Turkey’s elections on Sunday were a political earthquake for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist coalition.
His party lost control of Ankara and Istanbul, where Erdogan was mayor from 1994 to 1998. Kurdish nationalists won contests in eight provinces despite a government campaign of state intimidation and persecution. Though he was not on the ballot, Sunday’s vote was a rebuke of an authoritarian leader who has consolidated his power through a dubious constitutional referendum.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Erdogan’s AK Party has challenged the results of elections in Ankara and Istanbul, asking for a recount. In a functioning democracy, this maneuver might be considered normal. In Turkey, it’s a sign of something more ominous.
That’s because of Erdogan’s lurch toward authoritarianism. His government has jailed Kurdish politicians on the flimsy pretext that they were connected to terrorist separatists. It has also purged the civil service and military after a failed coup in 2016 and closed private media companies that displeased the president.
These are some of the reasons the monitoring team from the Council of Europe found this week that Turkey’s elections did not meet “European values and principles.” The media environment leading up to the vote was heavily tilted in favor of Erdogan’s coalition.
So it’s understandable that the winning parties in Ankara and Istanbul are concerned that a recount will be used to steal an already unfair election. It’s a worry that American observers share. If these results are annulled, says Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, “It pretty much will be the end of elections in Turkey.”
Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkey’s parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also sees this as a possibility. Control of Istanbul is important for Erdogan and his coalition not only politically, he says, but also economically: It is the basis of a spoils system for party loyalists. Erdogan’s supporters are being hit hard by the country’s economic crisis, he says, and need the revenue Istanbul can provide.
Even if Erdogan does not overturn the election through a recount, he has other means at his disposal. One possibility is replacing opposition mayors with pro-government “trustees,” as he has already done in several municipalities. A recent analysis from al-Monitor estimates that 40 million Turks are now living under these handpicked executives.
All of this poses a particular challenge for President Donald Trump and his administration. Since last fall, when Erdogan skillfully leaked selective information to the media about the Saudis’ murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Erdogan has enjoyed a modest resurgence of legitimacy.
He released one American hostage, Pastor Andrew Brunson, in October. Meanwhile, the U.S. is working hard to extract guarantees from Erdogan not to harm America’s Kurdish allies in Syria as Trump scales back the U.S. military presence there, and to dissuade Turkey from completing its purchase of a Russian air defense system.
These are important goals, but there is now a more urgent priority: protecting democracy in Turkey. Erdogan has to understand that he will have a hard time getting help from the International Monetary Fund in fighting Turkey’s recession if he annuls the elections in Ankara and Istanbul.
It should also be made clear to Erdogan that his response to these electoral defeats will factor into future sanctions determinations against his government, on issues ranging from the purchase of Iranian oil to allegations that he has helped hide Venezuelan gold.
Granted, it’s unlikely that the Trump administration would make relations with Turkey even more tense by making an issue of local Turkish elections. At the same time, to ignore Erdogan’s meddling would be a grave error. He has already shown the world that he is willing to take hostages from the West, side with antagonists of the West and purchase military systems from adversaries of the West.
Erdogan has also shown that power is more important to him than democratic legitimacy. Turkey’s citizens, however, still take democracy seriously. At this crucial moment, the West should stand with them.
Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.