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Treat Erdogan as Illegitimate Pariah after Opposition Imprisonment

Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Erdogan. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

On December 15, 2022, a Turkish Court sentenced Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to more than two and a half years in prison and banned him from office. This will lead not only to his removal from office, but will also sideline his likely campaign to unseat Erdogan in Turkiye’s 2023 elections.

Erdogan fears Imamoglu. Young and charismatic, he defeated Erdogan’s handpicked candidate to become Istanbul’s mayor in 2019. After Imamoglu’s initial victory, Erdogan cancelled elections citing ‘irregularities’ and demanded a do-over. Despite heightened harassment, Imamoglu won the second time by an even greater margin.

Erdogan may be too self-absorbed to see the irony of Imamoglu’s imprisonment, but it is not lost on Turks.

Not only does Imamoglu have Erdogan’s previous job, but Erdogan also returned from a politically motivated arrest and a political ban to unseat his former tormenters.

Erdogan’s grip on power today, however, is greater than any Turkish leader before him with the exception of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. That includes the coup leaders from 1960 and 1980 against whom he so often rails.

Such drastic repression is the result of Erdogan’s lack of self-confidence. His father abused him, and, in his teens and early 20s, suffered a series of rejections: he failed to win admission into Turkiye’s elite schools and never made the cut into the football elite.

Imamoglu’s 2019 shellacking of Erdogan’s proxy leaves Turkey’s mercurial dictator afraid of his own people ahead of his efforts to win a new presidential term. In Erdogan’s mind, if he cannot defeat his opponents at the ballot box, he will sidestep the process and condemn them to prison.

The United States should not simply abide by Turkey’s further descent into dictatorship and economic failure. Erdogan has become Turkey’s Hugo Chàvez. He is a populist and autocrat who claims popular credentials, falsely believes he rights historical wrongs, ruins the economy as he transforms himself and his family into billionaires, and arrests opponents. When Chàvez’s successor Nicolás Maduro sought to bypass the democratic process, the U.S. government refused to recognize his legitimacy as president and instead transferred recognition to his challenger. While the Biden administration has walked this back, perhaps instead the White House should apply the Venezuela precedent to Turkiye. The State Department should recognize Erdogan as president only until the end of his current term.

If his challengers remain in prison and unable to campaign, then the United States should stop considering Erdogan as Turkiye’s rightful and legitimate leader on election day. While with Venezuela, the Trump administration formally switched recognition to Maduro’s challenger, the fact that Imamoglu was not yet the opposition coalition’s formal candidate makes this difficult. Instead, the State Department should simply freeze relations until Turkiye can legitimately elect a leader in free and fair elections. This would mean shuttering Turkiye’s embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, much as the United States does with the Venezuelan embassy down the street, or Afghanistan’s embassy not far away.

Erdogan may be Turkiye’s leader today but, beginning next year, Washington should instead treat him as the usurper he is. It is time to side with Turkish democracy and the Turkish people rather than with a self-serving, illegitimate dictator.

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).