Erdogan’s rule may be finally coming to an end

Patrick Smyth: EU capitals will be watching the Turkish elections in May, the toughest the autocratic ruler has yet faced

Modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk‘s belief in “a great conspiracy against the Turkish nation” is often quoted by successor president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Internal and external conspiracies, plots against him and attempts by the Western powers to do down the great successor state to the Ottoman Empire, are an essential part of the Erdogan narrative, the justification for his autocratic rule and for the jailing thousands of opponents.

Erdogan’s rule, and his gradual unravelling of Atatürk‘s secular state, may however be coming to an end. The May 14th presidential and parliamentary election, the toughest Erdogan has yet faced, appears close to handing power to a six-party coalition led by former civil servant and long-time leader of Atatürk’s CHP party, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu. Importantly, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the third-largest in parliament, has said it will also back Kiliçdaroğlu. National polls put them neck-and-neck.

The election, potentially a major inflection point in Turkey’s political history, comes at a symbolic moment, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Lausanne Treaty, the last of the post-first World War peace settlements, in effect the “birth certificate” of the modern Turkish state.

Atatürk, who had led a successful military campaign against the British and French attempted dismembering of the old Ottoman Empire, signed the treaty setting the borders of the new state – much as Michael Collins would do in Ireland’s case – as the best deal available. But the treaty’s provisions still cast a shadow over today’s politics and are resented, not least by Erdogan, who has talked of the need for renegotiation. He regularly accuses the Greeks of breaching its provisions by denying its Turkish minority rights and for “militarising” some of the still-disputed Aegean Islands.


In a country whose politics thrives on conspiracy theories, a recent poll found a remarkable 43 per cent of people believe that the treaty is due to expire this year – it is not – and that its “secret” clauses will then be revealed. Then unconstrained, or some claim fancifully, Turkey will be free to resume proscribed drilling for oil or gas; British troops will reoccupy forts along the Bosphorus; and the Greek Orthodox patriarch will resurrect a Byzantine mini-state within Istanbul’s city walls. Claims for lost territory, like the Aegean Islands, may be reasserted.

Erdogan and his AKP party have not explicitly echoed this theory, but it chimes with his neo-Ottoman ambitions to rebuild Turkey’s reach and standing in the region, an agenda that plays well with his nationalist and Islamist constituency.

Strongmen may mobilise popular support behind their autocratic agendas but they must, however, deliver economic growth. If he is defeated now it will be because of growing perceptions of economic incompetence and corruption.

The state of Turkey’s €820 billion economy and the government’s sometimes stuttering response to the February 6th earthquake, which killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey, are expected to dominate the election campaign in its final weeks. Consumer prices were up 55 per cent in February on the year, and the country is running a record current account deficit. The lira has lost about 60 per cent of its value against the US dollar since March 2021, when Erdogan appointed a central bank governor who has embraced his unorthodox economic theory that cutting interest rates would slow, rather than fuel, price growth. Hence the rampant inflation.

The government’s slow response to the earthquake and its lax building regulation have raised difficult questions. An old campaign video resurfaced of Erdogan boasting he personally circumvented building regulations in an area that would be pulverised by the quake. Now he’s promising to build an impossible 650,000 apartments this year.

The opposition promises a new contract with society – one that restores parliamentary democracy, pursues a peaceful, pro-Western foreign policy and promotes shared prosperity.

It is clear that Turkey’s Western allies will be glad to see Erdogan’s back. He has undermined Nato’s security by acquiring missile-defence systems from Russia, frustrated the alliance by blocking Swedish accession, repeatedly threatened to flood Europe with refugees and shown no inclination to improve relations with Greece.

Ankara’s relations with Washington have grown strained to the point where top Turkish officials routinely accuse the US of backing a coup against Erdogan – more conspiracies – and complicity with terrorist groups.

Although he helped to broker an agreement to ensure continued flows of grain and vegetable oil from Ukraine last summer, Erdogan has had no measurable restraining influence on “dear friend” Vladimir Putin.

He has also played into the hands of those in the EU who want to put Turkish accession off forever, eloquently making the French case that it would be impossible to allow a Turkish cuckoo in the nest without abolishing the veto mechanism. Something that is even less likely to happen. EU capitals will be watching the election with bated breath.