Erdogan at Crossroads Once More

April 1, 2024
Erdogan at Crossroads Once More

Erdogan at Crossroads Once More

Turkey's local elections on March 31st surprisingly saved Turkey's opposition from obsolescence and restored its credibility, severely damaged after last year's disappointing presidential elections. For the first time in two decades, the AKP found itself in the second position in an election. Moreover, the CHP's re-elected mayor of Istanbul, Imamoğlu, proved his political skills as a charismatic leader capable of challenging President Erdoğan. Meanwhile, the AKP and its Islamist and nationalist allies have clearly lost votes, signaling discontent among Erdoğan's base. This new reality of Turkish politics leaves Erdoğan with two alternative paths: one that aims to save the economy and thus remove one of the root causes of discontent, or a more authoritarian one that seeks to curb dissent through more oppression. Both paths have their own risks and opportunities for Erdoğan.

Red flags for Erdoğan

Although the March 31st elections are local elections, they have broader political implications that President Erdoğan cannot ignore. Despite the opposition's victory, Erdoğan's rule is secure enough, at least on paper, until 2028, when the next presidential elections will be held. After all, local and general elections in Turkey have different dynamics. Turkey's opposition failed to carry its success in the 2019 local elections into the 2023 general elections, despite the economic woes of the electorate. 

Still, there are several red flags for Erdoğan. First, while his votes and popularity are eroding, he has a new charismatic opponent, Ekrem Imamoğlu, whose 2019 success was clearly no coincidence. By 2028, Imamoğlu will be an experienced politician who has governed Istanbul for a decade. In contrast to Erdoğan's advanced age and illness, Imamoğlu has a young, energetic, and modern image that promises to rejuvenate the country. This means that Erdoğan will face a much stronger opponent. More importantly, Imamoglu and other opposition mayors have the chance to show how effective governance can be done, while Erdoğan implements austerity measures due to his previous economic missteps. All this means that Erdoğan will face a much stronger opponent in the 2028 presidential elections.

Second, the future projections revealed by these election results will make it harder for Erdoğan to find allies and thus manipulate politics. As a master tactician, Erdoğan has always been successful in finding allies and isolating his enemies. However, in contrast to Erdogan’s advanced age and sickness, the opposition has energetic leaders who can electrify the masses. As the people, bureaucracy and politicians see a power shift in the political landscape in favor of the opposition, Erdoğan will have less room to maneuver. He will also have fewer spoils to share with his allies as municipalities are the main source of income for the AKP to feed its cronies. They have lost many large municipalities, meaning these resources now belong to the opposition. In other words, it will be harder and more costly for Erdoğan to make allies and manipulate politics as the political actors will try to adapt to new realities.

The elections have also made Erdoğan's succession plans more complicated. Grooming a new leader capable of sustaining the AKP's and the Erdoğan family's power is a key agenda. As mentioned above, Erdoğan is sick and old. Therefore, his family and inner circle must plan a roadmap for post-Erdogan Turkey to secure their sources of income and prestige and protect themselves from a possible period of revenge. Laying the foundation of a healthy succession is also important to keep Erdoğan's inner circle intact. However, while the opposition has a new generation of politicians, the family and inner circle have not produced a capable candidate to emulate Erdoğan's political performance. Assuming that the opposition will increase its vote share in the next five years, this election has made a succession for Erdoğan very difficult. This is a significant threat that could bring the early dissolution of the regime if Erdogan cannot promise the continuation of his regime after his death.

Two paths

In this respect, Erdoğan has two challenging paths ahead. First, he can focus on improving the economy. Since there is still some time before the next elections, he can push through some structural reforms that will be painful for voters in the short term. A better economy would not make Erdoğan younger or more charismatic, but it will remove a major source of discontent. 

This path will also have repercussions for foreign policy. As the Turkish economy is integrated into the EU, a focus on the economy will force Erdoğan to improve relations with the EU and the US. The main resources that can save the Turkish economy still lie in the European and American markets. Erdogan's focus on the economy could therefore end Turkey's policy of balancing between the US and Russia by shifting the direction of Turkish foreign policy westward. Ukraine and the refugee issue, in particular, are the main areas where Turkey's priorities more or less overlap with the West. Of course, Western countries, realizing Erdogan's domestic predicament, will gain more leverage against Ankara. 

But this path does not guarantee relief for Erdoğan and Turkish society. Given the volatility of the global economy and politics, Erdogan's austerity measures may not yield the expected results due to the external shocks. The Turkish economy is highly dependent on global markets. Any major crisis (which is more frequent these days) could throw hard-won economic gains into the trash. 

An alternative option is to borrow a new page from the dictator's playbook. Erdoğan can consolidate his power by brute force to compensate for his diminishing charisma and popular support. This would turn Turkey into a textbook example of a police state. In order not to take any chances in the 2028 elections, Erdoğan could seize municipalities under legal cover, ban Imamoğlu from running and further restrict freedom of expression. This would of course further strain Turkey's relations with the EU and the US. 

Down this road, Erdoğan would be compelled to adopt a more populist rhetoric (maybe with new crises with the US or EU) to increase his popularity, which would necessitate loosening the government budget. He would increase public spending, distribute funds from public banks and increase salaries. Even if Erdoğan finds the resources for such a policy for a short period of time, it would further destabilize the economy. So, while the authoritarian path promises a more certain solution, Erdoğan does not really have economic resources for this option.

These two trajectories require different policies. But Erdoğan is unlikely to choose one of them. Instead, he will probably try a mix of the two. For almost a year he has been trying to boost the economy with Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek's orthodox policies, while continuing his charm offensive in the West. He will soon visit Washington DC and meet President Biden. He may also take some dramatic steps in Ukraine - steps that could win the sympathy of western democrats. In the meantime, he may gradually narrow the political space for the CHP and İmamoğlu. Depending on how the economy is doing, the degree of authoritarianism will vary. Erdoğan may wait until the economic downturn is weathered to return to his populist policies and more authoritarian steps. Or, if things go better than expected, tightening the screw a little more will be enough to secure the next elections.

Erdoğan still has many instruments in his toolbox and some time and flexibility before the next elections. Nonetheless, he has a major flaw: he is getting old and sick while his opponents are charismatic and energetic. Perhaps more importantly, they are the rising stars of politics. This growing contrast between Erdogan and the new generation opposition leaders will become a major obstacle for the future of his rule. Even if he gets the economy back on track (a big 'if'), he will struggle to find new political allies and implement his more authoritarian policies to suppress dissent. If people, bureaucracy, and politicians sense a sign of weakness, it will push them into the winning coalition. And if he fails to solve his succession problem, his own ruling coalition may start to dissolve from peripheries to the inner circle. Thus, as time goes on, Erdoğan will face more and more difficulties in maintaining his fine walk between authoritarianism and democracy.

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