The Economic Crisis, COVID-19 and the New Dynamism in the Turkish Politics

June 9, 2020
by Haşim Tekineş, published on 9 June 2020
The Economic Crisis, COVID-19 and the New Dynamism in the Turkish Politics

Despite President Erdogan’s unprecedented power, the Turkish politics is still vivid and dynamic. The crumbling economy, combined with the pressure of the COVID-19, has deepened the rifts by encouraging actors to take bolder steps. The economic downturn of the country has been high on the agenda of the Turkish society in recent years. Today, 24 percent of the Turks cannot meet its basic needs like shelter and nutrition while 49 percent can afford only basic needs. On top of that, losing tourism revenues, falling global demand, and high unemployment, as ‘secondary impacts’ of the COVID-19, have anchored the economy to the bottom for a foreseeable future. This situation heartens leading opposition figures to be more vocal in their critiques against the government after a long period of hesitation.

One of the first direct effects of COVID-19 in Turkish politics was overheating intra-AKP rivalry. The animosity between Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and Economy Minister/Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak was an open secret. Albayrak even hit a shoulder-charge to Soylu in public. Yet, the pandemic has brought the conflict to surface. Apparently, Albayrak faction considered mishandling of COVID-19 measures as an opportunity to topple the Interior Minister. Daily Sabah, run by the Albayrak family, depicted the announcement of curfew as botchy when reporting Minister Soylu’s resignation. Similarly, journalists close to Albayrak harshly criticized Soylu’s actions during the crisis. It even caused spats among AKP MPs in social media.

Yet, Soylu’s gamble paid off as Erdogan felt obliged to refuse his resignation. In fact, Soylu has further consolidated his position, at least for now. Now, he is considered as the second-man in the government, after Erdogan, with genuine public support.

The new political parties, established by former AKP leaders, are the other hot topics in Ankara. The social discontent emboldened by the economic crisis offers convenience for the veteran politicians such as Ali Babacan, Ahmet Davutoglu and Abdullah Gul to compete for power. According to recent polls, there is a growing number of AKP voters who are critical of AKP policies but hesitant to opt for another political party yet. This makes Babacan, the leader of DEVA party, a viable alternative for conservatives. Babacan’s emphasis on economy rather than employing ideological discourse earns him a popularity. Whereas Davutoglu is more preoccupied with rhetorical issues such as justice, social justice and widespread corruption as well as historical and cultural values. Like Babacan and Gul, Davutoglu argues for re-establishing parliamentary regime.

Although these disgruntled politicians come from same political party, the difference in their recent ideological orientations has so far hampered them to join hands against Erdogan. In addition to that, the Turks’ traditional preference for charismatic leaders over technocratic governments will be a challenge particularly for Babacan and Davutoglu. Nonetheless, their criticisms have worn down Erdogan’s potent government.

Other group of contenders is the victors of latest local elections, particularly the mayors of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Ekrem Imamoglu has already proved his capacity as a potential competitor for the next presidential elections. Most recently, COVID-19 has given these municipalities an opportunity to demonstrate their governing capacity through social campaigns and various aid packages. Startled by the campaigns of the opposition municipalities, Erdogan rushed to block them. Yet, 62 percent of the Turkish society disapprove the suspension of these municipalities’ aid campaigns by the government.

The Kurds and their popular leader in prison, Selahattin Demirtas, are still important actors in Ankara despite the government’s campaign of persecution in past 5 years. Their strategic moves during 2019 local elections, which made it possible for CHP candidates to win in many major cities, reiterated once again the HDP and Demirtas’s roles as kingmaker in Turkish politics.

The friction of AKP and Kemalists is a popular issue in these days in Ankara. A RAND Corporation report brought up the coup issue to the agenda, and it has turned useful in AKP’s hand. Erdogan and other leading figures of the government blame the Kemalists for planning a coup. The accuracy of these rumors aside, one thing is clear that it allows Erdogan to consolidate his own base by using a familiar enemy.

Erdogan and his party do not stand idle with hands tied against those challenges. The AKP has also taken some preliminary judicial steps to intimidate Davutoglu and CHP mayors. The university established by Davutoglu was closed down, and most recently 3 opposition MPs (1 CHP and 2 HDP) were stripped of parliamentary status. Meanwhile, recent dismissal of a prominent admiral, Cihat Yayci, has shown who is the boss to Kemalist generals. As to intra-AKP rivalries, a potential cabinet reshuffle can put an end to Soylu’s ambitious political calculations.

Although avoiding direct confrontation with Erdogan, Babacan has had his share of Erdogan’s spate of criticism. Erdogan said that the high economic performance in the first years of the AKP was his success, not a minister’s.

The economic crisis and the pandemic have given opposition a chance to weaken the AKP for its failure in managing these crises, bringing a new dynamism to the Turkish politics. But this has not been possible because Erdogan lacks any means to stop his rivals. Rather, it is because the instruments that he has are too destructive that can further deteriorate Turkey’s international image and worsen the ongoing economic crisis.

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