, in the sense that when you look at the bid to raise the issue of European Union membership, I think it was a desperation move on his part. Because he was going into Vilnius knowing very well that he had to concede on Sweden’s accession. And because he was completely isolated, all the Allies save Hungary were very frustrated with him and with his kind of holding the whole NATO alliance ransom for his own little domestic issues, when everybody else there were talking about big, strategic questions. I mean, Sweden’s entry into NATO is a strategic issue. It’s not about whether or not you have supporters of Fethullah Gülen operating in Stockholm.
So, when you compare the two, it was out of balance. So, people were exceedingly frustrated. He was not going to get anything, right? The few changes that the Swedes essentially made were very cosmetic. In fact, the Swedish Supreme Court immediately stopped the extradition of two people that the Swedish government said it was going to extradite. So on that front, is not getting anything. And on the F-16s, the Biden administration had all along been in favor of selling F-16s to Turkey—which I think is the right decision, because the Turkish Air Force is in terrible condition now, and it was banking on buying the fifth-generation F-35s from the United States but it has been kicked out of that program because the Turks bought the Russian S-400 missiles despite the admonitions of United States and NATO. So they’re out of the F-35 program, so they need new F-16s. So the Biden administration was public in its decision to sell them.
The problem was Congress. Congress was upset not so much about the Swedish issue, but mostly about the fact that the Turks are overflying Greek islands and entering Greek airspace. And what Congress wanted to do was to prevent or to punish the Turks for doing that. And what happened, essentially, at Vilnius is that both Congress and the Biden administration moved towards each other. By that I mean, Congress is going to allow the F-16s to be sold, right? But they will probably impose certain conditions, like you can’t use themagainst Greece. And the administration is going to agree to that. And even Erdoğan hinted that, oh, yes, we want the F-16s, but we don’t mean to use them against Greece. So, in essence, he lost that, too.
So, what did he come by? He raised the issue of the EU, but the European Council NATO leaders saying, oh, yes, this is a good idea, means absolutely nothing. As a French and the Germans immediately said, NATO is one thing. The European Union is something else. Now, the customs union, which is really the reason why he raised that issue, yes, Turkey needs to upgrade is customs union, especially, again, because of the economic crisis coming in—the coming economic crisis. Turkey needs to be able to export a lot more, and export manufactured goods. And United States and Europe basically buy the bulk of those. So that makes sense, right?
But he’s not going to get anything on the EU. And, yes, he sold this at home as a great victory. Everything Erdoğan does is a great victory. I mean, if you look at the Turkish newspapers on a daily basis, it doesn’t matter what he does. They think he controls the press. So that’s what people see, that he got a great victory because he raised the issue of the European Union. No. Everybody knows that he lost, and he lost big.
COOK: I guess I’m the only one who doesn’t know that he lost. I mean, I can’t think of an issue in which Henri and I disagree more on. I think that the substance of what the European Union said or the Biden administration reiterating publicly its desire to sell F-16s to Turkey is actually not the most important thing. The most important thing is that you wouldn’t have had the expansion of NATO without Erdoğan’s assent. And he made that abundantly clear in the run-up to the summit. And he was able to control the debate and frame the debate in the run-up to the thing.
And to suggest that he got nothing, I think is too definitive a statement. He will eventually get F-16s, if everybody holds to it. But it demonstrates that he can be threatening to other members of NATO and yet still acquire weaponry that he may want.
LABOTT: I mean, he also does the same with the refugee issue, right? He lets the Europeans know that he can kind of close the spigot or open it at his will. And the Europeans are beholden to him.
BARKEY: But, Steven, do you think he would have gotten the F-16s if he continued to say no to Sweden?
COOK: As we have discussed this before—when you’re Erdoğan and what your calculations are sometimes when you win, you win. And sometimes when you lose, you also lose. So had he come out of NATO, and there had there been a big controversy over him not saying yes to Sweden, he could have easily parlayed that into this nationalist victory. We’ve seen him do that over, and over, and over again. So either way, he came away from Vilnius demonstrating his power and influence within the alliance. And that is all that I’m saying.
LABOTT: Guys, let’s move on to this whole issue of this whole Turkish model and the Islamist political power is part of the whole, consistent with economic development and democracy and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and in doing so he kind of alienated the Sunni Arabs, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. Now, because the economy is so bad, you have inflation, the influx of refugees, the earthquakes. Now Erdoğan is reaching back out to the Gulf. Is this purely an economic play, Henri?
BARKEY: It’s an act of desperation. I mean, this is a guy who lambasted the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt for years. And these areas, and just everybody else. And, by the way, the United States. I mean, you have to remember that much of the campaign, electoral campaign, on the Erdoğan side, was teaching the United States a lesson. You vote for me, you teach the United States a lesson. He essentially was attacking everybody. And now he goes to UAE and Saudi Arabia and comes back, and says, oh, I just signed $50 billion worth of contracts. Look how successful I am. Look how great I am.
But it’s humiliating. I mean, he went basically with a tin cup to UAE in Saudi Arabia. Said, I need your help because I’m going bust. I’m going broke. And basically, what this means is that UAE and the Saudis have enormous amount of leverage over Turkey. Again, he may call everything a victory, but in reality it’s humiliating for him. I mean, after everything is said about the Egyptian leadership, about the Saudis and the UAE, now to say—he even wants to make peace with Assad. I mean, the guy—he founded an opposition group—a violent opposition group against Assad in Syria. And basically, Assad says, I’m not ready to talk to you. I mean, I’ll talk to you when I feel like talking to you. So when is the great victory?
In part, this is all his own doing because he was so full of himself in the mid-2010s—thinking that he could do anything he wanted. And suddenly realizes that, partially because of his economic mismanagement, partially because everybody else ganged up on him, right? Even think about what’s happening in the Eastern Mediterranean. His behavior got the Greeks, the Cypriots, the Israelis, the Egyptians together—even the Palestinian Authority—all agreed to this Mediterranean gas organization, right? All to exclude him, essentially. So I don’t see—he could have won. I mean, actually, Turkey was in a great place until 2010 or 2012. Economically, it was doing well. And Erdoğan’s reform, to his credit, in the early years it helped him and helped Turkey. But hubris, essentially, got the better of him.
Look, the thing we have to understand here is that Erdoğan lives in a completely different universe than us. I mean, he believes everything that he thinks—or, he thinks everything he says is true. And the people around him just are yes-men—and all men, of course. And he doesn’t get any kind of criticism at home. So that’s partially the problem. I mean, is simplistic, but it’s partially the problem.
LABOTT: Let’s open it up for questions. I have one or two at the end, but let’s open it up for questions. Do we have any questions on the queue?
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Don Smedley, who asks: To what extent do you think Erdoğan’s future viability, both at home and globally, is tied to his failed, against-the-grain economic policy? Do you think his reappointment of Simsek and his appointment of Erkan in their respective roles will make a difference? And will Erdoğan give them the freedom that they need to make critical changes?
BARKEY: Shall I take a crack at that?
COOK: Go ahead.
BARKEY: Look, Simsek is a really seasoned finance minister. He did a good job before. He was brought in because Erdoğan wanted to send a message to the rest of the world that things were going to change. But what’s becoming very obvious is that what Simsek and the central bank—I’m not exactly sure about her yet. [JH1] We know very little. In fact, she’s not even really an economist. She’s a finance person. But as far as Simsek is concerned, it’s very clear that Erdoğan is already interfering in decisions. I mean, the interest rates—people expected interest rates to go up much higher than what’s been done so far.
And, in fact, yesterday, there was an article in the pro-Erdoğan press and by a serious person—I mean, serious in the sense of tuned into what happens in the palace—who wrote, basically, Erdoğan has warned both the central bank head and Simsek not to raise interest rates quickly, or to keep them as low as possible, and that’s what we saw too. So I’m not very, shall we say, optimistic that Simsek is going to succeed, which is why I think eventually they’re going to have to go for an IMF package, because that’s the only way they’re going to get out of this.
LABOTT: Do we have any more questions?
OPERATOR: At this time, we have no further questions.
LABOTT: Steve, let’s talk about the relationship with the United States. I mean, we talked about getting the F-16 and support from Biden for EU ascension. But it doesn’t really seem that Erdoğan is all that keen on warming ties with Washington. Kind of leaning into what you were saying about this strategic independence.
COOK: Yeah. I think it’s an important question. I just want to track back on the question of the—of the economy. I think that the appointment of Simsek in the new central bank governor were things that, to my mind, were not serious signals that Erdoğan was going to pursue orthodox economic policies. Remember, Simsek was in that job before. He was also loyal to Erdoğan during that period that he was. And that the central bank governor comes from a family that is affiliated with—in a serious way—to the Justice and Development Party.
And quite rightly, investors and analysts have been disappointed in the fact that interest rates have not risen to a level that would start putting Turkey on a path of more rational economic policy. In fact, what they’re doing may fuel even more inflation. But this is what Erdoğan wants, which demonstrates that he’s not very serious about a significant shift. And this is where I also depart from Henri—because of this performance, I’m unsure, in the extreme, that Erdoğan is going to ultimately decide that the IMF is going to be his savior. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, but it seems like a low probability given the kind of pressure that he’s already put on his allegedly independent finance minister and central bank governor.
When it comes to the United States. I think there’s a number of issues that remain on the table between the two countries that—which there have not been any resolution whatsoever. The S-400, the Turks bought a Russian air defense system that they were warned not to buy, and that the consequences of which have been, as Henri mentioned in his opening remarks I believe, the expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 program. Not only were they supposed to buy a hundred of those planes, but they were a critical part of the manufacturing of that plane. They’ve also been sanctioned under legislation that was essentially written for Turkey. Under what’s called the CAATSA legislation. So that’s a significant problem.
The Turks object, of course, to, one, the presence of Fethullah Gülen in the United States. Two, the U.S. coordination and work with the People’s Protection Units known by their Turkish acronym YPG. The Turks make no distinction between the YPG and the PKK, this terrorist organization that I mentioned previously. And as a result, have complicated the United States’ efforts to continue to fight the Islamic State in in Syria. These are very, very serious issues that divide the two governments.
Then there is also other issues, like the Department of Justice’s investigation into a state-controlled Turkish bank, into its sanctions-busting of Iran. President Erdoğan has been keen to make that case go away. And I think he once asked Vice President Biden to make that case go away. And Vice President Biden said: I couldn’t do that. If I did, I would be impeached. Those two, unlike President Biden’s immediate predecessor and even the president he served, do not have a good working relationship. On a personal level, Biden and Erdoğan aren’t in sync in the way that Trump and Erdoğan were in sync, or the way President Obama was in sync with President Erdoğan during President Obama’s first term in office.
LABOTT: Henri, do you have any thoughts on the relationship with the U.S.? It doesn’t really seem that Erdoğan’s interested in kind of warming ties?
BARKEY: Look, Erdoğan, as I said, sees the world very differently. And he sees himself at the center of that world. So to him, the United States’ interest in Turkey, whether President Biden will invite him to the White House or not, is all about enhancing his own stature.
LABOTT: At home?
BARKEY: At home and internationally as well. I mean, if Biden were actually to invite him, it shows that—Biden doesn’t invite everybody to his house, right? So it shows that he is an important leader. And there, Biden has been very reluctant to do it. And Biden, in fact, did not invite him to the Democracy Summits. Mind you, they were on Zoom, but they clearly decided to keep him at a distance, right? So from that perspective, Biden has not also shown a great deal of interest—for large measure because of the repression at home and Erdoğan’s behavior in the region. So, there is not a warm relationship.
But, we are more important to Turkey than Turkey—I mean, Turkey is important for us, but United States is the leader of the NATO alliance, right? It’s a big cheese. You have to be on good terms with the big cheese. But at the same time, as I said earlier, Erdoğan’s brand at home is very anti-American. His interior minister, who is no longer his interior minister, just after the election said: Anybody who espouses an American thesis is a traitor. I’m sorry, are you an ally of the United States or are you not, right? There are things on which the United States and Turkey, they disagree on, but fundamentally they are allies.
What’s interesting, of course, is that the Turks—I’ll give you an example to show you how out of whack somethings are. The United States imposed sanctions and kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program because of the S-400s. So the Turks said, ah, but look, India bought S-400s. And India doesn’t get punished, doesn’t get sanctioned. Well, first of all, India wasn’t buying F-35s. Second, India is not a member of the NATO alliance, right? So there’s no reason why the United States can say to India, don’t buy S-400s. There’s no reason for them not to do it, right? And India has been buying Russian arms forever.
They can’t seem to make that distinction, that they are part of the NATO alliance and, as such, they’re part of the Western alliance. And that’s fundamentally the big problem that we have with the Turks. That they don’t really feel comfortable anymore, under Erdoğan, with being a member of the Western alliance. But they have to be. They don’t have a choice, because if you think of this—if Turkey were to quit NATO tomorrow, its importance would diminish by 90 percent, I will say.
LABOTT: We have a written question from Melissa Matthes.
Can you speak to the role of religion in the election and how the earthquake has been addressed by religious leaders? Steve, you want to take that?
COOK: Sure. Let me just apologize and plead ignorance on the second part. Not a major focus of my research. I know generally what’s happened in the earthquake zone and the economic devastation there, but I don’t know specifically what religious leaders—
LABOTT: Yeah, let’s just talk about the election.
COOK: The election is important. And when I mentioned in my opening remarks that President Erdoğan has a message and a worldview that resonates with people, and large numbers of people. And you can boil those down to power, Turkish power in the world, prosperity which Turks have enjoyed under Erdoğan. As Henri mentioned, Turkey was doing quite well for a period of time. It was one of the hottest economies in the world. And, third, piety. And Erdoğan has consistently, throughout his time in office, appealed to values and culture, and that the AKP and President Erdoğan in particular protect the traditional values of Turkey—how he defines the traditional values of Turkey.
So his closing arguments in the election were very seriously religiously based. And to the point where Erdoğan’s—part of his message was that if the opposition were to win, it would undermine religious and family values in the country, because he ran, in part, against the LGBTQ community, called his opponents gay, referred to the European Union also in these terms. And this was a message that the AKP and Erdoğan are the protectors of traditional values, which is typical of populists. And it was a message that clearly resonated amongst people.
I think one of the reasons why some analysts were surprised—neither Henri nor I were surprised about the outcome of the election. But I think that some are surprised is because they too narrowly think in terms of retrospective voting as being what people think is in their wallet. Certainly Turks have less in their wallets than they did four years ago, but when you ask Turks are you better off today than you were four years ago? And thinking about the candidates who was better going to protect their values, their identity, and their kind of religious values that have been kind of interwoven seamlessly in Turkish society since the AKP started Islamizing Turkey’s political and social institutions. I think that it’s important to recognize that that was an important feature of the election, to which the opposition really had no answer.
LABOTT: Henri, religion is certainly going to remain central to public life. And thisreligious nationalism, it doesn’t really leave much space for religious minorities to have a public role and a voice. If a real Turk is a Sunni Muslim, if you’re a Kurd, or an Armenian, or a Syriac, or even a Christian, whatever—however many are left, you’re viewed with suspicion and societal opposition, I guess.
BARKEY: Look, there aren’t many minorities, at least non-Muslim minorities, left in Turkey. The Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslim. I mean, so that’s not an issue. But there are other heterodox, shall we say Islamic, religions. The Alevis, for instance, who many of them actually Kurds. Actually, most of them are Kurds. And that the candidate of the opposition, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, one of the only things I thought he did well was he’s an Alevi. And this was, of course, an issue that the government was using against him. And he just went on television and says: Yes, I’m an Alevi. And I’m a Turkish citizen, et cetera, et cetera. He kind of raised the issue to where it should be, where it shouldn’t matter whether you’re an Alevi or a Sunni, that you are all citizens of the same country.
But as far as non-Muslim minorities are concerned, the Armenians, the Greeks, and the Jews have mostly disappeared. I mean, there are very, very few of them. And they don’t count. But they use those minorities for political purposes. Look, Erdoğan, I mean, whatever you say about Erdoğan, he genuinely is a conservative Muslim. He actually does believe in his religion. And for him, it’s like a very conservative Christian or a very conservative Jew. For him, and such people, religion plays a very important role in organizing life. The problem with him and the problem with people like him in other religions is that they want then to impose their view on society. And that’s where the crush is coming. We see it through the LGBT issue.
But the other, of course, interesting thing is that one of the ways he justified his policy of low interest rates, because he believes that interest rates actually cause inflation not vice versa. You know, I should say, higher interest rates. So his argument was you lower the interest rate and inflation will come down. But that’s not how economics works. But he did admit at one point that he is very much influenced by the Islamic tenets against usury. And so interest rates are very much part—or, high interest rates—of this scourge called usury. So he did admit that he’s very much influenced by that. So religion is important for him. And now we have to agree. I mean, there are American politicians like him. So it’s not—
COOK: I mean, Henri, I agree with everything you say. But I wouldn’t want to leave it as,it’s kind of similar to believers who are American presidents. I mean, Erdoğan leaves a party that is a part of the spectrum of Islamist movements that you find throughout the Middle East. It’s not the Muslim Brotherhood. I think people make a mistake when they equate the Justice and Development Party with the Muslim Brotherhood. But it does share characteristics with Islamist movements—
LABOTT: And he was welcoming them, though, and supporting them.
COOK: That’s exactly right. I mean, there isn’t a long history of Turkish Islamist and Egyptian, for example, Islamism getting along until the uprisings in the Arab world. But nevertheless, they share certain basic features and this kind of style of politics, the desire to Islamize institutions, that is essentially an authoritarian worldview. And so I think that you can be a believer and have a worldview that’s democratic. But clearly, Erdoğan does not have that. And the tradition from which the AKP emerged is not democratic and falls more clearly along the spectrum of religious authoritarianism.
LABOTT: OK. I’m going to cut you off. We have time—we have two last questions. We might go one minute over, which is against Council rules, but I’m going to throw them out there and whoever wants to take them can take them.
Following on the religion—this is from P. Adem Carroll. What are we talking about when we talk about religion? Culture wars? Religious populism instrumentalized religious values for political purposes. My question is, how do opposition parties try to accommodate or adapt to religious vocabulary? Or do they double down on Ataturk’s secularists legacy?
And then there’s another question from Jim Higginbotham. You mentioned Gülen followers and Kurds in Erdoğan’s—regarding entry to NATO and other matters. What is the status of each group and the ongoing views of the U.S. and other allies? Have they been forgotten?
COOK: Professor, you choose.
LABOTT: You choose, Henri.
BARKEY: Look, on the Kurds and the Fethullah Gülen—
COOK: I knew he was going to choose that one.
BARKEY: Not sure if it was frozen.
But the Kurdish issue is very much alive in Turkey. It has, to some extent, being forgotten about because there’s so much you can do, and the Turkish government is so unresponsive on these issues. The European Court of Human Rights said that the leader of the Kurdish opposition party, who’s been in jail almost seven years now, should be released. And today it came out that the Turkish Supreme Council, who has not had a chance to look at the case after three years, because one of its members hasn’t read the file yet. And we’re waiting for him to read the file. That’s the excuse.
And what is the reaction from Europe? Nothing. European Council said that they were going to kick Turkey out of the European Council, which is a member, if they did not follow through with the European Court of Human Rights decision. Not just on the on Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Kurdish, but also Osman Kavala, who’s been jailed on these ridiculous charges that he tried to overthrow the government. Turkey says, no, even though by law, by Turkish constitution the European Court of Human Rights decisions are binding on the Turkish judicial system, they say, no. We’re not going to follow through. And the European Council does nothing. So there’s a way in which the Turks realize that they can do whatever they want, and they’re going to get away with it,
On Fethullah Gülen, just one thing. He lives in United States. The Turks are upset at the fact that he hasn’t been extradited. The problem is that the Turks have a whole slew of demands for people to be extradited. But when you look at Turkish indictments, they’re a joke. I mean, I’ve seen my own indictment. I mean, they make up things that are so ridiculous. So there’s no way any justice system anywhere in the world can extradite somebody back to Turkey, because there is no evidence. I mean, if you had evidence, fine, they will do it.
LABOTT: Right. Right. Steve, super quick. The opposition was trying to run on a more secular agenda, and lost.
COOK: Well, other than that good moment that that Kilicdaroglu had, in which he said I’m an Alevi. And I can still be your leader. I’m still a loyal Turkish citizen and a patriot. I think that the answer to the religious discourse and the discourse about values that the opposition came up with was to say: We’re going to make Turkey more democratic. And that’s our answer. We’re going to return Turkey to some golden age of democracy.
Yet there are lots of Turks who believe that Erdoğan has made Turkey more open and more democratic for them. They’re predominantly that part of the country that is more pious, and is the core constituency. In addition to the fact that many of the opposition don’t have the best democratic credentials to begin with. So, as I said from the beginning, until the opposition can develop a positive vision for Turkey’s future, they’re going to be at great disadvantage to Erdoğan’s emphasis on values, identity, and culture. I think this speaks to a larger issue about Kemalism, and those ideas, and how they have really penetrated only a millimeter deep and a thousand miles wide. Because clearly, Erdoğan’s message about values, and culture, and religion matters to people, despite his authoritarianism.
LABOTT: OK, well, unfortunately, we have to leave it there. But that was a great discussion. I’d like to thank Steven Cook and Henri Barkey. Irina, back over to you. Thanks very much, everybody, for listening.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, all. I want to encourage you to follow Henri at @henribarkey, Steven at @stevenacook, and Elise at @eliselabott, on what is now X instead of Twitter. (Laughter.)
COOK: You can follow me on Threads too, but that’s—
LABOTT: Yep, on Threads.
FASKIANOS: On Threads, OK. I guess people are switching to Threads. (Laughter.) We also encourage you to follow us, Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter, at @CFR_religion—or, rather, X, sorry. And do please send us your feedback and suggestions for future webinar topics and speakers. You can email [email protected]. Thank you all again for today. We appreciate it. And we will be posting this on our website, again, at CFR.org. So thank you and have a good rest of the day.
LABOTT: Thank you.
LABOTT: Thanks, everyone.