Erdogan between a rock and a hard place

While the “grand coalition” has entered the agenda as a new term, the uncertainties in the battle for power and its possible redistribution are far stronger than any opening visible.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he talks to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, April 27, 2019 during a three-day closed door meeting to assess recent local election results. (AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he talks to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, April 27, 2019 during a three-day closed door meeting to assess recent local election results. (AP)

What will the new road map of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan be like? This is the question observers have been struggling with since local elections turned the ever-acrimonious Turkish political scene into a topsy-turvy chess match, accompanied by cacophony from all sides.

Almost a month has passed since the vote and the fate of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality is still unclear. The 11 members of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) are under intense pressure from the ruling coalition bloc of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The YSK’s final ruling is unlikely to be graciously accepted by everyone.

Erdogan is keeping all the actors and observers in suspense. Since he remains a master tactician, with his strategy of a lifetime one-man rule intact, this long wait is normal. He stands before a crucial watershed and his choice must be the one that serves — first and foremost — his own interests. He can’t afford to see his authority weaken, let alone fall apart.

His new and vague term of “Turkey Alliance,” which is being debated intensely, must be seen in this context. In a speech to the Memur-Sen trade union days after the elections, Erdogan said: “It is time to cool down the hot iron, to shake hands, to hug and to reinforce our unity and integrity.”

He followed up on this with: “On matters of national survival, we must put aside our political differences and act together, all 82 million of us, as the ‘Turkey Alliance’.”

The term has upset Bahceli, who said: “What matters is not ‘Turkey Alliance’ but rather the ‘People’s Alliance.’”

This brought the AKP and MHP, which used to call themselves a “joint cause for the perpetuity of the country,” to a breaking point.

There is internal turbulence within the AKP, which was more shaken by the election results than Erdogan.

But what does Erdogan mean by “Turkey Alliance”? The answer is simple: Having realised that Turkey will be sunk deeper into its chronic crisis, peppered by the economic free fall, Erdogan has shifted, once more, to “change of allies” mood.

Now he is eyeing the main opposition party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its nationalist partner in opposition, the Good Party, as prospective partners.

It is rather obvious that he seems to have in mind a national unity government, which, if MHP doesn’t cop out because of rage, would include four parties — or three — and continue to rule. This project naturally excludes the black sheep of Turkish politics, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party.

The pattern of masterful moves by Erdogan is well-known: He throws certain ideas, lets his close circles, as well as his loyal columnists, debate and tests the waters. The delay of the ruling by the YSK on Istanbul seems to be designed to lend him the precious time he needs.

This is exactly what is happening. As the complaints process on Istanbul continues, as the earlier enthusiasm by the opposition bloc keeps fading, Erdogan is being helped by the changes of mood.

Apparently, in relation to this, a 12-point memo, allegedly written by his loyal cadres in the AKP, started circulating. The leaked text is a set of arguments on how “under attack” Turkey is — on the economy, foreign policy and on Kurdish resistance — and why the country needs unity and “strong, unifying leadership.” It concludes that the “leader” must be supported by any means necessary.

Defeated in big cities by the tactical Kurdish votes, Erdogan lost votes to the centrist opposition bloc but he also lost elsewhere to rising nationalist parties. He realised that his partner, MHP, won as the AKP eroded.

As the perfect storm in the economy approaches and because he has lost all credibility in international finance and political circles, Erdogan understands that without offering cooperation — seats in his government to the main opposition — he faces far worse threats to his power. Of course, as his pattern in the past 17 years of rule suggests, he has used, abused and thrown away the CHP.

This explains the rage of Bahceli and hesitation within the CHP. There are reports by credible sources that there were backchannel talks between the AKP and CHP but what the latter will do is unclear.

While the “grand coalition” has entered the agenda as a new term, thanks to the “Turkey Alliance,” the uncertainties in the battle for power and its possible redistribution are far stronger than any opening visible.

The month of May will be much more intense, possibly more violent, than before. Will Erdogan choose the hard way or a softer one? We shall see.

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