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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

COLUMN: Erdogan’s 20-Year Legacy, Upcoming Elections in Turkey, and Impacts on the U.S. and EU

Turkey was seen as a reliable ally but Erdogan’s politics prioritizing protecting his own interests, not the country’s, have distanced Turkey from the western world.

Turkey is almost two months away from its most critical elections, which will be held on May 14. The recent political developments and trends indicate that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lesser chance of winning the elections. Table for Six Coalition, composed of six political parties in the opposition, finally reached a compromise to nominate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi-CHP), as the candidate against President Erdogan. In the last two decades, the non-democratic pressures under President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi-AKP) have created a strong bloc that can bring 65 percent of votes for Kilicdaroglu, an adequate proportion to defeat the AKP government.

The AKP government has failed to soothe people’s grievances over the runaway inflation and weak government responses to the February 6 consecutive earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people, due to the corrupt system that enables construction amnesties and poorly inspected and licensed buildings. The post-earthquake response has been riddled with scandals that show the government’s unprepared response to disasters. For instance, the Red Crescent (Kizilay) storing tents for three days in its warehouse and then selling them to a charity organization hit the fan and caused reactions against the government.

The opposition is closer to winning the upcoming May elections than they have ever been in the last two decades, if they don’t make any strategic mistakes and are prepared for the AKP’s moves, which is already experienced in using tricky cards in its toolbox. For example, Turkey should be ready to see the government’s security and fear of terrorism card.

The AKP is successful for its supporters but gets severe criticism from others. This article examines the AKP’s 20-year ruling and legacy in the realms of democracy, economy, judicial independence, crime, corruption, and terrorism, as well as its impacts on European Union (EU) and United States (US) politics.

The last two decades of AKP government rule can be examined in two distinctive periods: The first term started with its victory in the 2002 elections and lasted until the early 2010s, during which the AKP leaned toward the EU standards and values. It was later understood that President Erdogan exploited the EU accession period to prevent the closure of his political-Islamist party – similar to its predecessors accused of violating the secular constitutional system – and strengthen his leadership in the country. The second term is Turkey’s transition to authoritarianism, where the government has become a dictatorial regime repressing the opposition. However, it is essential to realize that the president’s greediness to take bribes has been present in both terms and played a vital role in the country’s transition into a kleptocratic regime today.


Turkey was considered a model country combining democracy and Islam until it became authoritarian. However, it is no more on the list of democratic states. Recently, the Biden administration excluded Turkey from the democracy summit in 2021. Currently, it is the country that has shut down the highest number of media outlets and jailed the highest number of journalists. Freedom of speech is under strict government interference, and the public is scared of crying out against the government, while President Erdogan is free to use every humiliating and insulting word. For example, he labeled women who joined the Gezi demonstrations in 2012 as “slut” in one of his speeches in 2022. However, his lawyers are fast enough to file suit whenever he is criticized. They have sued 63,041 people who allegedly insulted President Erdogan between 2014 and 2019.

Currently, Turkey is a polarized country like other Middle Eastern countries, where polarization creates a vicious retaliation cycle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Today’s ardent supporters of the AKP are the products of the strict secular system in Turkey. Repressed by this system, religious students faced university bans from wearing headscarves in the years before the AKP regime. The AKP government has exploited these bans and has shown itself as the guarantor and saver of the conservative people in the society.

Erdogan’s non-democratic regime has been most costly for Kurds, seculars, and Gulenists. The government has unlawfully assigned trustees to municipalities in the Kurdish regions run by democratically elected mayors. Seculars have been under the regime’s repressions, and several journalists from Sozcu and Cumhuriyet Daily were arrested because of their critiques of the government. However, it can be said that the Gulenists have paid the highest cost. In the first period of AKP until the early 2010s, Fethullah Gulen gave his support to the government but got criticism for being a tool in the hands of Erdogan to repress the opposition. However, Erdogan’s transition to authoritarianism and accusations of Gulenists as being behind the corruption investigations, implicating President Erdogan and his inner circle with solid evidence, caused a rift between the AKP and Gulen. Hateful to Gulen and his followers, the government has cracked down on Gulenists exposed to McCarthyism-type witch hunts. Based on the scant evidence, every member of the Gulenist movement was prosecuted and jailed. Tens of Gulenists lost their lives under the government’s torture, and their women under custody were harassed. The AKP also furthered his retaliation and closed the movement’s 1,043 schools and 15 universities in Turkey.

The AKP’s polarizing politics have also yielded results outside of Turkey’s borders. Turkish people, even in EU countries and the United States, have been distanced from each other. They avoid coming together at religious gatherings or national celebrations, another example of the deepening polarization in society caused by the government’s accusations.

Some comments on intense polarization in Turkey focus on how Erdogan can push the country to the edges of civil war as an alternative move if he knows he cannot win the elections. One sparkle would be enough to pit seculars against the AKP followers.


The Turkish economy boomed in the first term of President Erdogan’s tenure, similar to most countries in the early years of the 21st century. Approaching the EU and democratizing the country attracted foreign investors. Turkey was listed as one of the G20 countries with its increasing GDP. However, non-democratic interventions in the second term resulted in an economic fallout. For example, its GDP dropped from $957.8 billion in 2013 to $719 billion in 2020. Furthermore, there was a gap seen in Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves, and $128 billion U.S. went missing in 2020. In addition, the government failed to control the economy affected by the COVID-19 disaster. As a result, its currency collapsed, and runaway inflation reached an annual rate of 85 percent in October 2022.

Regional Politics

Turkey was seen as a reliable ally of the western world and has taken the side of NATO since the cold war. However, President Erdogan’s politics prioritizing protecting his own interests, not the country’s, have distanced Turkey from the western world. President Erdogan has become fed up with the criticism of the west on ongoing non-democratic government actions and human rights violations. Moreover, he is concerned about ongoing investigations in the U.S. The Halk Bank investigation at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York reveals that Erdogan, his family, and his inner circle are at risk of being investigated. Therefore, Erdogan’s actions to seek leverage have ended up in a close relationship and friendship with President Putin, from which Erdogan bought Russia’s S-400 missiles. Whenever President Erdogan has an unsolicited response from the U.S., he makes appointments and waits before President Putin’s doors.

Iran is another country with the AKP government’s doubtful relations. Historical rivalry between Persians and Turks has taken the shape of sectarian confrontation, where Iran has seen Turkey as an obstacle to its efforts to spread Shiism. However, Iran enjoys freely operating in Turkey and being influential in Turkey’s bureaucracy during the AKP government’s current tenure. One of the police investigations in the early 2010s had already indicated the spying activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Turkey. This investigation proved suspicious relations of the current Head of intelligence with IRGC. Moreover, the chief suspect of the investigation in Turkey was an IRGC general who was on the wanted list of U.S. officials. Turkey interestingly shut down this case and jailed the investigators despite the existence of solid evidence. However, the Department of Justice referred to the suspects of this investigation in one of its press releases in 2022 which mentioned how the U.S. government targets oil smuggling networks generating revenue for Qods Force and Hezbollah. Today, IRGC is capable of doing any operation and targeting the Iranian regime opponents in Turkey.

Syria has been an issue in the agendas of regional countries, the EU, and the US. EU is concerned about mass migration from Syria, whereas it is the settlement of jihadist groups in northern Syria for the U.S. Turkey has been actively involved in the conflict and adopted inconsistent policies. Aiming to overthrow the Assad regime and halt the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria, in the early years Turkey supported jihadist groups regardless of whether they were linked with Al Qaeda or ISIS. Then Turkey modified its policies and used its involvement in the Syrian conflict to seek leverage in domestic and regional politics. For domestic affairs, Turkey’s efforts aim to halt Kurdish groups, but it is to get some concessions from the U.S. For example, President Erdogan directed the Turkish army to enter Syria whenever he was angry with the U.S. president. Today, Turkey seems to back moderate opposition groups against the Syrian Democratic Forces and Assad regime; however, these groups have strong links with ISIS and Al Qaeda in northern Syria.

Judicial Independence

Authoritarian states with broken ties with the world can survive thanks to their natural resources. For example, Venezuelan, Iranian, and Russian economies have difficulties under the pressure of western sanctions but are still resilient because of their petroleum and natural gas resources. Turkey’s valuable asset has been the rule of law, an independent justice system, and embracing western values. Turkey so far has experienced that the country develops politically and economically as the country secures justice and embraces democratic values. Nonetheless, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Index ranked Turkey 117th among 139 countries in the general rank in 2021.

The suspicious July 15 coup attempt has jailed hundreds of thousands with scant evidence, including around 5,000 judges and prosecutors replaced by the AKP loyalties. However, it is clear with solid evidence that President Erdogan, the Minister of Defense, and the Head of Intelligence knew about the coup attempt and let it happen to benefit from its results. Even Erdogan labeled it as a gift from above in the early hours of the coup attempt and used it as a pretext to jail hundreds of thousands of opponents. Whoever questions the devious government’s theory on July 15 coup attempt is jailed. July 15 coup attempt investigations have been disgraceful of the justice system in Turkey.

Furthermore, the officials of critical investigations, who probed government corruption, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and IRGC, have still been in solitary confinements or jails since late 2014. One of these investigations on December 17, 2013, targeted facilitators who bribed Turkish ministers and bureaucrats to break U.S. sanctions imposed due to the uncontrolled Iranian nuclear program. Turkey released these facilitators and shut down the investigation, but U.S. prosecutors used Turkish police evidence, wiretapping, and surveillance to convict the same facilitators. Everyone in Turkey knows well that the politicians were bribed to evade US sanctions. Even the opposition refers to these investigations and accuses the AKP government every once in a while. However, fearful of being arrested, the opposition is silent even though they see that these officers and their families are still in the jails and pay a dear cost. Today, no prosecutors and judges can dare to decide a ruling that violates the government’s interests. They know that their house will be raided and face unsubstantiated terrorism charges.

Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism

Crime, corruption, and terrorism have increasingly been an issue in Turkey. In particular, Turkey has been a hotbed for transnational criminal organizations after purging more than 40,000 police officers in 2016, which resulted in the loss of law enforcement’s institutional memory and knowledge. These purges have intimidated newly-replaced officers into avoiding any investigation that may be linked to the AKP politicians. New common understandings have only created vacuums filled by international criminals and money launderers. Drug traffickers from the Balkans and the Caucasian regions as well as from Ukraine and Russia have only enjoyed operating without restrictions in Turkey. Russian oligarchs, fearful of investigations and confiscations in the western world, have transferred their assets to Turkey. Turkish organized crime is involved in the cocaine trade between Latin America and the Middle East. Dictators in Africa and the Middle East have invested in Turkey to launder money.

Corruption has been an inevitable instrument of politics in Turkey. Big-scale contractors bribe Erdogan, and all other smaller ones offer kickbacks to officials. Turkey has made 191 amendments to Public Procurement Law during the AKP tenure until 2021. They all aimed to enable a secure bribing system and protection for corrupt officials.

Terrorism also has been a tool in the hands of the AKP government. Turkey recorded decreasing terrorist attacks by PKK and left-wing groups in the past decade. However, Turkey has been a safe haven for ISIS and Al Qaeda operating in northern Syria. For example, the Department of Treasury sanctioned five individuals residing in Turkey with the accusations of assisting, sponsoring, and providing materials or technological support to Al-Qaeda. Furthermore, a violent type of salafi-jihadism has taken advantage of the government’s blind eye and ignorance. The government neglects to pay attention to the linkages between jihadism and radicalization. Still, it would not be wrong to say that many youths are under the influence of jihadism in Turkey.

Additionally, Turkey has labeled the opposition as terrorists, knowing what it means to use the power of the word terrorism in the western world. According to the definitional criteria of terrorism in the dictionary of the AKP government, all students, demonstrators, and political opponents are terrorists –  although they have not used any violence – if they do not obey the regime’s rules. Since the July 15 coup attempt in 2016, Turkey has been recording and reporting thousands of terrorist cases yearly, but it is only around 40 in terrorism databases, predominantly low-profile attacks by the PKK terrorist organization. Contrary to this approach, the government acts qualify as act of state terrorism, in which it, recklessly, is involved in torturing, killing, and forcefully disappearance of the opponents.

It should be noted that in dark areas of the current regime flourish paramilitary groups under the control of the government. Similar to Russia’s Wagner Group and Iran’s IRGC, the government has formed a paramilitary organization known as SADAT, whose primary goal is to protect the current regime in Turkey. It is seemingly a private security company giving training in conflict zones. The opposition fears SADAT’s possible exploitations in assassinations or sparking a civil war in the country before the elections.

The Impacts of Erdogan’s Legacy on EU and U.S. Politics

One of the rules in today’s international relations is to prioritize the more strategic interest and turn a blind eye to the smaller one, as opposed to Cold War politics, which enabled and required the active intervention of intelligence services. EU and U.S. have cared about their bigger interests on the table. Knowing well what the more strategic interests are of the western world, Erdogan has blackmailed EU countries into opening Turkey’s borders and letting Syrian and Afghan refugees illegally travel to Europe. During the past few years, the EU countries saw Erdogan’s card and stayed silent, allowing Erdogan to create today’s destructive legacy. EU countries were quiet when Erdogan was shutting down media outlets and jailing officers who served in regional security and did operations against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and IRGC. President Erdogan’s legacy has created a country that is on the verge of civil war and a safe haven for international terrorists, traffickers, and money launderers. Therefore, in the long term, this legacy will continue to threaten the EU countries and always pose a threat if there is no interference.

The bigger interest for the U.S. government is the expansion and strengthening of NATO, the rise of the Iranian threat in the Middle East, the spread of Russian influence in the region, and defeating jihadist groups in northern Syria. President Erdogan so far has successfully used these cards to address the United States’ more strategic interests. For example, President Erdogan has ridiculously accused Finland and Sweden of being a safe haven for terrorists. He has successfully pushed the U.S. government to be silent on non-democratic oppressions. It seems that Erdogan will continue to use the bigger interest against the U.S.

To sum up, it is important to look at Erdogan’s words in the previous years of his regime, as he used the election slogan “from where to where” to mean that he modernized, developed, and elevated the country to the level of world hegemonic powers. However, this analysis above portrays that Erdogan’s AKP performed well when it leaned toward western values and strengthened democracy. However, the same political party destroyed the constitutional settings of the country when they closed their doors to western values. According to recent polls, the opposition bloc seems to be getting the majority of the votes, and their candidate can be elected as the successor of Erdogan. However, Erdogan, as an experienced and authoritarian leader, will not give up until the last minute and will do whatever is necessary to win the elections. Therefore, Turkey is on the verge of either letting Erdogan deepen his destructive legacy or letting the new president face and fix it.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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