For the second time in a row, Turkish voters have rebuked President Recep Tayyir Erdogan’s handpicked candidate for the mayoralty of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest and wealthiest city. The secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, swamped Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Binali Yildirim in an election that many see as a report card on the President’s 17 years of power.
So what does the outcome of the election mean for the future of Turkey, and in particular, its powerful president? For starters, an internal political realignment, but also maybe a dangerous foreign policy adventure.
Erdogan and his Party have been weakened politically and financially by the loss of Istanbul, even though the President did his best to steer clear of the campaign over the past several weeks. Since it was Erdogan that pressured the Supreme Election Council into annulling the results of the March 31 vote, whether he likes it or not, he owns the outcome.
His opponents in the AKP are already smelling blood. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Dovutoglu, who Erdogan sidelined in 2016, has begun criticizing the President’s inner circle, including Berat Albayrak, his son-in-law and current Finance Minister. There are rumors that Dovutoglu and former deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan are considering forming a new party on the right.
But a confrontation over Cyprus—and therefore with Greece—is by no means out of the question. This past May, Turkey announced that it was sending a ship to explore for natural gas in the sea off Cyprus, waters that are clearly within the island’s economic exploitation zone.
Turkey has just finished large-scale naval exercises—code name “Sea Wolf”— in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and, according to Baboulias, Turkish warplanes have been violating Greek airspace.
Any friction with Cyprus is friction with Greece, and there is a distinct possibility that two NATO members could find themselves in a face off. Erdogan likes to create tensions and then negotiate from strength, a penchant he shares with US President Donald Trump. While it seems unlikely that it will come to that, in this case Turkish domestic considerations could play a role.
The man may be down but he is hardly beaten. There are turbulent times ahead for Turkey.