Why Turkey’s turbulence will be a long-lasting, thorny affair

A weakened Erdogan may well be a more dangerous one.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Reuters)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Reuters)

Will the result of the repeat elections in Istanbul mark a historic turning point for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his way of ruling Turkey?

No matter how the voting ended up, regardless of who won, Turkey is decidedly headed for further instability.

The rerun of Istanbul elections, which has kept the electorate on the edge since the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) declared the mayoral vote on March 31 null and void in a ruling that lacked legal credibility, has demonstrated that the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan heads, will employ all sorts of undemocratic measures not to accept defeat.

This is a critical point. In modern Turkish history, the voter has always had the highest regard for the pluralist system, albeit with a lot of flaws, and whenever it was mishandled, the popular reaction was to punish those who disrupt the practice. Each time the military, for example, intervened in politics by way of a putsch, people voted for whoever was challenging the oppressor, such as Suleyman Demirel or Turgut Ozal.

Istanbul has become a minor but vital case of a similar type of confrontation. Regarding the YSK ruling as an extreme example of injustice, many voters even inside the pious camp reacted, indicating a weaker belief in Erdogan’s commitment to the electoral system, showing a trend that, sooner or later, will implode the AKP as a movement.

Whether Erdogan will be issued an exit ticket by way of the ballot box is far more complex than the destiny of the country. Bearing full responsibility, without a doubt, but in full denial of the massive national crisis, Erdogan insists that he will cling to power in a way that a separation will be a highly dramatic affair.

This was easily detected in his approach to the election rerun campaign: he could keep quiet only for some weeks, only to return with harsh rhetoric, threatening to “punish” Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate who won the earlier vote.

Erdogan seems determined to do so in two ways: by engaging the AKP majority in the city council to filibuster and paralyse Imamoglu and by forcing the subservient judiciary to launch charges on insult to a governor in Ordu.

These are only minor, if not insignificant, details. Given the overall conjuncture, marked by a multilayered crisis in Turkey, Erdogan displays growing signs of paranoia.

Among many things, it is the death of former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, a prominent figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, that seems to have shattered him. Calling Morsi a “martyr,” Erdogan said Morsi “did not die, he was murdered.”

He doesn’t hide his concern of a disruptive move that may topple him from power. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president of Egypt after having led the military in pushing out Morsi from the office in July 2013. In the same vein, he talked publicly about how “there are many Sisis in this country, too.”

Seeing himself as the only remaining figure in the same ideological line as the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan’s fear has been increasing because of the crisis he has caused by an endless series of erratic moves. The interesting equation is that, since he won the referendum that handed him the super-presidency in 2017 and the more centralised his power has become, the deeper and faster Turkey has been sunk in the crisis.

The situation is so acute that even the usually loyal segments of the bureaucracy in Ankara have been sending out discreet signals of anxiety over Turkey as no longer governable. Tensions run high, far beyond the elections in Istanbul.

Domestically, all economic indicators call out SOS. One false move after the other left the AKP government with no friends in the Middle East, except Qatar. Profound mistrust with the Arab world is coupled by the one with Russia, which has taken control, in part, of Turkey’s once-respected foreign policy.

There are more serious dimensions whose consequences will finalise Turkey’s worthless solitude in the world scene: The S-400 missile defence system crisis led Washington to impose powerful sanctions against Ankara. The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, between Turkey and Cyprus, led the European Union to consider similar measures.

All in all, the situation proceeds to become unbearable and a solution does not seem to be in sight.

Regardless of the Istanbul vote outcome, it will be a weakened Erdogan who emerges. History has shown that, whenever they feel they have nobody to trust, tyrants become dangerous.

A weakened Erdogan may well be a more dangerous one. If he feels that his personal interests are at stake and if he is unable to find an honourable exit, he will turn to the only way he finds useful: sparking further crises. His impasse will make Turkey’s harmful turbulence a long-lasting one.