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End Game For Erdogan? Millions In Turkey — And Beyond — Can Taste It

The result of Turkey's May 14 election is still very uncertain, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's significant failures put his leadership under threat for the first time in 20 years.

Image of Crowd attending presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu's campaign .

Crowd attending presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu's campaign ahead of the May 14th general election, in Agri, Turkey, on May 2nd.

Dominique Moïsi


Can elections put an end to the authoritarian drift of a man and ensure a return to democracy? In a few days, on May 14, the Turkish people will be able to answer this question with a double presidential and legislative election.

Indeed, for the first time since Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2003, the scenario of his defeat is conceivable, if not probable. The opposition finally united behind an experienced politician who does not shine with his charisma alone — Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the CHP, the Republican People’s Party.

And this is all the more true because everything suggests that the Kurds from the PKK (the third biggest party in Parliament today) will join the union of opposition parties, in a ballot that looks like a referendum against Erdogan.

Illiberal democracy

But the polls remain very close and the party in power intends to use all the machinery of the Turkish state that it controls to win once again. The example of Victor Orban in Hungary shows just how difficult it is to unseat an illiberal democracy. It is all the more true in the case of an authoritarian regime that has become increasingly centralized and despotic over time.

Turkey is now a country where prisons are full.

However, in Turkey, the evolution of political, economic, strategic and moral conditions could lead to change. Turkey is now a country where prisons are full and the state coffers are empty. Journalists, political opponents or simply personalities who have the misfortune of displeasing the prince are outrageously imprisoned in an arbitrary manner.

A very conservative agenda

The terrible earthquake that shook the south of Turkey at the beginning of the year showed the State’s disorganization. It made clear the corruption of a power, which allowed thousands of buildings to be constructed that did not correspond to the safety requirements dictated by nature.

Erdogan came to power in 2003 after Turkey experienced its worst economic crisis in three decades. He promised a return to prosperity and a clearly pro-Western and pro-European policy.

I met him in 2004 during a dinner in his honor by the IFRI (French Institute of International Relations). I was struck by his energy and charisma but also disturbed by the nature of his remarks. He wanted to convince his European interlocutors that his party, the AKP, was a Muslim version of the CDU (the German Christian Democratic party).

But the man I had in front of me was a far cry from Konrad Adenauer or Helmut Kohl. And in his answers to education, especially that of young girls, it seemed to me he carried an infinitely more conservative and “Islamic” agenda than his campaign words would suggest.

Image of \u200bCampaign posters of opposition Republican People's Party, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a street in Istanbul, Turkey,

Campaign posters of opposition Republican People's Party, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 3, 2023.

Tolga Ildun via Zuma

The temptation of the East

In terms of its relationship with Europe, it is fair to note that difficulties were not solely of Turkey’s making. The European Union - France and Austria particularly - has, by its discretion, encouraged a rise in the “temptation of the East” in Turkey.

Why did we make long-term integration promises to the Turks that we knew we could not and would not keep? In 2007, I had a talk on this question with Nicolas Sarkozy. “Why,” he asked me, “are you in favor of Turkey's candidacy to the Union?” I remember my answer: “It is not the point of arrival that counts, it is the road in itself: as long as it is a candidate to the Union, Turkey will become a better country and a safer neighbor.” For the president, on the contrary, the main thing was a statistic: 75% of French people were against Turkey’s admission into Europe.

In fact, Erdogan’s second decade in power seems to have largely ruled in favor of those who viewed the entry of a Muslim country in the EU with the utmost suspicion. Between 2013 and today, Turkey has become an increasingly difficult partner. Erdogan clearly dreamed himself as a religious version of Ataturk. He has the ruse and determination, but not the greatness, nor the results.

Erdogan’s failure

Hasn’t he multiplied his failures, both internally and internationally?

To properly grasp the stakes of the May 14 election — the continuation and deepening of authoritarianism on the one hand or the hope of democracy on the other — one need only consider the position of the various global actors.

Between Moscow, Beijing and Riyadh, there is a kind of pro-Erdogan triangle. On the other hand, a great majority of democratic countries, on both sides of the Atlantic, wish for his defeat, without saying it too loudly. The outcome of the ballot boxes is too uncertain. Even if the American ambassador to Turkey took the risk of meeting with the leader of the opposition, provoking Erdogan’s indignation. But aren’t autocratic regimes, as experience proves, too unpredictable allies?

Will the anti-Erdogan reflex be as effective in Turkey as was the anti-Trump reflex in the U.S. in 2020? Will Kurds make a difference, as the mobilization of black people, women and youth did in America? And will the inhabitants of the regions devastated by the earthquake, in the chaos that still reigns, be simply able to vote?

What is at stake on May 14 in Turkey is nothing less than the evolution of the balance of power between democracy and authoritarianism in the world.

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But that may be starting to change, especially among Gen Z Europeans, who are increasingly drinking less or opting out entirely, out of concern for their health or problematic alcohol use. A recent French study found the proportion of 17-year-olds who have never consumed alcohol has multiplied, from less than 5% to nearly 20% over the past two decades.

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