Would Erdogan survive a snap election in Turkey?

President Erdogan may already be on borrowed time as Turkey’s worst economic crisis in 20 years feeds growing public discontent towards his AK Party government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Getty Images)

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In the 17 years since Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to power in Turkey, first as prime minister in 2003 and then as president in 2014, he has been leading a Turkish re-awakening. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have had to overcome a number of challenges and barriers within Turkey, including attempts to close the party down in 2007, widespread anti-government protests in 2013, corruption scandals in 2015, and a military coup attempt in 2016, not to mention a series of domestic and international terrorist attacks.

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Erdogan has achieved in Turkey what leaders before him failed to achieve without being brought down by the country’s staunchly secular, Kemalist military commanders. He has built a popular and democratically elected government that has brought a degree of relative prosperity to his people, modernised state infrastructure, redefined mainstream socio-political discourse, and consolidated Turkey’s position as a regional power to be reckoned with. What’s more is that he achieved all of this by taking an inclusive, evolutionary step-by-step approach instead of undertaking dangerous revolutionary measures.

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As he has grown in power, he has become more and more outspoken. His background as a political Islamist was well-known since his days as a student activist in the National Vision movement, set up by his mentor Necmettin Erbakan, who himself was ousted by the army in 1997. But when creating the AK Party while serving a prison sentence for reading a controversial poem in parliament that same year, he remodelled himself as a leader dedicated to secularism, economic stability and one in favour of Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

In his first few years in power, despite facing a number of obstacles at home, Erdogan did very little to rock the boat internationally. He supported the 2004 Annan Plan to unite Cyprus and open the doors for Turkey to join the EU. He also spent that time following through with legal reforms that the EU placed as preconditions for Turkey’s membership. This gradual democratisation of Turkey benefitted his conservative support base, who had suffered greatly due to curbs on open displays of religious observance in state institutions. It also set Turkey on a positive road to ending its diplomatic isolation, which attracted foreign investors to help rejuvenate the stagnant Turkish economy and ultimately lead to Erdogan’s government paying off the state’s debt to the IMF in 2013.

However, around the year 2009, Erdogan started showing his true colours. The first sign was his famous “One Minute” rant at Israeli president Shimon Peres at the Davos conference in January of that year. In 2010, IHH, a humanitarian organisation with close ties to the Turkish government, sent the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla to break Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza. The flotilla came under attack by Israeli commandos in international waters, and 10 activists on the ship were killed, irking heavy condemnations from Erdogan.

As Erdogan grew bolder, he came up against stronger resistance from elements within the state that were determined to change his behaviour, starting with a 2012 bid by members of the judiciary to bring down his trusted head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan. Having survived that, he was next faced with potentially crippling protests in 2013, just as his government finished paying off the IMF loan. Again, he survived, but around that time other processes started to come into play.

Currency and inflation crisis

Since mid-2013, the Turkish lira currency has been slipping, albeit gradually. On the day Turkey made its last payment to the IMF on 14 May 2013, the US dollar was valued at 1.8 Turkish liras. Today, the rate is verging on 7 liras to the dollar. The decline in the value of the Turkish lira, combined with high inflation rates, has partly been due to economic mismanagement in Turkey. It has also partly been due to external factors that have made Turkey a risky bet for investors. Political instability born out of the nuclear break-up between Erdogan’s loyalists and supporters of US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen have been a huge put-off, as has Turkey’s involvement in cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq. Recent tensions with Greece and Cyprus, and by extension the EU, have also contributed to Turkey’s economic decline.

Yet Erdogan continues to stand strong. By the time the military commanders loyal to the Gulenist network, and the pro-Western status quo they served to protect, got round to launching a coup attempt in July 2016, the Turkish lira had already started tumbling. But at that point the effects of the economic downturn were still barely noticeable. In previous military coups in Turkey, the army faced little to no resistance from the public, mainly because Turkey was already in such dire economic circumstances that the people were generally indifferent to their governments. But in 2016, the AK Party’s achievements were still fresh in people’s minds. Their government may not have been perfect, but unlike in previous coups, this time people had something to lose by remaining dormant. So, they came out in their masses to defend the government, and Erdogan survived once again.

The timing of the coup attempt was a major miscalculation on the part of the putschists, and Erdogan was not going to waste the opportunity to punish them for their mistake. The ensuing purge of state employees with suspected links to the Gulenist network may have been harsh, but in Erdogan’s eyes, absolutely necessary to prevent his enemies from regrouping. The prolonged state of emergency in Turkey afterwards, as well as the abuses of democratic norms that occurred thereafter, may have put Turkey on a collision course with its Western allies and further disrupted the recovery of the Turkish economy, but these heavy-handed tactics are probably the reason why Erdogan is still in power today.

Four years on from the coup attempt, Erdogan’s popularity has waned drastically. This is because the effects of Turkey’s economic problems are starting to show in everyday life among everyday people. Cash injections from Qatar have only done so much to delay the collapse of the Turkish economy, and Erdogan’s young and inexperienced son-in-law Berat Albayrak has struggled to make his mark as a finance minister during the most testing time for Turkey since it defaulted in 2001. Unemployment is on the rise, food and medicine is becoming increasingly unaffordable, and frustration is growing towards the evermore nepotic inner-circle of the AK Party. Perhaps if what was attempted in 2016 was attempted now, Erdogan wouldn’t find the same support from his people that he found back then. The difference now is, there isn’t a single domestic force strong enough to even attempt to overthrow the president undemocratically, especially as Erdogan now commands strong loyalty from within the Turkish army.

Out-dated policies

Erdogan’s approval ratings are seemingly at an all-time low, and as his older, much more rural supporters continue to be replaced by younger, more educated, city-bred voters who have not been alive long enough to remember what Turkey was like before the AK Party, Erdogan and his supporters will need to work on new campaign narratives if they want to remain relevant to Turkish society. One would have thought that losing the three biggest cities— Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara — to the opposition in local elections in 2019 would have been enough of a wake-up call.

So far, the AK Party has been able to boost its credentials through its control of mainstream media in Turkey, where opposition voices struggle to find a platform. Pro-government news outlets in Turkey, a group of which are owned by the family of Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, have long been in the habit of downplaying Turkey’s economic troubles, or deflecting blame for the crisis on far-fetched foreign conspiracies. The public is also being drugged with popular TV series such as “Ertugrul: Resurrection” and “Payitaht: Abdulhamid”, which many believe are tools used to deliver subliminal political messages to an unsuspecting audience. Back-to-back elections and referendums in recent years have also kept voter fervour alive, rarely giving the public a chance to rest and actually digest the realities around them. And now, a year into what was supposed to be a four-year period of no elections, there is once again talk of an early presidential election being called sometime soon.

This tactic was used in 2018 when Erdogan agreed to a call from his nationalist political ally Devlet Bahceli to hold a snap election in order to usher in an executive presidential system ahead of schedule. The elections caught the opposition off-guard and Erdogan cruised to an easy victory in the first round of voting. These elections were also held just before a major price hike across the country. Had the elections taken place after the price hikes, not only would people have been less inclined to vote for the AK Party, but the opposition would have had more time to prepare a credible campaign. Today in 2020, we see a very similar situation. The AK Party is very much aware that public opinion is turning against them, but there is hope that an early election for which they are prepared will increase the likelihood of them prolonging their grip on power. Holding the next presidential election on time would only give the opposition a chance to prepare, while further economic decline will only push more people away from the AK Party. That being said, there is no guarantee that Erdogan would win even if an election was held today, and the mere suggestion of an early election is a sign that even the Turkish government doesn’t foresee any quick solution to the country’s economic problems.

‘Siege mentality’

There is today prevalent in Turkish society what one could call a “siege mentality” — the feeling that the country is surrounded by enemies that can only be overcome through unity and uniformity behind a strong leader. If this state of mind wasn’t created by pro-government media outlets in Turkey, it has certainly been exploited by them. This explains Erdogan’s increasingly common, not-so-diplomatic, public outbursts about his Western counterparts. These outbursts intend on irking reactions that reinforce the illusion of a siege. They play into Erdogan’s lap by confirming fears that Turkey is indeed under attack and Erdogan is the only man capable of defending the country. It also makes it easy to make moves as simple as turning the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque come across like a Turkish reconquest of Istanbul. This latest move has restored morale in Turkey at a time it was needed most, and in turn scored some vital voter points for the AK Party — at least for the time being.

The Hagia Sophia card has been up the AK Party sleeve for a long time, and the fact that it was played now when Erdogan’s popularity is rock bottom may be an indication that Turks may be heading to the ballot box soon. Erdogan is likely to keep pulling rabbits out of his hat like this to keep the applause for his show going, but he is fast running out of rabbits and his audience are growing tired of seeing the same trick over and over again. While the Hagia Sophia move was perhaps enough to appease Turkey’s ultra-nationalists, a growing proportion of disgruntled citizens are pointing at the country’s free-falling economy, increasingly apparent corruption, intellectual brain-drain and alarming spike in cases of femicide.

Nevertheless, Erdogan is still Turkey’s most popular politician, but while destroying all his political rivals, he has also isolated himself from many who were once his allies and who in his earlier years as leader would have helped him balance out his more impulsive, reactionary tendencies. He may have cleansed his circle of those who seek to undermine him, but he has also lost many who would have given him the insightful and constructive criticism he needs to keep performing at his best. The rise of cronyism in the AK Party since the purge of the Gulenists means that Erdogan now finds himself increasingly surrounded by “yes men”, each competing for his favour for the sake of their own personal interests, not the interests of the nation. They have alienated Erdogan from the people, and the people from Erdogan, and while Erdogan may be reassured by their loyalty, he may ultimately find himself betrayed by their lack of competence.

As things stand, if there is a snap election, an Erdogan victory won’t be because of the amazing job that the AK Party is doing, but because of the failure of an unprepared opposition to strike while the iron is hot. Should he succeed in securing another term, unless the AK Party starts coming out with fresh, results-orientated ideas aimed at saving the economy and fixing the country’s other deep-rooted problems, there is no guarantee that Erdogan will be able to complete that term. If public discontent continues to grow, the army wouldn’t even need to get involved to change the government. Public riots over unemployment and high inflation would be enough to force a resignation. In such an event, Erdogan should expect those around him who are leeching off his power and are only concerned about their own interests to be the first to abandon him.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
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All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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