Omer Zarpli July 8, 2013
Turkey’s turmoil is not over. While it is still too early to say anything definitive, a weaker Erdogan looks in the offing, as he is facing an increasingly unfavorable domestic and international environment. And the fall of his good friend Mohamed Morsi is hardly good news for him.
An Unrepentant Erdogan
Erdogan remains defiant in the face of the biggest challenge to his decade of rule. He is focused on shoring up his large political base with a polarizing rhetoric. He has identified the progovernment crowds with “real Turkey”, labeled the protestors “terrorists,” commended the police for their “heroic acts,” and blamed the troubles on foreign press and nefarious business elements. He pledges to go after everyone responsible for instigating unrest.
Some view the unprecedented protests as a setback but one that should not deeply affect Erdogan’s political fortunes. He still enjoys broad public support. Despite the recent troubles in the stock market, the fall of the lira, and the growing deficit, the economy has not tanked—yet. The opposition is in its usual disarray and utterly lacking in caliber to challenge Erdogan. Though his hardline, uncompromising stance has worried important supporters, including the Gulen movement, no major defection has taken place. Erdogan seems bent on increasing his support by rallying his masses under a religious, nationalist-conservative banner.
But the Stars Are Not in Alignment
Despite what optimists say, an uncertain future awaits Erdogan. He faces immediate existential, politically contentious issues: the unending war in Syria, the need to finally come forth with politically difficult proposals to deal with Kurdish concerns; and constitutional change, including his unpopular proposal for a strong presidential system. Even if Erdogan manages to keep his support base intact, these issues pose enormous challenges.
Syria has become a deepening political liability. His policy of regime change in Damascus and embroilment in the conflict are highly unpopular. The recent attack in the border town of Reyhanli, which left more than fifty Turkish citizens dead, has deepened opposition to his Syrian policy and worsened Sunni-Alevi differences. Nor have the Americans on whom he relied ridden to the rescue. His good friend Obama gave him little tangible support on his recent visit to Washington.
Erdogan has staved off criticisms with a combination of sectarian discourse and limiting public discussion of the issue. But, unless the Syrian scene radically changes, it will be increasingly difficult for the government to keep trying to compartmentalize the Syria issue from domestic politics. The costly influx of Syrian refugees continues. As the United States increases its involvement by supplying weapons to the rebels, Turkey will play an even more active role in the Syrian war. There is little assurance of success, and popular opposition could become far more vociferous.
The Kurdish peace process also carries great political risks. Six months ago, his government started negotiations with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, to end the three-decade long war. While Erdogan is seemingly committed, the public is today more interested but still ambivalent about the peace process. Negotiating with the reviled Ocalan arouses the public’s ire. Erdogan runs the danger of alienating the nationalist bloc, which he has been courting since the protests began to consolidate his support bases.
The Kurds so far have stuck with Erdogan and avoided seriously going after him for his handling of the demonstrations. But they also want to see concrete steps from the government in addressing their demands. Erdogan is procrastinating, waiting presumably for the last PKK militant to leave Turkey before announcing and implementing political reforms much further down the pike. But recent events have shown that as the process drags on and the government delays implementing reforms, peace becomes increasingly fragile. Failure to make major reforms will ultimately derail the most serious attempt to resolve the Kurdish issue. And walking a fine line between the concerns of the Turkish public and the demands of the Kurds will be even harder as his political position grows uncertain.
Worse perhaps, Erdogan’s hopes for becoming president of Turkey under a new constitution with greater executive powers may have gone down the drain. There is now even less public backing for the idea. Many in conservative circles, including the Gulen movement, never liked his plan, but now they are also increasingly questioning his personal style of governance and intolerance for opposition. They believe a presidential system would deepen his authoritarian tendencies. As a result, Erdogan might have to contend himself with a presidency with mostly ceremonial powers, hopefully leaving in charge a pliable successor as prime minister. Regardless of who replaces him as prime minister, he runs the risk of gradually losing effective control over the party. Further, without the strong and charismatic leader, the AKP faces the risk of losing its popularity like the center-right parties of the early 1990s, which suffered when their leaders left for the presidential palace.
Erdogan is uncharacteristically looking at a very uncertain future. He may win the upcoming local elections by mobilizing the religious/political right which constitutes the majority in the Turkish society. But electoral victory may mean much less in the context of increasing polarization and political instability. Popular pressures on him will increase as he takes controversial steps to address his most pressing issues. His foreign efforts are so far not cooperating, and his regional aspirations will suffer further with the loss of his important ally in Cairo. If the economy declines—an increasing possibility—his broad support could wither away.
The era of Erdogan as an unquestioned and unchallenged leader has come to an end, but he is far from finished. He can change his tactics. It is not prudent to bet against him.
Omer Zarpli is a research associate at The Century Foundation.