Erdogan’s Foreign Policy Distracts from Freezing Turkish Economy

  • + A deteriorating economy since 2018 has significantly eroded Erdogan’s domestic support.
  • + Turkish interventions in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan kindle nationalist sentiments.
  • + Erdogan has been utilizing populist rhetoric to salvage slipping support in the polls.
Find out Erdogan’s strategy to salvage declining popular support by shifting focus from Turkey’s poor economy to Turkish interventions in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan
Source: CGTN/Mustafa Kamaci/Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP

Why is Erdogan’s heat level freezing?

Answer: His interventionist foreign policy has stemmed his dropping popularity in the polls.

As one wanders the streets of Istanbul, the prevalence of Turkish and Azerbaijani flags side by side immediately stands out. From balconies to hotels, highways to newspaper kiosks, Turkey’s population seems heavily invested in their ally’s quest to retake the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabagh. The significant aid Turkey is providing to Azerbaijan in the war against Armenia has stoked strong Turkish sentiments of cultural, historical and ethnic support for the fellow Turkic Azerbaijanis, further igniting Turkish nationalism.

Other conflicts in which Turkey is imposing its will, notably in Syria and Libya, have apparently strengthened Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman since 2003. Already benefitting from record levels of public support following the failed coup in 2016, Erdogan successfully changed the Turkish constitution to a presidential system through a referendum, strengthening his personal political power. From an outside point of view, Erdogan seems to hold undisputed power over Turkey’s political system and overwhelming popularity in the polls.

However, the Turkish president’s popularity is largely overstated. In 2018, Turkey was hit by a currency and debt crisis, which emerged due to the country’s extensive current account deficit (deficit of $51.8 billion in January 2018) and private foreign-currency-denominated debt (needed to maintain capital inflows lacking due to the current account deficit). Erdogan’s reaction of seizing assets of those he considered affiliated with the failed coup of 2016, his subsequent growing authoritarianism and the collapse of the Turkish lira scared foreign investors, leading to a decline of investment inflow, which Turkey needed to finance its current account deficit.

As the public and private debts grew, repayments became increasingly difficult and the Turkish lira fell against the dollar, with one US dollar being worth 1.5 Turkish lira in 2010 dropping to US one dollar being worth 8.15 lira in 2020. Inflation peaked at 25% in mid-2018, dropping to 11.75% in 2020 but remaining significant. As economic growth contracted, unemployment increased to 13.5% and Turkey entered a period of stagflation. 

To counter rising inflation and save its net reserves, the Turkish Central Bank should have rapidly raised interest rates. However, Erdogan had become disillusioned with Western-style capitalism following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which strongly impacted the Turkish economy. Erdogan strongly opposed tampering with the interest rates and interfered with the Turkish Central Bank’s autonomy. The president increased his nationalist-religious rhetoric, arguing that interest-based banking was prohibited by Islam and contrary to Turkish national interests. As a result of Erdogan’s lax macroeconomic policies, the Turkish Central Bank burned most of its foreign reserves, leaving it unable to combat inflation and currency depreciation. 

The worsening economic situation led to a decline of popular Turkish support for Erdogan’s party, AKP, and Erdogan himself (to a lesser extent). Mounting popular opposition boiled over when the AKP lost Istanbul in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral elections, essentially the second most important political position in the country. As the economic situation stabilized in Turkey, the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, further affecting the economy and eroding Erdogan’s popular support. 

Who is changing Erdogan’s temperature?

Answer: Collapse of the Turkish economy since 2018, amplified by COVID-19, making him increasingly unpopular.

The declining state of the Turkish economy continued during the Covid-19 crisis. In the first half of 2020, 2.5 million jobs were lost, the budget deficit increased by 40% and the Turkish lira lost 15% of its value to the US dollar. Like most leaders worldwide, Erdogan saw a momentary jump in popularity due to his strong handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, rising to 55.8% of approval ratings, the most since the failed coup in 2016. However, his rival politicians, notably Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, saw a similar surge in support. The increased support during the pandemic does not accurately reflect electoral trends in Turkey which have been developing since 2017. 

The erosion of Erdogan’s popularity comes not only from the decline of the Turkish economy but also from the Turkish president’s rising authoritarianism and perceived anti-democratic tendencies. Economic woes and growing authoritarianism are key reasons for the moderate Turkish voters moving away from Erdogan’s AKP. The Turkish president keeps a close eye on his support levels, as he relies on strong popular support to continue his semi-autocratic rule. The gradual loss of part of the moderate voters has forced Erdogan to pander more strongly to conservatives and religious voters, upping the tone of his nationalist rhetoric.

This hardened political discourse strengthens Erdogan’s conservative base, but alienates moderates, as shown by the AKP’s loss of Istanbul in 2019. Thus, in 2020, the AKP’s approval ratings fell to 30% while the number of undecided voters grew to 10%. Erdogan’s approval ratings, normally hovering in the 50% range, dipped to low 40% from mid-2018 to February 2020 (before the pandemic hit). In order to retain popular support and stem the tide of growing disapproval, Erdogan increased the intensity and visibility of Turkish military operations, while adopting a growing Islamic domestic rhetoric to strengthen his electoral base.

What is driving Erdogan?

Answer: Necessity to maintain AKP’s electoral base and distract Turkish voters from the state of the economy.

Erdogan keeps a very close look at electoral trends and the evolution of approval ratings. The loss of part of the moderate electorate has hurt the Turkish president’s approval ratings, but the creation of other conservative parties by Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu, former allies of Erdogan, has also started “stealing” AKP’s votes from the Turkish right electorate. To strengthen his electoral base and repeal rivals on the political right, Erdogan had to tap into more conservative rhetoric. Furthermore, the necessity to increase the AKP’s voting base led Erdogan to pander to Ismailaga, a faith-based movement which runs one of the country’s biggest newspapers, the Turkiye. 

This hardening conservative-religious rhetoric has translated to the transformation of the Hagia Sofia into a mosque (it was a museum since Atatürk), increasing hostility to LGBTQ rights and threatening to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention (aims preventing and combatting violence against women) on the ground that the Convention separates gender from sex. 73% of Turks supported Hagia Sofia becoming a mosque. 

The heart of Erdogan’s strategy to increase his approval ratings rests in Turkey’s interventionist foreign policy. The Turkish president wages that by engaging the Turkish military in regional conflicts, reinforcing Turkish military projection and extending the Turkish sphere of influence, he can stoke nationalist sentiments within Turkish voters, leading them to focus on the war effort rather than the economy. These nationalist sentiments would inevitably support Turkey’s commander in chief, in other words, Erdogan.

This cold calculation was fully carried out, even amidst the poor economy, to the fullest extent. Turkish clashes with longtime rival, Greece, increase historical animosity and bolsters Turkish nationalist sentiments, along with the Turkish buffer zone in Syria, conflict with the Kurds in Afrin and support for the GNA in Libya. Aggressive diplomatic exchanges with Macron and military actions against France, another military superpower in the Mediterranean, help Erdogan display that Turkish military might is equal to the traditional European powers.

Surfing his wave of successful foreign military interventions, Erdogan urged Azerbaijan’s Aliyev to launch an offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh, promising full Turkish support. This offensive has been making significant headway in the past week, while Turks are invigorated by their country’s support of fellow ethnic Turks. 

The “war for electoral support” strategy is proving to be effective, but only in the short term. Erdogan’s approval rating shot up from 42% to 48% in November 2019 amidst operation Peace Spring, a Turkish offensive into North-Eastern Syria. By February 2020, his approval rating had dipped back down to 41%. As the excitement of war breaks off and victory is achieved, voters go back to their personal preoccupations, impacted by a worsening economy. This is when Erdogan cannot save his support levels by resorting to hardening social policies or engaging in conflicts. Erdogan knows that to maintain his electoral support in the long term, Turkey’s economy has to improve by the 2023 presidential elections. 

How does this impact you?

Answer: Interventionist Turkish foreign policy increases the risk of regional tensions and destabilizes NATO.

If Erdogan’s only solution to maintain high approval ratings is to stoke Turkish nationalism by engaging Turkey in regional conflicts and exacerbating regional tensions, then the Eastern Mediterranean will become a hotspot for instability in the coming decade. As the Eastern Mediterranean’s main regional power, Turkey plays an integral part in maintaining order and stability or precipitating chaos. 

Furthermore, increasing Turkish erraticness and tensions with fellow NATO allies could be a root cause for the nearing end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Members with such highly differing objectives, views of the world and interests cannot be held together by the American military-industrial complex. Thus, Erdogan’s new direction of interventionist foreign policy to support domestic electoral aspirations could spell the death of NATO.

David Salinger

R&A Editor in Chief