Sunday’s elections in Turkey are being widely seen around the world as an important test for Turkey’s longterm leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Unusually Presidential and parliamentary elections are happening in Turkey at the same time, with Erdoğan – currently Turkey’s President – looking to consolidate his position in the new office of executive President he has created for himself.
Erdoğan however also needs his AKP grouping to win a clear majority in the Turkish parliament if he is to continue to govern Turkey in the unchallengeable way to which he has become accustomed.
Turkey’s elections were in fact due to be held in November 2019. However in April Erdoğan brought them forward because he sensed that Turkey’s economic position – upon which his popularity depends – was becoming weaker.
Crash of the lira
In the event the Turkish currency the lira has crashed since the elections were called, losing 20% of its value this year and some 40% of its value since the failed coup attempt in July 2016.
The crash of the lira has in turn resulted in a sharp rise in Turkey’s inflation rate, which now stands at 12%, whilst Turkey’s Central Bank has been forced – against Erdoğan’s wishes – to raise its key rate to 18%.
Not surprisingly, as Turkey’s people reel from the bad economic news support for Erdoğan and his AKP group has tumbled, putting their prospects of success in the elections in jeopardy.
Erdoğan’s electoral prospects – still commands much support in Turkey
Most observers of the Turkish political scene still expect Erdoğan to be re-elected President. There are suggestions that he might be forced into a second round run-off by his main rival Muharrem Ince, who is reported – at least in the Western media – to have run a successful campaign.
However predictions in the West that Erdoğan may be heading for defeat need to be treated with care.
As becomes immediately obvious from even a brief perusal, articles in the Western media which either call for or appear to expect Erdoğan’s electoral humiliation or even outright defeat are very much the product of the Western political establishment’s intense dislike for him (see for example this article by Simon Tisdall in The Guardian and this article by Alanna Petroff for CNN). As such they are not reliable guides as to Erdoğan’s standing in Turkey.
Though Erdoğan is a deeply polarising figure in Turkey – as shown by the bare majority of 51.4% his proposal to convert Turkey’s Presidency into an executive Presidency won in the constitutional referendum last year – he retains strong support in Turkey’s conservative and deeply religious interior, where he retains a devoted following amongst Turkey’s conservative and religious rural voters.
In addition Erdoğan’s forceful and aggressive personality enables him to dominate his opponents, strengthening support for him, and making his opponents look weak and unconvincing by comparison.
Needless to say recent moves in the US to block the transfer of F-35 fighters to Turkey will do Erdoğan’s reputation in Turkey no harm at all.
AKP prospects hinge on success or failure of Kurdish HDP
As for the possibility that Erdoğan’s AKP group might lose its absolute majority in parliament, to an extent that is perhaps not fully recognised in the West that depends on whether the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – which strongly opposes Erdoğan – wins 10% or more of the vote.
If the HDP wins less than 10% of the vote it will not get seats in parliament under Turkey’s list-based allocation system.
If it does get 10% or more of the vote, then it will do so, in which case the AKP may struggle to win a majority.
Whilst the HDP does have a strong base of support in Turkey, the deterioration of the security situation in Turkey’s Kurdish areas may affect its ability to bring out its voters, whilst the HDP is also hampered by the fact that its leader Selahattin Demirtaş is actually in prison in far away Edirne in Turkish Thrace, forcing him to direct the HDP’s election campaign from there.
Mismanaging the economy to achieve electoral victory
Moreover the deterioration in the economy has manifested itself only relatively recently. In the first quarter Turkey’s economy actually grew 7.6% year on year.
Though that was a direct product of prime pumping as Erdoğan artificially boosted the economy in the run up to the elections, the subsequent weakening of the economy caused by the crash in the lira may have come too late to dissipate fully the political effect of the previous period of rapid growth.
Erdoğan’s prime pumping of the economy in the run up to the elections does however illustrate an important fact about him and about the way he runs Turkey.
Grandiosity at home and abroad
This is that Erdoğan’s exercise of power is whimsical, with little regard for expert opinion, and is excessively focused on himself and on his own needs, with justification being provided by objectives which he sets which are often impossibly grandiose, and which are therefore neither achievable nor in Turkey’s long term interest.
Consider for example the bizarre speech Erdoğan delivered in October 2016, in which he appeared to claim for Turkey some sort of paramount position across the whole of the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia.
The result is that apart from Russia and to a certain extent Iran, Turkey under Erdoğan now finds itself in conflict with virtually all its neighbours. Though Simon Tisdall in the Guardian writes about this from a rigidly pro-NATO and Atlanticist perspective, his description of the state of Turkey’s relations with its neighbours is by no means wholly wrong
The rift with Cairo endures. And Erdoğan has also fallen out with the Gulf monarchies over continuing links to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara’s perceived military ambitions, and its de facto alliances with Iran and Qatar. Prince Salman, the Saudi crown prince, says Turkey is part of a “triangle of evil” that includes Iran and Islamic extremists…..
…..the current election campaign has seen escalating Turkish military operations inside northern Iraq, on the Kandil mountains border with Iran, where the outlawed Kurdish group the PKK is based. Neither Tehran nor Baghdad has given permission for these dangerous armed encroachments – but, in his hubris and arrogance, Erdoğan does not care…..
The pattern repeats around the region. Erdoğan has picked a fight with an old enemy, Greece, in recent weeks, sending aircraft to buzz Greek islands after Athens refused to hand over suspects in the 2016 coup. This confrontational behaviour has brought talk of war – a not wholly improbable outcome, given the escalating dispute over energy exploration rights off still-divided Cyprus.
Similarly, past attempts to improve relations with Israel have been abandoned in favour of resumed, politically expedient enmity, justified most recently by Erdoğan’s claim to care about dead Palestinians in Gaza.
Tisdall’s account is in fact both distorted and selective. Erdoğan’s most egregious and extensive intervention – ignored by Tisdall because of Tisdall’s intense dislike of Syria’s President Assad – is in northern Syria, where Erdoğan has carved out by force a large Turkish controlled Jihadi protectorate in north west Syria.
As for what Tisdall calls Erdoğan’s “obsession” with the Kurds, no Turkish government would look on with equanimity at the US’s formation of a semi-autonomous Kurdish statelet in northern Syria led by the YPG, a Kurdish militia aligned with the PKK, a Kurdish militia engaging in an insurgency against the Turkish authorities in Turkey, which the Turkish authorities and their NATO allies consider a terrorist group.
Nonetheless the overall image conjured by Tisdall of a Turkey which under Erdoğan’s leadership has been throwing its weight around in pursuit of objectives which are both grandiose and nebulous – and which are therefore deeply alarming to Turkey’s neighbours – is not a wholly wrong one.
The most dangerous flashpoint currently is the eastern Mediterranean, an area where Erdoğan in his October 2016 speech laid claim to various Greek islands, and where his military has recently been involved in a succession of dangerous confrontations between the Greek military, with none of the big external powers (eg. the US, Russia and the EU) so far acting to restrain him.
Putin and Erdoğan: not fellow dictators but political opposites
Whenever the Western media brings up the subject of Erdoğan a comparison with Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is always made.
In reality, though the two men nowadays work closely together, the differences between them are far greater than the similarities, with Erdoğan approximating far more closely to the Western cartoon image of “Putin” than the real Vladimir Putin does.
I have described some of these differences in the past, but I will do so again because doing so is actually a good way of understanding the difficulties Erdoğan to those who must deal with him
Erdogan is someone who far more closely resembles the Western image of Putin than Putin himself does.
Where claims that Putin is corrupt and a billionaire are wholly unsubstantiated and almost certainly untrue, that Erdogan is a billionaire is an acknowledged fact, as is the involvement of some members of his family in shady business dealings.
Contrary to his Western image Putin’s manner and language is polite and restrained. Erdogan by contrast is often aggressive and confrontational.
Putin is highly calculating and always consults his chief advisers before making a decision.
Erdogan is impulsive and arbitrary, and is far more likely than Putin to make decisions on the hoof.
Unlike Putin, who puts up with everything, Erdogan is a notoriously prickly character who reacts badly to criticism.
He has jailed opposition activists and journalists and cracked down on the media in ways that Putin never has.
Not surprisingly, the result of this sharp difference in style is that the two men conduct political, economic and foreign policy completely differently.
In Russia Putin has been the great institution builder, carefully observing the constitution, strengthening the country’s legal system, and exercising power through greatly expanded and strengthened institutions such as the Security Council and the State Council.
In Turkey Erdoğan not only largely runs things all by himself, but he has changed the constitution to suit his own needs, treats the law as an instrument to enforce what he decides, and even meddles in the interest rate setting decisions of the Central Bank.
Where Putin’s runs a tight ship economically, keeping the budget in balance, building up reserves and savings, making sure Russia runs a trade surplus with the rest of the world, and leaving operational decisions to the experts in the Central Bank and the ministries, Erdoğan regularly goes for broke, running the Turkish economy with large deficits – both in the budget and in the country’s external trade – whilst making all the important decisions himself.
Unsurprisingly, where Putin seeks macroeconomic stability Erdoğan prioritises growth at all costs.
As I said in a recent article for RussiaFeed, in Putin’s case
……the result is a roughly balanced budget, which is now in surplus, large reserves, growing savings, a trade surplus, a balance of payments surplus, falling inflation, and increasing resiliency in the face of external shocks.
Whereas in Erdoğan’s case the result is a seriously unbalanced economy constantly susceptible to overheating and very vulnerable to external shocks, with very high and before long probably unsustainable debt levels, and with rising inflation and interest rates.
The contrast in foreign policy is even starker, with Putin now all but universally recognised as the supreme diplomat of the age, whereas Erdoğan as Tisdall says is at odds with almost everyone he regularly interacts with with the notable exception of Putin himself.
Prospects if Erdoğan wins
If, as is still overwhelmingly likely, Erdoğan is re-elected President on Sunday and manages to consolidate his position as Turkey’s leader, these disturbing trends will likely continue and will get worse.
The imbalances in Turkey’s economy will become more acute – with the threat of an actual crisis becoming ever more real – whilst political polarisation within Turkey will intensify, and political conflicts will grow, with Erdoğan’s personality becoming the issue around which those conflicts will increasingly crystallise. Erdoğan himself meanwhile, from of a mix of both political and psychological reasons, will continue to pursue destabilising policies, both externally and internally, with the growing risk externally that they may end in a disastrous clash.
Relations with the West meanwhile will continue to deteriorate, with Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO – until recently hardly a realistic possibility – gradually becoming a real possibility, with Erdoğan, less out of genuine conviction and more because he will have left himself no choice, drifting increasingly closer to Russia and China.
All of this however will always be vulnerable to the sort of sudden dizzying reversals and “diplomatic revolutions” of which Erdoğan has shown himself repeatedly capable, and which makes him – for the Russians and for everyone else – such an unstable and unreliable partner.
Prospects if Erdoğan loses
In the event of the less likely alternative of Erdoğan either failing to win the Presidency or becoming so politically weakened because of a run-off or a defeat in the parliamentary elections that his political grip on Turkey is weakened, the prospect may even be worse.
Erdoğan’s political base would continue to be mobilised and angry, and would certainly resist any attempts by Turkey’s old secular establishment to reverse the changes he has made in his long years of power
The fall in 1960 of Adnan Menderes – Turkey’s right wing Islamist leader of the 1950s of whom Erdoğan is the political heir – provides a warning of what might happen. It set in train a long period in Turkey of instability, economic crisis, political violence and coups, as Turkey’s secular establishment struggled to contain the anger of Menderes’s large popular base, which remained unreconciled to his fall. By the late 1970s Turkey appeared to be on the brink of civil war, which only an exceptionally brutal military crackdown in 1980 after a military coup managed at the last moment to prevent.
Illustrating how tense conditions were in Turkey during this period – even during times of seeming calm – are the apparently well founded suspicions that Turgut Özal – a former supporter of Menderes who became successively Turkey’s Prime Minister and President in the 1980s and 1990s – was murdered whilst in office by poison administered to him by members of Turkey’s Deep State as part of what is sometimes referred to as Turkey’s covert coup of 1993 (a subsequent autopsy did indeed find exceptionally high levels of DDT in Özal’s body, suggesting that the rumours of his murder may be true).
It took the victory of Erdoğan’s AKP in Turkey’s 2002 parliamentary elections to bring this unhappy period in Turkey’s history to an end.
Uncertain times both for Turkey and its neighbours
Difficult and unstable a personality though Erdoğan undoubtedly is, his critics both inside and outside Turkey need to face up to the fact that given existing conditions in Turkey he may be the only person with the charisma and authority to hold Turkey politically together. If so then his fall may be more dangerous to the future of democracy and stability in Turkey than his survival.
One way or the other, whether Erdoğan on Sunday wins or loses, the situation in Turkey is uncertain and the future unclear.