As the Turkish election campaign reaches its final phase, a consensus is emerging that it should be regarded as a referendum on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has dominated the nation’s politics for almost two decades.
Erdogan has often boasted that he has never lost an election and, as polls indicate, he is unlikely to lose this time either. Since 2002, he and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) have won five parliamentary elections, three local elections, three referendums and one presidential election.
But what if the victory he expects next week turns out to be a tactical win and a strategic loss?
Erdogan won his first victory in a national election at a time that Turkish politics had hit an impasse and needed radical changes of direction and method. Erdogan provided that change and, at least during his first decade as the captain of the Turkish ship of state, succeeded in steadying the wayward vessel and pointing it towards what looked like peace and prosperity.
Now, however, observers of the Turkish experience are almost unanimous in thinking that not only those promised golden shores may be receding but that Erdogan’s leadership may have led to five new impasses.
The first impasse is political.
By concentrating power in the presidency, which means in his own hands, something that, after Ataturk’s death, took Turkey almost half a century to modify, Erdogan has upset the institutional balance and the pluralism of the political scene developed since the latest of the military juntas in the 1980s.
Two decades ago, Erdogan was the bearer of a new message of pluralism, power-sharing and give-and-take. Today, he himself is the message. In voting for Erdogan you are no longer voting for a program, a philosophy, or even a new governing elite. You vote for Erdogan.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo by Getty Images)
Paradoxically, the Turkish voter today knows less about who really Erdogan is, or wants to be, than two decades ago. Uncertainty regarding the future of Turkish institutions is more acute than it was in the post Turgot Ozal sunset phase of rule by corrupt and incompetent parties.
The second impasse created under Erdogan concerns the vexed issue of identity, most dramatically underlined by the four-decade long failure of successive governments in Ankara to forge a modus vivendi with the ethnic Kurds who account for at least 15 per cent of the population. Ataturk had decided to solve the problem by denying it existed. He jettisoned the Ottoman system of “unity in diversity” by inventing an ideal “Turkish identity” that ignored ethnic, religious and cultural differences in a society rich in its diversity. Ataturk’s policy led to an impasse which produced a civil war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
Initially, Erdogan realized the wisdom of the Ottoman policy of managing ethnic prejudices by regarding diversity as an asset. His government was initially successful in defusing the Kurdish time-bomb with a series of accommodating policies. Later, however, Erdogan tried to “drown the fish” by dividing the nation into numerous ethnic identities of which Kurds would be one among many, a trick that ensured the failure of his initially promising policies.
To be sure, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) helped that failure by sticking to its dogmatic, violent and Stalinist methods. Today, the Kurdish question is more acute than ever.
The third impasse concerns Turkish aspirations after full membership of the European Union, a goal shared by almost all political parties, even if only in a pro-forma manner, since the 1960s.
May be “Destination Europe” was never more than an empty slogan as powerful voices in the European Union oppose Turkish membership for a variety of reasons, including racism and concerns about Islam.
Nevertheless, the slogan provided a strong narrative in favor of democratic reforms and economic liberalization that cut across parochial and partisan interests and narrow concerns.
Today, however, as far as “joining Europe” is concerned, Turkey is farther than ever from its pronounced goal. Almost all parties contesting next week’s elections at both presidential and parliamentary levels agree that the road to Europe is blocked, at least for the foreseeable future.
Erdogan has also created a fourth impasse in Turkey’s relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its leader the United States. That led to a surrealistic situation in which Turkish forces invading Syria at some point feared a direct clash with US troops helping Syrian Kurds consolidate their hold on a chunk of territory.
Erdogan’s involvement in Syria obliged him to try to be sweet to the Russians who were emerging as a major player there. That, in turn, widened the distance with both the US and the European Union at a time they had their own issues with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Too late, Erdogan realized that Turkey, de-coupled from NATO, would not be as valuable to Russia and thus denied the influence that Ankara might have dreamed of.
Finally, Erdogan has created a fifth economic impasse by casting a shadow of doubt over policy options he might contemplate once reconfirmed in his position. Four years ago, Turkey seemed to have definitely converted to a model of economic liberalism that emphasized private enterprise, limited the public sector to a few key areas, and respected international norms and practices especially as far as transparency and the rule of law are concerned.
Today, however, Turkish economy seems to be prone to interventionist temptations, corrupt practices and shenanigans prevalent in so-called “developing nations” with petty autocratic governments.
Not surprisingly, direct foreign investment has fallen to its lowest level since 2010 while the Turkish currency, lira, has lost almost a third of its value compared to a basket of world currencies. Turkish annual growth rate forecast by the World Bank is the lowest since 2008 with recession a growing concern.
Paradoxically, in this election campaign, none of those impasses featured as prominently as they deserved, with all parties, and their presidential candidates, falling for the personalization of the exercise that Erdogan wanted.
In that sense, Erdogan may have already won.
At a time of uncertainty many voters may decide that it is better to stick with the devil they know rather than risk courting an unknown one.
However, Erdogan’s win could also turn out to be his loss, especially if, as many expect, voter-turnout and his share of the votes take a downward turn.