Erdogan enjoys domestic boost from Syria move but economy weighs on citizens’ minds

After shrinking 2.4% in the first quarter this year and 1.4% in the second, the Turkish economy was predicted to record zero growth in 2019 overall, the World Bank said.
Sunday 03/11/2019
A stallholder reads a newspaper as he waits for customers at a bazaar in Ankara. (Reuters)
Hoping for somehing new. A stallholder reads a newspaper as he waits for customers at a bazaar in Ankara. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is enjoying a boost in popularity triggered by Ankara’s military action in Syria but the poor state of the economy means that the newly found support could easily crumble.

Polls indicate that about four-in-five Turks surveyed said they backed the intervention into Syria that started to push the Syrian-Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) back from the border and prepare for the creation of a “safe zone” where Erdogan wants to resettle millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

The move divided the Turkish opposition that had forged an alliance this year to defeat Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in mayoral elections in Istanbul and other key cities.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, said the Syria incursion was likely to deflect attention from the economy only for a short while, resulting in possible new problems for Erdogan.

“This rally-round-the-flag effect will allow him to stifle dissent and boost his popularity in the short term,” Erdemir wrote by e-mail in response to questions. “However, following the termination of clashes in Syria, the bitter reality of the ongoing economic crisis will once again dominate the Turkish public’s agenda.”

Agreements between Turkey and the United States and with Russia have, in effect, halted the Turkish offensive in Syria. Russia, the key military power in Syria, informed Turkey that the YPG had left the planned “safe zone” within a deadline set by Ankara and Moscow.

Under their agreement, Russia and Turkey were to start joint patrols but Erdogan, on October 30, said the YPG withdrawal was not complete and that Turkey reserved the right to launch new attacks against the YPG in the area.

Many Turks regard the YPG as a threat to Turkish national security because it is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group seen as a terrorist organisation by Ankara and the West. Incursions by the Turkish Army into YPG-held areas in Syria in 2016 and 2018 also enjoyed broad public support in Turkey.

The country’s main opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) supported the latest military action in Syria along with the conservative Iyi Party, another group opposed to Erdogan, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) rejected it.

The three parties had formed an unofficial partnership in this year’s mayoral elections that enabled CHP candidates to win in Istanbul and elsewhere. The split over Erdogan’s military action in Syria means that it could be hard to revive their alliance in future elections.

Beki Agirdir, head of the Konda polling firm, told the T24 news portal that the CHP would find it difficult to attract as many HDP voters in the future as it did in the local polls this year.

Erdemir said it was up to the opposition to overcome the rift.

“Turkey’s opposition bloc seems to have suffered a major setback following Erdogan‘s triggering of ethnic fault lines running through the Turkish-Kurdish alliance that won the local elections in spring,” Erdemir commented. “If Turkey is to avoid descending further into authoritarianism and inter-communal strife, the Turkish opposition will have to find ways of rebuilding bridges and finding common ground despite the traps set by Erdogan.”

Some CHP officials have been trying to reach out to the HDP. Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP mayor of Istanbul who was backed by many Kurdish voters in his election victory this year, criticised the decision by the Erdogan government to remove several elected HDP mayors in Turkey’s Kurdish region from office and put state-appointed officials in their place. Some HDP politicians were arrested. “I don’t find this correct and I find the arrests problematic,” Imamoglu said.

While the opposition starts rebuilding its alliance, Erdogan and the AKP, whose approval ratings had slipped before the Syrian incursion because of the economic crisis and accusations of corruption, could run into new difficulties as patriotic feelings wear off. The next regular elections are three years away and two prominent AKP dissidents are preparing to establish their own parties to lure voters and politicians away from the AKP.

“Everybody backs the government in times of war,” Ali Akarca, an economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told T24. “If there was an election today the AKP would win but, as time goes by, voters forget.”

Akarca said voters might abandon the AKP if the government could not secure stable growth rates, adding the AKP needed inner-party democracy while checks and balances in state institutions had to be strengthened.

After shrinking 2.4% in the first quarter this year and 1.4% in the second, the Turkish economy was predicted to record zero growth in 2019 overall, the World Bank said. The unemployment rate is 14%. Inflation has dropped to 9% but is expected to rise to 14% by the end of the year. Consumers have been hit with sharp price rises for power and natural gas.

Erdemir said Erdogan’s choices were limited.

“The only way Erdogan can continue to divert the electorate’s attention away from the economic hardships at home is through a forever war in north-eastern Syria, which is unlikely given budgetary limitations at home and Russia’s red lines abroad,” he wrote.

14