Long-Term Bets in Turkish Politics

May 21, 2024
by Haşim Tekineş, published on 21 May 2024
Long-Term Bets in Turkish Politics

The pace of politics in Turkey is intense. Just a year ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won another electoral victory, extending his presidency for another five years. Almost a year later, the opposition made an incredible comeback in the recent local elections. With this victory, Özgür Özel, the newly elected leader of the main opposition party, and Ekrem İmamoğlu, the charismatic mayor of Istanbul, proved their political strength as possible challengers to Erdoğan in the next presidential elections. However, while the post-election balance of power has significantly increased the stakes for both the AKP and the opposition, Turkish politics has, at least for now, entered a period of détente and dialogue rather than a new spiral of political tension. But make no mistake, this is not a return to democracy and normalcy in Turkey. Turkish politics is now a long-term gamble between an old and bleeding dictator, who struggles to tame his nationalist ally, on the one side and a young and energetic opposition on the other.

The cutthroat political atmosphere astonishingly turned into a surprisingly peaceful environment in the immediate aftermath of the March 31 local elections. Like he did after his previous election victories, President Erdoğan delivered a speech with more tolerant and inclusive tones. Yet, unlike previous occasions, he maintained his friendly discourse longer this time. “I want to initiate the era of softening in Turkish politics,” Erdoğan said. This olive branch has received a welcoming response from the opposition side too. The first bilateral meeting between Erdoğan and a CHP leader in years took place this month. This détente is, of course, not a return to democracy and the rule of law. Large-scale arrests continue against the Gulen Movement and Kurdish groups, and there is no improvement in issues related to freedom of speech. The CHP's requests remain limited to saving celebrity prisoners like Osman Kavala and retired generals. 

The most challenging issue for President Erdoğan's regime is the transition of power after his death. This is not just a matter of his political legacy. A reasonable prospect for power transition that will supposedly keep the regime alive after Erdoğan is necessary for stability within his inner circle and supporters during Erdoğan’s upcoming years. Erdoğan will grow older and sicker in the coming years, while the opposition will gain popularity with new and attractive leaders. Erdoğan and his party could fall apart if his supporters get the impression that they are on the losing side, just as the recent elections have exacerbated the rivalry within the AKP. Therefore, having a credible successor, preferably from the family, is essential for the survival of the Erdoğan regime.

But before he can promise his supporters a change of power, Erdoğan needs to overcome some obstacles. The first obstacle is the economy. Although Turkey's economic indicators are improving, this is a painful time for the Turkish people. The economic crisis combined with social injustice is triggering a serious social backlash against Erdoğan and his party. Erdoğan needs to deal with the economy before he tackles succession.

Second, President Erdoğan must establish full control of the state, including the parliament and the security apparatus. Erdoğan's regime is a coalition with the nationalists, who have a strong influence within the security apparatus. He is in need of the nationalists to control parliament as well. There are also still bubbles of Kemalism within the army. Although they are mostly aligned with President Erdoğan, in the event of his death these elements will be stronger and more decisive. Erdoğan therefore needs time to break the remaining power of nationalists and Kemalists within the state.

However, recent tensions within Erdoğan’s power coalition, particularly between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), complicate this apparent calm. The AKP’s alliance with the MHP has been pivotal in maintaining Erdoğan’s grip on power, but it has also bred internal strife. The nationalist influence, particularly within the police, military, and judiciary, has become a double-edged sword for Erdoğan.

The recent power struggle involving Ayhan Bora Kaplan, a crime syndicate leader with close ties to former Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and the MHP, exemplifies this tension. Since the 2023 general elections, President Erdoğan replaced Soylu with Ali Yerlikaya, who is allegedly aligned with religious groups like Menzil rather than the nationalists. Yerlikaya's crackdown on organized crime groups linked to Soylu and the MHP has heightened the friction between the AKP and its nationalist allies.

The involvement of leading MHP figures in the killing of Sinan Ateş, the former leader of the Grey Wolves, an MHP-affiliated organization, has further exposed the cracks within this alliance. The police investigation into Ateş’s murder, which appears to have bypassed departments dominated by MHP members, underscores Erdoğan’s strategic distancing from his nationalist partners. Reports suggest that Erdoğan may be leveraging these investigations to weaken the MHP’s grip on the state apparatus, thereby consolidating his control.

Another issue is to groom an electable successor. Despite democratic backsliding, elections are still the main source of political legitimacy. A successor must win the elections. But no one in Erdoğan's family or inner circle has his charisma. On the contrary, his sons have a bad reputation among voters (except possibly AKP supporters). One of Erdoğan's sons-in-law, whom he made Energy Minister and then Economy Minister, resigned in disgrace. Still, his son Bilal Erdoğan or his other son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar, the manufacturer of Turkey's famous Bayraktar drones, could be suitable candidates for succession. But Erdoğan needs time to pick and prepare his successor.

On the other hand, the opposition, despite its recent election victory, has a strategy of weathering President Erdoğan rather than confronting him openly. In terms of electoral dynamics, time is working in the opposition's favor. Young and educated voters who have given up on Erdoğan are turning to the CHP. Thus, the CHP won an election victory for the first time in decades. But whereas the opposition has vigor and vision, President Erdoğan retains brute power in the country. Confronting him and violating his red lines is therefore a dangerous game. After all, the Erdoğan regime is corrupt and ruthless from top to bottom. Since Erdoğan, his family and his inner circle are most likely expecting a period of revenge in the event of losing power, it is safe to assume that Erdoğan will cling to his seat at all costs. In this respect, confronting Erdoğan would be very costly and risky for the opposition. Instead, it is much easier and safer to wait for him to die or for his regime to unravel on its own.

Both Erdoğan and the opposition have long-term bets. Erdoğan needs more time to consolidate his control over the state and come up with a proper succession plan. The opposition, pinning its hopes on his advanced age and illness, aims to outlast President Erdoğan. This gamble brings a temporary calm between Erdogan and the CHP while shifting the eye of the storm to the AKP-MHP relations.

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