What Turkey’s Authoritarian Shift Means for the Rest of the World
Updated: May 2, 2022
Note: This article's original publication was November 5, 2018.
On June 24, 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected. However, the terms
“president” and “re-elected” are used loosely in discussions of the nation’s current state of affairs.
Erdoğan, through his sixteen years in office, has gradually transformed the Turkish government
into an entity where these terms do not, or soon may not, exist.
To understand this power shift, one must look at Turkey’s recent history. As a result of the
assassination attempt and military coup of 2016, the president has tightened his grip on power in
numerous arenas to ensure that an event such as this will never occur again. Erdoğan’s
techniques to substantially increase his power include his unjust imprisonment of
thousands of journalists, bureaucrats, scholars, and citizens allegedly involved in the
coup. He has also since de-legalized homeschooling, implemented a highly religious
and nationalistic curriculum, published scores of his Justice and Development Party
(AKP) propaganda, and mandated the use of “Geliyoo,” a national Turkish search
engine funded by the government as a substitute for Google. These efforts not only
undo the pro-democracy measures of past leaders, but have also informally shifted the
parliamentary republic to a proto-fascist government.
Erdoğan’s grand plan of authoritarian transition was met with considerable blowback, for
obvious reasons. Attempting to garner the most public support he can, the president is
pressuring, and possibly even threatening, the governor of the Central Bank of the Republic
of Turkey, the TCMB, to keep interest rates, specifically the one-week repo rate, as low as
possible, which has resulted in Turkey’s current dismal economic situation.
As a consequence of the artificial and inappropriately low interest rates, the lira crashed
less than two months after the election, which Erdoğan himself pushed up more than a year
to ensure a victory before the opposition grew too strong. The nation’s currency is
presently equal to .18 USD and .16 EUR. This hyperinflation brings about its own host of
consequences; government, corporate, and household debt, the cost of living, unemployment,
and importing costs are skyrocketing while real GDP (already smaller than the bankrupted
state of Illinois), purchasing power, government tax revenue, and foreign direct investment are
As unfortunate as this is for Turkish citizens, a significant portion of whom are fleeing to nations
such as Germany and Spain, what does this mean for the rest of the world, not only economically
but also politically?
This rampant hyperinflation has significant repercussions for other countries’ export markets.
The United States, Germany, and Russia produce the majority of Turkey’s imports, including
scrap metal used as inputs in manufactured goods, vehicle parts, and refined petroleum,
respectively. Erdoğan finally noticed the large loss of export revenue in these countries
brought about by the extreme weakness of the lira only recently. Although he has a tendency to
shift the blame for any economic, or political, trouble to anyone but him, in an effort to repair
trade relations, the president visited Germany on 27 September 2018. Protestors gave him a
less than warm welcome, lining the tarmac and demanding the release of detained
journalists and academics. Trade relations and the effect of “Erdoganomics” were barely
discussed at talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, where he instead urged the German
government to classify Fethullah Gulen, the man who Erdoğan believes plotted the
2016 coup, as a terrorist and also proudly displayed his plans for a new mosque on
German soil. Merkel as well as German citizens were none too pleased with these meetings due
to Erdoğan’s refusal to discuss human rights issues and his nationalistic agenda.
Like Germany, other nations and international organizations are now looking upon his ways
with extreme disdain and relationships with Turkey are crumbling. A prime example of this is
the Andrew Brunson situation and America’s response. After the unjust imprisonment of the
American Presbyterian minister in 2016, who, like thousands of others, Erdoğan charged with
involvement in the coup, the Trump administration threatened, and later imposed, sanctions on
high-ranking members of the Turkish government and tariffs on Turkey’s exported steel and
aluminum. These tariffs heavily contributed to the destruction of the lira, as President Trump
hoped. When Erdoğan called for their repeal, Trump argued that the Turkish president’s own
unjust displays of power landed him in this position in the first place. Seeing the pastor’s case
as a bargaining opportunity, Erdoğan offered the release of Brunson in exchange for the ease of
tariffs. Although the pastor was released in mid-October of this year and President Trump
claims that relations with Turkey are on the path to being “good, perhaps great,” Erdoğan,
given precedent, will most likely continue his authoritarian demonstrations at the
expense of innocent individuals.
Further, given the Brunson case, Erdoğan’s past human rights violations, and other
questionable political moves, NATO and Turkey are currently at odds. Turkey possesses the
alliance’s second largest armed forces and is also strategically located as a link between the East
and the West, but NATO could only turn a blind eye to his practices for so long. This limit was
reached when NATO gained knowledge of Erdoğan’s planned purchase of S-400 air defense
systems from Russia, as it is widely believed within the alliance that the president is too
unpredictable to handle the missiles responsibly. Moreover, NATO and Erdoğan have conflicting
interests in Syria; Turkey does not support the Kurdish fighters while various other members do.
Additionally, within the past year, more than 400 Turkish military envoys to NATO were
forcibly removed from their positions under suspicion of holding pro-Western views, which
Erdoğan translates into disloyalty within his new system of governance. These envoys were
replaced by less educated and less experienced Erdoğan loyalists, who, via presidential
command, are hostile to the alliance and difficult to work with. NATO officials, including the
Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Curtis Scaparrotti, have since grown
frustrated with the Turkish delegation’s decline in quality and willingness to cooperate.
To further his anti-West agenda, Erdoğan has developed his personal relationship with
Russian President Vladimir Putin. This friendship is Erdoğan’s demonstration to NATO that his
nation can find an ally elsewhere, and Putin admires this gall, as it pushes his own anti-NATO
and anti-West agenda. Because of this friendship, it is likely that Erdoğan will adhere to Putin’s
list of disliked nations, and the international community, especially NATO, cannot predict what
consequences this will bring about.
Moreover, Turkey’s dream to gain accession to the European Union, which it applied for in
1999, has died. Earlier in October of this year, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok addressed the
progress of Turkey’s bid in light of the authoritarian shift. He argued that Erdoğan must restore
the rule of law and reverse the large-scale human rights issues brought about by this shift for the
Union to take his accession bid seriously again. However, Erdoğan continues to violate the
rule of law and human rights, indicating that he has accepted that his country will not gain entry
into the Union. This is a further move away from Western democratic ideals and provides him
yet another reason to cozy up to Putin. As previously noted, this could bring about a plethora of
consequences, especially for those nations which already have less than adequate relations with
Russia, including the U.S., the U.K., France, Japan, Germany, and Poland.
Erdoğan has some serious rethinking to do if he wants to turn Turkey into the superpower he
hopes for. This is only possible through accountability, restoration of the rule of law, bolstering
of democratic ideals, and restored relationships with other powerful nations and NATO. If he
continues his current demonstrations, lives will be threatened and lost, the rule of law will
become nonexistent, and Turkey’s democracy that is cherished so much by its citizens will
become a thing of the past. If this becomes reality, other nations, especially Western nations, will
most definitely get sucked into Erdoğan’s drama and will be forced to deal with the
consequences of Turkey’s instability and unpredictability more so than they already have.