President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s struggle to cling to power in a tight election in Turkey is the latest twist in a tale of global strongmen who are defining Joe Biden’s presidency.
Erdogan’s fate will have major implications not just for his country’s democracy, which he has worked to weaken, but for US foreign policy too. Although Turkey is a NATO ally, Erdogan has often frustrated Washington – for instance, by cozying up to Russia and suggesting a rapprochement with Syria.
Turkey’s Supreme Election Council announced on Monday that Erdogan will face a runoff on May 28 after no candidate managed to surpass 50% of the vote.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu vowed to undertake “any struggle necessary” to secure rights, law and justice for Turks. “Our people should be confident that we will definitely win, and we will bring democracy to this country,” he said. He also accused authorities of preventing the counting of ballots with the highest percentage of the opposition vote. Erdogan had earlier said he believed final vote counts would show him above 50%, enough to avoid a potentially risky runoff.
Erdogan has perplexed successive US presidents. In recent times, his civility toward fellow strongman Russian President Vladimir Putin has vexed the US as it seeks to save Ukraine’s sovereignty following Moscow’s unprovoked invasion more than a year ago.
Biden’s entire presidency has unfolded in the shadow of autocrats, assaults on democracy and aspiring strongman leaders – abroad, and most remarkably at home.
His eventual White House legacy will be dominated by his showdown with Putin and reinvigoration of the trans-Atlantic alliance to support democracy in Ukraine with a multibillion-dollar pipeline of aid and weapons.
America’s most important foreign policy challenge – the rise of a stronger, more nationalistic China – is meanwhile being exacerbated by the most aggressive leader in Beijing in decades, President Xi Jinping, who is offering the world an alternative political model to Western democracy and increasingly challenging US global interests. In recent months, Biden has also been estranged from a longtime sparring partner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over now-paused attempts to overhaul the judiciary, which some US experts say will allow his hard-right government to curtail democracy.
Biden confronts a threat from democracy at home
But none of those leaders pose an existential threat to US democracy. For the first time in generations, that danger comes from within.
A CNN town hall event in New Hampshire last week showed former President Donald Trump – the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – deeply contemptuous of US democracy with his fresh and false claims that he won reelection in 2020 and his downplaying of what really happened when his supporters attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Trump has signaled that he’d return US diplomacy to the days when he relished sitting down with strongman leaders in transactional meetings featuring the likes of Putin, Xi and North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. In New Hampshire, for instance, he refused to say whether he wanted democratic Ukraine or Russia to win the war. At his political rallies, meanwhile, Trump has promised his followers he’d demolish institutions of governance and an independent justice system that is seeking to hold him to account in multiple criminal investigations.
And last week, amid a cresting border crisis, he vowed to launch the biggest mass deportations of migrants in US history. Given the scale of support Trump enjoys in the GOP primary race and through multiple interviews with voters, it’s clear that his wannabe-autocrat act strikes a chord among his supporters, who have long disdained Washington institutions that they believe condescend to them.
Biden has frequently said that Trump’s equivocation over extremism after a deadly White supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was what convinced him to run for office again. Such a message was at the center of the Democratic midterm campaign last year. And it’s already a foundation of Biden’s reelection bid.
The theme was on his mind Saturday in a commencement address to Howard University graduates in Washington, which also served as a preview of his message to Black voters – a critical Democratic constituency that will be relied on for turnout in November 2024.
“It is still a battle for the soul of the nation,” the president said, calling for a new effort to counter an assault on US elections and the right to vote and lashing out at the “dagger at the throat of democracy” that was leveled by Trump in 2020 and early 2021.
The backdrop of many of Biden’s domestic initiatives is an attempt to prove to some voters attracted by Trump’s strongman rhetoric and denigration of government that democracy can still deliver. That’s why he enacted a bipartisan infrastructure law that is sending billions of dollars to projects countrywide. The White House argues that the measure triggered an industrial rebound – including in many areas, like the Midwest, where Trump’s support has run strong.
Biden’s global quest to save democracy
Biden has repeatedly invoked an international struggle to preserve democracy to complement the one he says he is waging at home. At a summit of democracies that he convened at the White House in March, he cited his presidency and the massive Western effort to save Ukraine as a sign of a pivot in history away from autocratic rule as well as signs of a democratic revival in parts of Asia and Africa.
“Thanks to the commitment of leaders gathered today and the persistence of people in every region of the world demanding their rights be respected and their voices be heard, we’re seeing real indicators that we’re turning the tide here,” Biden said.
A defeat for Erdogan would remove a leader who has worked for two decades to weaken the influence of democratic institutions in Turkey, such as the courts, the press and key economic power bases. In a new term, however, he’d likely further curtail freedoms while continuing to frustrate Western leaders.
In recent months, for instance, Erdogan blocked the entry into NATO of Sweden and Finland after their leaders decided to join the alliance following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He demanded a crackdown on Kurdish exiles in the two Nordic countries whom he considers terrorists. He eventually lifted his veto on Finland but is still blocking the accession of Sweden. The move was a classic example of how Erdogan advances his own – and nominally Turkey’s – interests, regardless of existing alliance structures and why he has long been a headache for the West.
Ahead of the election, Kilicdaroglu was talking in very similar terms about the need to preserve democracy as Biden does in the US. The echo in their rhetoric was yet another sign of how things have changed – in that America, the longtime guardian of democracies abroad, is now facing some of the same threats to the rule of law at home.
Biden offered a quixotic comment about Turkey’s election after encountering a pool of reporters Sunday during a bike ride in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, saying, “I hope whoever wins, wins. There’s enough problems in that part of the world.”
Biden’s quest to preserve democracy abroad has revived a classic dilemma that has long complicated American foreign policy – what to do when the country’s democratic values and strategic interests collide.
This balancing act was crystallized most dramatically in recent years with the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and US resident, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Amid a storm of global criticism, Trump refused to cut off ties with Saudi strongman and de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, reasoning that the US and the kingdom had lucrative commercial links – including billions of dollars in weapons sales.
Biden, on the 2020 campaign trail, demanded a rethink of the US relationship with Saudi Arabia but, as president, took a trip there and fist-bumped the crown prince last year at a time when the US was calling on the kingdom to pump more oil to alleviate high gasoline prices that were hurting Democrats.
A similar dilemma could play out on a smaller scale in another kingdom – Thailand, after an election on Sunday that saw progressive, democratic parties campaign to restore full democracy after years of military-backed rule and leaders heavily swayed by the country’s powerful generals. Any attempt by the conservative establishment to suppress a defeat would raise pressure on the US to speak out in favor of democratic reform. But doing so would risk pushing Thailand – a longtime US ally that was especially critical to Washington during the Vietnam War – further toward China in a move that would weaken US influence in Southeast Asia at a time of critical tensions.
Such calculations underscore that supporting democracy – while embedded in America’s DNA – is often complicated when wider geopolitics is involved. And they help explain why the US cannot simply ignore or reject a regional strongman like Erdogan, even if he emerges as the winner from a tainted election.
This story has been updated with additional developments.