The West may have to learn how to live with Erdoğan

Nathalie Tosi is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, Europe̵7;s Future Fellow at the IWM, Vienna, and part-time professor at the European University Institute. His latest book, “A Green and Global Europe,” is out with politics.

The 89 percent voter turnout in a country of some 90 million is an election result that puts most liberal democracies to shame.

Of course, Türkiye is not a liberal democracy. Violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, an abysmal rule of law and an eroded separation of powers leave no room for doubt.

Yet, paradoxically, this is what makes Turkey’s first election round so remarkable: in a political system where rights and checks and balances have been dismantled, elections cannot be fair. Despite this, no candidate received an absolute majority, leading Turkey to a second round of voting on 28 May.

But one can hardly imagine a second round of elections in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt. Turkey’s political system is not democratic, but Turkish society has demonstrated a democratic flexibility to worldwide acclaim. And regardless of the outcome of the second round, it warrants reflection.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now has the wind, after securing a 49.5 percent stake in the first round of Turkey’s presidential race. And if not all, 5 percent of the first-round nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan’s votes end up with the current leader – depending on deals made over the next two weeks – it would be a clear win against opposition candidate Kemal Kilikdaroglu.

It is true that these results are far below the expectations of the opposition. While pollsters had previously underestimated Erdogan’s staying power, many thought this time would be different. Runaway inflation, a stagnant economy, and a spectacularly mismanaged earthquake that killed 50,000 were strong reasons to expect a turning point. Or else. Instead, Turkey’s first round points to a geographically divided country, rising nationalism, deep-seated culture wars and the enduring appeal of populist authoritarianism.

as a political smartly hintedHowever, Erdogan’s re-election would be a convenient outcome for Europe. The EU will be able to talk values, slamming Turkish authoritarianism – over which it has no influence – while carrying on a purely transactional relationship with a cynically transactional leader.

This is symbolized by the continuation of the 2016 migration deal. And, to an extent, Turkey’s fence-sitting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has yielded some benefits – such as the grain deal. But there is no guarantee that the former will continue given Turkish society’s growing impatience towards refugees – which Erdoğan will also have to answer for – which is certain that Kılıçdaroğlu will shy away from such a transactional relationship. And while on the one hand he will bring Turkey’s democracy back on track, on the other hand, he will finally knock on the door of the European Union.

A victory for the opposition would, therefore, force the EU to look in the mirror, exposing its many contradictions. And that reflection isn’t pretty as far as Turkey is concerned.

Does this mean that the EU can now sit back, relax and assume that everything will remain as it is? No.

Turkey’s elections speak to the democratic resilience of a society that deserves attention and support. Even as Erdoğan is about to enter his third decade in power, it proves that he and Turkey are not synonymous.

For Europe, this means avoiding the double whammy of finger-wagging critiques of Turkish democracy – which, in the midst of an increasingly nationalistic society, has a boomerang effect. Instead, it needs to search for alternative quiet ways to engage with Turkish society beyond its leader. Staying in an exclusively transactional relationship with Turkey through Erdogan does not do justice to the country, its dynamism or its capacity for change.

That said, Turkey’s elections also tell us something about authoritarian populism, electoral autocracy, and the resilience of democratic and authoritarian countries that don’t see eye to eye with Europe and the West.

The EU needs to learn to live with these countries, showing what it can and cannot do.

And what it cannot do is hope to change the situation through declarative diplomacy, preaching and persuasion. Nowhere is this more evident than in failed attempts to woo fence-sitting countries in Africa, East Asia and Latin America over the Ukraine war, by talking up rules-based order, democracy and anti-colonialism.

This does not mean that Europe should give up on these arguments, or turn its back on arguments that it does not agree with, enabling Russia to play the “West versus Rest” game.

Instead, Europe needs to find ways to seek partnerships in which it provides value to its interlocutors, while expecting something equally tangible in return. And it should do so not pragmatically but transactionally, as it has so far done with Erdogan’s Turkey.

It is one thing to have an honest dialogue where Europe determines what it needs and what it can offer, both within the framework of rights and the law. But it is entirely different to preach values ​​while chasing transactions, hoping that political change within those countries will never reveal the contradictions of the West.