Could economic crisis mean the end of Turkey’s Erdogan?

Losing power for leaders such as Erdogan who have an agenda of building a new regime is costly and the price is usually more than the loss of office.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Pedestrians walk past an electronic board showing the currency exchange rates in Istanbul. (Reuters)
Bearing the brunt. Pedestrians walk past an electronic board showing the currency exchange rates in Istanbul. (Reuters)

Eric J. Zurcher, an expert on Turkey, said in an interview with ahvalnews.com that only an economic crisis could stop Turkey’s drift towards fascism. Umit Akcay and other economists are of almost the opposite opinion. To them, the crisis in Turkey is likely to foster more authoritarianism.

It is possible to find arguments backing both Zurcher’s and Akcay’s positions.

Those who share Zurcher’s thesis argue that only a deep economic crisis can weaken the attachment between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his constituency. This line of thinking emphasises the pragmatic nature of Turkish people, who would demand political change because of an economic crisis.

There are examples, such as the 2001 Turkish economic crisis, that changed the ruling party and the general rules of the economy.

Erdogan has signalled that he fears the economic crisis may lead to social unrest and the state does not tolerate even the smallest protest.

A worker at the construction site of Istanbul’s new airport who protested the late arrival of a bus to take him to work was arrested. Police questioned a journalist for posting a video on social media of council workers in the Black Sea town of Rize cutting down a 100-year-old tree in the city centre.

Erdogan knows there is no possibility of challenging him in elections so worries are focused on protests of worsening economic conditions. Thus the state employs a pre-emptive strategy of not tolerating protests even by individuals.

There is a simple calculation behind this strategy. Erdogan expects an economic recovery at some point. Until then he has two instruments to deal with the crisis: propaganda and oppression.

Since traditional concepts such as electoral behaviour are no longer relevant in Turkey, propaganda theories are critical to understanding how people learn, think and behave. Alongside propaganda, the state will continue to suppress protests of the government.

Using both tactics, Erdogan expects to smother disaffection with the economic crisis until the point of recovery. In this model, what is expected from the Turkish people is to wait patiently while internalising state propaganda.

If Erdogan’s plan works, his regime will survive but Turkey will become more authoritarian and poorer, supporting the thesis of economists such as Akcay.

What about the other possibility? What if Erdogan fails to turn around the economy?

There is one critical point to grasp. Unlike Bulent Ecevit, who was unseated as prime minister because of the 2001 economic crisis, Erdogan is not a standard political leader. He is also creating a political system to replace the Kemalist one.

Losing power for leaders such as Erdogan who have an agenda of building a new regime is costly and the price is usually more than the loss of office. In the case of Erdogan, Turkey may witness a new type of crisis in which those in power resist change even if social and economic conditions worsen.

The golden years of Erdogan and his Turkey are over. It has been almost six years that Turkey has been a country of political and economic instability. In that time, Erdogan has survived but the cost has been poverty and growing authoritarianism.

These are not merely abstract concepts. Behind them lies deterioration in standards of public service, poorer education and decays in cultural life. If this continues for several years, Turkey could become another Egypt, where the poor and unemployed are registered in the tens of millions.

Turkey, like Egypt, is a large country with a big population and that means, once problems become structural and entrenched, there is no way to solve them in a short time.

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