For Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, maintaining a grip on power is becoming increasingly difficult after an incessant 18-year-long reign. Erdoğan owed his popularity, largely, to the delivery of good governance, robust services, and strong economic growth in the first decade of his tenure, yet these early successes have undergone a stark, albeit gradual, reversal. Since 2017, the value of the Turkish lira against the US dollar has plummeted from .29 to .13 and nearly one in four young people are now unemployed. This economic downturn has come at a political cost, as was made evident during the 2019 local elections when Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost five of Turkey’s six largest cities, representing over 59 percent of the country’s GDP and 45 percent of its population.
Recently the coronavirus pandemic has exerted immense pressure on the already fragile Turkish economy, spelling catastrophe for Erdoğan. Even based on the most optimistic forecasts that Turkey will only experience a single wave of rapid infection, the labor market is expected to shrink to 26.529 million by the end of the year, meaning that nearly 2.2 million people have lost their jobs since 2018. In addition to shutting down businesses, the crisis has inflicted a major blow to Turkey’s tourism industry, a sector that single-handedly lost nearly 23 billion dollar revenue in 2020 comparing with 2019. Erdoğan’s biggest trump card, the ballot box, may no longer work to his advantage as the already heavily indebted economy spirals further out of control.
It is expected that Erdoğan would do everything in his power to remain in office if faced with an electoral defeat, whether by instrumentalizing societal and political polarization or by applying more forceful tactics. Yet the conditions that would facilitate his continued grip on power are rapidly deteriorating. With this in mind, it should still be recognized that Turkey exhibited severe democratic deficiencies even before Erdoğan refined the parameters of his own brand of authoritarianism. Erdoğan’s departure would not necessarily mean a prompt transition to democracy for Turkey, unless the opposition makes deliberate efforts aimed at overcoming the challenges facing the country’s democratic consolidation.
Changing Political Parameters in Turkish Politics
Erdoğan has a strong will to remain in power and has signaled that he can and will deploy certain political strategies intended to divide the opposition and energize his political base as he had done several times in the past. Nonetheless, the current political context in Turkey changed in two ways and made such option quite difficult. First, public support for the AKP will continue to dwindle so long as a solution to the intense economic downturn remains elusive. Recent polls conducted by Konda, one of Turkey’s most credible polling firms, indicate that support for the AKP has declined to 25 percent. Second, there are now new, credible, and able challengers to Erdoğan’s leadership. Despite coopting like-minded, right-wing rival party leaders such as Numan Kurtulmuş and Süleyman Soylu to the ranks of his own party, Erdoğan was unable to prevent his former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan, from forming their own parties that could eat into his electoral base.
Erdoğan’s biggest trump card, the ballot box, may no longer work to his advantage as the already heavily indebted economy spirals further out of control.
Similarly, Erdoğan has been unsuccessful in halting the popular appeal of superstars within the opposition, namely the CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, respectively Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş. İmamoğlu rose to national stardom immediately upon the night of his initial mayoral election victory in 2019 as a result of his efforts to make sure that all votes were counted correctly. After contesting the results, the AKP’s high-profile mayoral candidate and former prime minister Binali Yıldırım was subsequently defeated in the rerun election by an embarrassingly higher margin of 9.2 percent. In Ankara, Mansur Yavaş is steadily increasing his popularity and stature as a nation-wide politician through his efficient administration and active approach to assisting the public during the COVID-19 crisis. A poll on the performance of these political figures conducted by Metropol indicated that Yavaş is securing more support than Erdoğan over his response to COVID-19, scoring a public approval rating of 8.18 out of 10 compared to Erdoğan’s 6.65. These two politicians have gone national and exhibit the potential to assuage the bitter polarization that Erdoğan has been skillfully exploiting for electoral gains.
Considering these changing parameters, for the first time in twenty years the opposition is eager for an upcoming elections and is even calling for an early election. A large spectrum of the opposition is reallistically anticipating a win in the elections that could put an end to the Erdoğan era and revert Turkey back to democracy.
The Challenges of a Post-Erdoğan Scenario
A post-Erdoğan Turkey would not automatically spell democracy for Turkey. A brief look at the unhealthy and rapidly fluctuating state of Turkish democracy before Erdoğan makes this abundantly clear. Unless the country’s democratic deficits are addressed with unprecedented fervor, the systematic problems that predated—and were exacerbated by—Erdoğan will continue to haunt the country. Turkish democracy has long faced challenges in protecting individual liberties and minority rights vis-à-vis the majority and the state, it is the victim of unsettled identity crises exhibited in debates over secularism and the Kurdish question, and it has consistently struggled to overcome the state’s tutelary dominance over democratic politics. All these problems constitute the core of different political groups’ forms of resistance to pluralism, both on the left and the right. This dynamic is also manifested in the political elites’ inability to embrace one another as legitimate actors and rivals to compete as opposed to enemies that need to be rooted out and eradicated. Turkish elites envision a Turkey that is run solely by their own ideological group rather than by all groups under an equitable and democratic give-and-take, and it is the elites, at the center of societal polarization, who drive the masses, not the other way around. Both secular and conservative factions lack faith in each other’s legitimacy and ability to rule. On one side of the coin, conservatives are convinced that they are the only group with the right to run the country, as secularists are not “native and national” (yerli ve milli) enough to be trustworthy. On the flipside, secularists conclude that they are the one true owner and inheritor of the republic founded by Kemal Atatürk, whereas the conservatives are petulant and reactionary. Furthermore, an unfortunate commonality between these rival political groups is their intransigence towards the political rights of Turkey’s Kurdish populations.
A post-Erdoğan Turkey would not automatically spell democracy for Turkey.
Labeled a “strong state” by some scholars, the omnipotent system of Turkey’s governance goes hand in hand with its resistance to pluralism. This “strong state” tradition enables those in power to have the final say in all-encompassing matters from the redistribution of wealth to the promotion/suppression of certain lifestyles. This explains the intensity and magnitude of the struggle between secularists and conservatives to determine who will hold the levers of power within the state. Both secularists and conservatives intend to keep their bureaucratic posts and to distribute lucrative governmental contacts exclusively to their constituents, while simultaneously extending government regulations at the expense of individual liberties. The ban on the headscarf in public buildings, and the restrictions on the sale and advertisement of alcoholic beverages are just a few examples of the state’s power to dictate lifestyles.
The acme of this system of control was manifested in the presidential system that was initiated and subsequently headed by Erdoğan in 2017. Providing the executive branch of the government with nearly unlimited power, the enactment of the Turkish presidential system was one of the most decisive factors behind Freedom House’s downgrading of Turkey’s democratic ranking from “partly free” to “not free” in 2018. Should there be a successor to Erdoğan, s/he would certainly find these powers of the presidency tempting, if not convenient. Thus, the first challenge of a post-Erdoğan era would be to either establish checks on the strong executive or to return to a parliamentary system. The current opposition has expressed its preference for the latter, despite its pre-Erdoğan imperfections.
The prospects for Turkish democracy depend on the willingness and competence of post-Erdoğan actors to establish checks and balances, expand and protect individual rights, and to set a free and fair playing field that eases hostilities among elites. If opposition parties were to follow through on their preference to reverse the presidential system into a reformed and improved parliamentary system, this would be a good first step towards breaking the cycle. Yet even if this were to happen, there are still no substantial signs of these parties’ willingness/ability to limit the power of the state to trample individual rights and assault pluralism. Worryingly, there is actually a nostalgia for the “old Turkey,” which stands in direct opposition to Erdoğan’s “new Turkey.” Such a trend refuses to reconcile the issues faced by Turkey before Erdoğan, and instead emphasizes current injustices and authoritarian practices in the country while turning a blind eye to the past.
The Way Forward: An Elite Pact for Pluralist Democracy
The best case scenario for Turkish democracy is only possible through the acknowledgement and resolution of Turkey’s systemic and political deficits that were present before Erdoğan. A nostalgia for “old Turkey” misses the point in that the fundamental flaws in Turkey’s systems of governance were in fact the catalyst for Erdoğan and the AKP’s rise to prominence through free and fair elections. Along these lines, a return to the status quo ante would only bring about the return of a faulty approach that is vulnerable to new deviations of anti-democratic practices that risk the production of new authoritarian leaders. While having control over the all-powerful instruments of the state may be tempting for both secularists and conservatives, all parties need to realize and actively work against the dangers of the winner-takes-all mentality. Unchanged, future shifts in Turkish power dynamics risk pushing the country to a breaking point, not only along the secular/conservative fault lines but along Turkish/Kurdish ethnic divides. With this in mind, steps towards increasing inclusivity and tolerance within Turkey’s democracy are more of a necessity than a luxury.
The best case scenario for Turkish democracy is only possible through the acknowledgement and resolution of Turkey’s systemic and political deficits that were present before Erdoğan.
In order to overcome this impasse between elite groups, there is a need for an institutional arrangement that assuages the fears of all segments of Turkish society by providing guarantees and safeguards for basic rights. An accord that expands such protection of individual rights vis-à-vis the state, that enforces a merit-based bureaucracy, and that eliminates the rent-distributing state structure, may help to end or at least deescalate elite battles for control. These measures may not only ease the path to democratization but also facilitate and foster the emergence of a social milieu that champions long-lasting peace among Turkey’s various ideologies and ethnicities. This settlement could be achieved through an elite pact between secularists, conservatives, and Kurds in the form of a new pluralistic constitution.
In this highly optimistic scenario, Erdoğan’s widespread crackdown on diverse segments of the society would be a blessing in disguise. Different ideological groups all suffering under Erdoğan’s yoke might find it convenient to cooperate with one another. We have already witnessed such unlikely bedfellows in Istanbul’s last municipal elections, as nationalist voters of the Good Party aligned with the pro-Kurdish HDP. Under the leadership of the CHP, the National Alliance (Millet Ittifaki), has now come to consist of the right-wing Democratic Party (DP), Islamist Felicity Party (SP), and the nationalist Good Party. This diverse alliance did not only come together to participate in the elections but it even went one step further by agreeing on a common commitment to return to the parliamentary system, to fight for the separation of powers, and to strengthen the rule of law. The National Alliance and its shared principles may later be used as the basis for a new constitutional framework. It is not far-fetched to see such a constellation eventually including Kurds as well as AKP and Erdoğan defectors, such as the AKP splinter parties headed by Babacan and Davutoğlu.
In this sense, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as the leader of the CHP, would play the key role in bringing such a grand coalition together. In the rare moments where the opposition has succeeded in slighting the ruling party, Kılıçdaroğlu has been known to transcend his CHP chairmanship and act as the leader of a united opposition. One of his predecessors, the second president of Turkey, İsmet İnönü played an important role in transitioning the country to the multi-party system after Second World War, in what might be considered the most significant step of Turkey’s democratic opening. İnönü, as the head of the state, had access to all the necessary resources and levers of power; he could have moved forward alone, but he did not. In comparison, Kılıçdaroğlu could play a similar role as a pivotal actor in uniting a divided opposition for the greater good of Turkish democracy. In order to avoid strong nationalist backlash however, this grand coalition may have to keep the HDP as a silent partner. Or as a better way to move forward, this grand coalition could delegate the writing of a draft constitution to a commission consisting of selected experts and representatives of civil society representing diverse views.
While having control over the all-powerful instruments of the state may be tempting for both secularists and conservatives, all parties need to realize and actively work against the dangers of the winner-takes-all mentality.
Turkey is reaching a crossroads, and Erdoğan’s efforts to cling on to power continue despite their decreasing degree of success. At the same time, it is hard to argue that the opposition has truly learned and internalized the lessons of Turkey’s troubled democratic past. Shortsightedly, the opposition is focusing too much of its attention on ridding the country of an authoritarian leader without giving much thought to the roadmap that would eliminate the authoritarian structures and mentalities that prompted Erdoğan’s rise. While fledgling efforts to reverse the authoritarian makeup of the system sprout, a way forward is possible. But reaching this path of unfettered democratization will require the opposition leaders’ persistent and decisive efforts to draft a new democratic constitution rooted in the principles of pluralism.
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