Ankara (GPA) – In this final installment of the Geopolitics Alert series on Turkey we seek to tie the rest of the series together to make likely predictions for Erdogan’s future.
This is the fifth and final installment of the Geopolitics Alert series on Turkey. You can find the previous installments below:
- Part One: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: A Geopolitics Alert Series
- Part Two: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: Neo-Ottoman Imperialism
- Part Three: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: The AKP Economic Boom and Bust
- Part Four: The Future of Erdogan’s Power: The Competition to Lead the Region
The Future of Turkey: How Does Erdogan End?
Most of the events described in this piece can easily be seen as victories for Erdogan from a certain perspective but is this new international prestige enough to save him at home?
The AKP’s Approval Backslide
In a country where information is controlled as much as it is in Turkey, it can be hard to get an accurate picture of domestic politics. That said, even with likely government interference in polling Erdogan’s polling numbers throughout 2020 should still cause some concern.
One poll in January showed Erdogan with an approval rating around 41% and his allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) not even passing the threshold they’ll need to remain in parliament next election. Another poll released in the same month also showed Erdogan tied nationally with the CHP Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoglu. Overall what these polls earlier this year showed was that Erdogan, who won his last election by one percent, saw his approval ratings sink by over ten percent in the past year.
At this point, Erdogan has gotten so desperate thanks to the failures of his coalition partners in the MHP that he is even alleged to be seeking out a new coalition partner party. The problem with this plan is that Turkey’s other parties can both, see how powerless and ravaged the MHP has been as a vassal of the AKP, and more importantly, all of these parties were in an anti-AKP coalition to support CHP candidate Muharrem Ince.
So far Erdogan has reached out to the nationalist opposition Iyi (Good) Party in an attempt to form a coalition. Iyi Party chair – and former MHP member – Meral Aksener immediately (and publicly) rejected the deal. When questioned why she was abandoning potential nationalist allies in favor of the opposition Aksener told reporters that “We, as the İYİ Party, have never left anybody or any group in the lurch unless they act against the interests and values of our people,” which is why she left the MHP in the first place.
The Political Shift of a Pandemic
Strangely there has been a surprising change in the last few months in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic despite official case numbers reported around 230,000 with deaths creeping up on 6,000. This makes it seem if Turkey is properly managing their outbreak which could explain some of Erdogan’s rising popularity (although the AKP still floats around an unenviable 30-35%).
The problem with these numbers is that there is some dissent making its way out of Turkey that says the government’s numbers aren’t reflective of reality. Despite assurances by Turkey’s Health Minister that there is no massive influx of patients to Turkish hospitals but this is disputed by the Turkish Medical Association which claims the count is not accurate because the government is not reporting based on WHO standards. Doctors working in hospitals in outbreak hotspots also dispute the state’s numbers based on the hundreds of coronavirus patients they’ve received recently.
It remains unclear if it is these allegedly manipulated coronavirus numbers or actions like the conversion of Hagia Sophia, recent adventures in Libya or the Mediterranean, the increasingly independent foreign policy, and the outright defiance of Erdogan in the face of the consequences for all these actions will be enough to secure the AKP a clear majority next election. Erdogan’s Islamic victim narrative has been effective for some time now but if the idea that most elections are decided on economics is true, it’s hard to see how Erdogan recovers enough support by 2024.
Still, Erdogan would prefer it that Turks don’t live in reality, which he made clear in a recent statement claiming that “Despite some troubles not originating from our country, the Turkish economy has regained the momentum it had before the pandemic,” which won’t be much help as more Turkish families feel the pinch of the devaluing lira.
Babacan and Davutoglu: The AKP’s Internal Dissent
This blustering and showmanship will likely continue in the next campaign will feature more stunts like the time Erdogan screened the New Zealand mosque shooting video at his rally as further proof of global hate for Islam but should he drop just a few more points, this next election may be his toughest yet. Even with the fake virus numbers and Erdogan promising the lira’s troubles are only temporary, there have still been mass defections from the AKP within the last year.
These defections have resulted in the formation of multiple new parties that could end up taking votes from the AKP. Last election it was the formation of the Iyi Party by defectors from AKP coalition allies previously in the MHP, and this trend seems to be continuing.
Late last year saw Erdogan’s own former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu form his own new party, called the Future Party which he says he founded to “reject a style of politics where there is a cult of the leader.” Shortly after this announcement by Davutoglu, another former AKP member and Deputy Prime Minister, Ali Babacan also announced he would also be forming a new party that he applied to register in March of this year.
Realistically, there is around a zero percent chance any of these new parties that have popped up in the last few years will win enough support to even become the main parliamentary opposition to the AKP. Luckily, this growing opposition to Erdogan doesn’t need a miracle of this magnitude if the goal is strictly to remove the AKP from power.
Davutoglu and Babacan don’t need either of their parties to win a majority, they just need to pull enough support from the AKP to increase the margin of support for any possible opposition coalition next election. It is likely one of these parties will even be a part of this coalition but with the two former-AKP members’ parties polling around one to two percent, it is unclear if they can leech enough support from Erdogan.
This was almost the case last election when every party besides the AKP and MHP put their support behind CHP Presidential candidate Muharrem Ince. While Ince himself only received around thirty percent of the vote for the Presidency, the CHP and their Kurdish allies in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) did manage to win a respectable 45 percent of seats in the current Turkish parliament. The only reason Erdogan won outright with 52 percent of the vote was due to the AKP demand that the MHP did not run a candidate even as the CHP had Ince and the HDP had Selahattin Demirtas, who had been in prison for almost two years by the time of the election.
The MHP’s Fall Leaves the AKP Alone…and Desperate
The other potential problem Erdogan may be facing next election is the fact that his coalition partners in the MHP may not have the loyal supporters to be instructed to put Erdogan over the finish line. If all of these trends continue, one of the few outs left to the AKP will be to cheat; and cheat harder than they ever have before.
The AKP has already shown off some of the possible tactics they could use to fake a victory in the last two elections. The election in 2018 saw the worst of these abuses with allegations of ballot stuffing, denying voters access to the polls, arrests of voters and campaign volunteers, and finally, calling the results for the AKP in multiple districts before poll workers had even finished delivering ballots. Erdogan was even so unwilling to lose his wealthy patronage network in Istanbul that he held a second city election in 2019 only to lose a second time.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to predict how far Erdogan will go to retain power. The Turkish president has already survived one coup attempt but the amount of contempt the intended vassal state shows to the empire and the other Western powers makes one wonder if Erdogan believes he is lucky as say, former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
The US, NATO, and EU Balancing Act
Like Castro, Erdogan may also have fans throughout the world but this in no way means he is somehow immune from the massive US intelligence apparatus. Turkey is also closely connected to the European economy and further instability in the country could lead to another European refugee and economic crisis. With European capital deathly afraid of anti-EU parties taking power, the bourgeoisie is eventually going to apply more pressure to their respective states to protect their interests.
Besides the US military’s strategic dependence on Turkey, EU powers like Germany also maintain close commercial ties with the Turks, much of which is essential such as the importation of gas and oil. The UK has looked to Turkey since the Brexit referendum so both countries can trade their respective goods deemed unfit for the EU market.
Should Erdogan push the Western powers too far, being a NATO member and a state with privileged access to the EU single market may not be enough to save him from international repercussions should the next election be so blatantly fraudulent it has to be addressed.
Turkey’s Next – and Maybe Last – Election
As it stands at the moment, it seems the best hope for a legitimate AKP victory would be to hold a snap election soon while Erdogan’s approval ratings are high enough to pull off a narrow victory. This strategy was already used in 2015 when Erdogan called a snap election for every seat in Parliament and the Presidency. This election was called at a time where the Turkish economy was doing better than today comparatively and it was easier to lie about Turkish ‘successes’ in Syria which led many to speculate the AKP was striking while the iron was hot knowing there were serious problems coming down the pipeline.
The AKP has promised this will not be the case again anytime soon and has promised will not be a snap election before the scheduled vote in 2023. This promise still hasn’t done much to inspire confidence in the Turkish electorate and over 70 percent of Turks polled reported that they expect a snap general election within the next year (as of August 2020).
If the AKP is telling the truth about not having a snap election then that means Erdogan has a huge challenge ahead in trying to hold his fragile coalition together until 2023 with his dismal approval rating and no allied parties. If enough voters are tired of the multiple failed foreign interventions, don’t approve of Ankara cozying up to Shia nations or Russia, or any of the other moves that have put Turkey under increased pressure from the West as the economy circles the drain, Erdogan has a lot to hold together until the next election, whether it is in 3 years or 3 weeks.
This all said, if Erdogan deploys all of his dirty tricks, continues to lock up thousands of more opposition voters, and continue to use his extremist bluster and policies to rally supporters but still manages to lose the next election, that is when all bets are off and the future is unprecedented and unpredictable.
After 17 years the world has seen multiple sides to Erdogan. Whether it is 2003 Erdogan who is praised in western media for his project “fusing Islam and democracy” proving the concepts are compatible or 2020 Erdogan who seeks to reshape Turkey in his image as a de-facto caliph, it is clear the man can be many things to many people but he never had any kind of deep commitment and concern for democracy (to the extent coup-addled Turkey can be called democratic). So far, from the time of vast promises of liberalization in the AKP’s early years to the most recent national elections won by the skin of the party’s teeth, Erdogan has yet to lose an election. Should this factor change in the next election, it is hard to see Erdogan – or his followers – who are now backed by a military of loyalists, the new constitution, and an executive presidency with sweeping powers to punish political rivals, take any loss quietly.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.