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Jul 26, 2019 | 09:00 GMT

12 mins read

As Opposition Builds, Turkey's Erdogan Grasps at Straws

Protesters rally in front of Caglayan courthouse in Istanbul on July 18, 2019, in support of Canan Kaftancioglu, a local opposition party leader who faces up to 17 years in prison for allegedly insulting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • The threat of defections by prominent, former members of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will present a real threat to the viability of the party's national governance, possibly leading to elections much earlier than the next scheduled polls in June 2023.
  • To combat this threat and buy time until conditions are more favorable, the AKP will use its ideological, economic and institutional resources to maintain power and stymie defections from its ranks.
  • But because the AKP has lost strength, it might not be able to prevent a rebellion within its ranks from seriously challenging the long rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP loyalists.

Even for the wiles of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the task of governing Turkey is becoming increasingly daunting. The economy is languishing in recession as the United States and Europe mull sanctions against Ankara, while a volatile southern border with Syria and Iraq is posing problems for Turkey's relations with Russia, Syria, Iran and, once more, the United States. Worse for Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) he leads, the once seemingly unassailable political machine he's built since the turn of the century seems to have run out of gas after shock defeats in Ankara and Istanbul's mayoral contests this year. Although it forced a rerun of the Istanbul vote, the AKP's political machine failed to beat the resurgent candidate of the Republican People's Party (CHP); in fact, its loss the second time around was close to 60 times worse than its initial reverse on March 31. And now, in a new setback for Erdogan, formerly loyal AKP stalwarts appear to be on the verge of jumping ship to establish a new party. In such a situation, Erdogan will have few good options to halt the defections that could weaken him in parliament — and move the country's scheduled general elections up well before June 2023.

The Big Picture

Turkey's politics are in flux, and the certainty that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would rule the country for the foreseeable future unchallenged is rapidly slipping away. A rebellion among the AKP's old guard threatens to turn Turkey's politics into quicksand for its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the AKP won't go down without a fight, and in its struggle to retain dominant power, it will risk Turkey's economy, relationships with its allies and the rule of law.

Cracks in the Edifice

Once bright, the AKP's prospects are now dimming, especially in its dominance of parliament. For years, the party benefited from a booming economy, a disorganized opposition, Erdogan's own charisma and personal appeal, and an array of ideological and political allies that transformed the AKP into Turkey's dominant party. This preeminent position seemed assured after June 2018 elections in which Erdogan comfortably grabbed the newly empowered presidency. For many, accordingly, it seemed that an era of continued AKP ascendence was a foregone conclusion.

But even in the June 2018 elections, there were indications that not all was well for the AKP. Though Erdogan triumphed, several setbacks hinted at cracks in his political machine. The AKP failed to score a parliamentary majority, gaining just 295 seats in the parliament of 600. Today, the party is only able to pass budgets or legislation thanks to its alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) that gives it a governing majority. 

The AKP's decreased strength became clearer this spring as it lost its former electoral strongholds of Ankara and Istanbul. Amid the relative electoral struggles, the AKP suffered a blow from former comrades-in-arms, as members of the party's old guard, former Finance Minister Ali Babacan, former President Abdullah Gul and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu openly wobbled in their loyalty to the organization they helped found. Then, on July 8, Babacan pointedly resigned from the AKP and declared his intent to form a new party, fanning the flames of the party's internal rebellion.

A chart showing the distribution of Turkey’s parliamentary seats by political party.

The AKP's Shrinking Tent

The defections are a reflection of the AKP's declining support throughout Turkey. Since sweeping into power in 2002, the AKP has relied on a bedrock of conservative Muslims, political Islamists, business interests, workers and nationalists to win over a majority or a plurality of voters in Turkey's often fractured political system. This broad coalition gave the AKP the political muscle it needed to push back, and eventually break, the secular, military-backed Kemalist establishment that had consistently intervened in Turkish politics since the foundation of the republic in 1923.

Over the years, however, this coalition has experienced splits — some with far-reaching consequences for Turkey as a whole. Toward the end of 2013, the AKP fell out with the Islamist movement led by scholar Fethullah Gulen that had deep interests in business and the media. In 2016, the Gulen movement, according to Erdogan and the AKP, launched a coup to overthrow the government, resulting in hundreds of deaths; as a result, the movement is now underground or overseas. And since the lira's precipitous fall in summer 2018, Turkey's economic woes have caused disquiet among the business interests and workers in the AKP's big political tent, creating an opening for former leading lights like Babacan, Davutoglu and Gul — all of whom have personal gripes with Erdogan's domineering personality — to consider founding their own rival party.

At the same time, members of Turkey's disorganized opposition — whose parties have typically busied themselves with stealing votes from one another and fighting internal turf battles rather than pursuing the AKP — have finally collaborated to chip away at the government's power. Voters worried that the AKP was imposing a full-fledged autocracy with increasingly Islamist overtones rallied behind the secular-minded CHP, particularly in municipal elections in the country's metropoles. On the AKP's Kurdish flank, the Kurdish-dominated Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has stymied the ruling party's attempts to suppress its vote — and batted away the minor outreaches the AKP has dangled in front of the party, most recently by trying to convince HDP supporters that it might ease restrictions on their hero, Kurdistan Workers' Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara for terrorism.

Combined, this creates a new political situation the AKP has not faced: a weakened support base and a strengthened opposition that could alter Turkey's politics much earlier than the currently scheduled June 2023 national elections. In particular, this will increasingly play out in parliament, where the AKP is most vulnerable.

Why Parliament Still Matters

Ostensibly, the AKP has until June 2023 to respond and recover from these setbacks using its command of the country's media, courts and current parliamentary advantage, but if the defections among the old guard succeed in luring away sitting AKP members of parliament, the party will have little choice but to call an election much earlier than planned — and on terms that don't necessarily favor Erdogan's beleaguered government. That early election scenario is all the more realistic given that the Turkish Constitution still places substantial checks on the presidency's power even though recent reforms have given Erdogan's position far more clout than before.

A graphic outlining the Turkish parliament's checks on the presidency.

The budget, for instance, must still obtain approval from a majority in parliament, and though Erdogan can use the charter to ignore a recalcitrant legislature and impose previous budgets, this check on his power curtails his ability to completely impose his will on the country's economy. Parliament can also block presidential declarations of emergency, obstruct the president's decrees by a simple majority and call early elections with a 60 percent vote. For the AKP, the stronger presidency gives the party more cards than it had previously, but it hardly hands the government the entire deck.

To counter, Erdogan will revisit his bag of tricks; after all, he has faced electoral hiccups before. After failing to win a majority in June 2015 elections, Erdogan called snap elections for November of that year; in the meantime, he marshaled his party's strengths by playing the nationalist card, trumpeting the AKP's economic successes and bringing the party's influence over institutions to bear against the opposition. The strategy ultimately worked, as the second election gave Erdogan the majority he craved.

Diminishing Returns

Today, however, Erdogan's appeals to ideology and patriotism are unlikely to stop the rot, while his economic moves are either likely to fail or will contradict his ideological ones, costing him diehard supporters. At the same time, any attempts to take advantage of his control over institutions to clamp down on defectors or other opposition parties could further damage relations with allies and ignite more societal unrest.

The AKP has long used patriotism to rally the party faithful and minimize defections and splits, most notably during the break with the Gulen movement, whom the AKP accuses of being traitors. It has also pursued nationalist policies to court the far-right vote, such as pushing against Cyprus' claims in the Eastern Mediterranean's natural gas fields and conducting operations against Kurdish militants in southeastern Turkey, Syria and Iraq. And it has used religion as a means to bolster support, building religious schools near and abroad, injecting more Sunni Islamic thought into the national curriculum and building mosques in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

But these ideological overtures largely speak to the converted rather than the doubters, who question the AKP's economic leadership and Erdogan's own personal governing style, meaning they do little to stem the walkouts from the AKP.

The AKP could try economic maneuvers to prevent a split, but such efforts are unlikely to be particularly effective; in fact, they could even worsen Turkey's economic situation.

The AKP could try economic maneuvers to prevent a split, but such efforts are unlikely to be particularly effective; in fact, they could even worsen Turkey's economic situation. Turkey funded its growth by obtaining cheap debt in the 2000s, but the debt from that era is now coming due, and the unstable lira is poorly positioned to help Turkey transition through this period. There is little the AKP can do to avoid the inevitable reckoning of the country's vast private sector debt, and a painful restructuring period of some kind is unavoidable. While Turkey will be tempted to find an International Monetary Fund bailout, such action will risk angering otherwise loyal ultranationalists — and come with strings that nevertheless force the AKP to adopt policies that they have resisted for the sake of ideology and political expediency thus far.

Yet they have still more means to resist the pressure of the opposition. Most potently, the AKP still wields considerable institutional leverage over all challengers through its control over much of the country's media, its majority in parliament, its hold over the electoral board and its command of the nation's courts.

By resorting to nationalist rhetoric in the media and wielding power through the election board and the courts, the AKP can attempt to delegitimize any splinter party and spook potential defectors into remaining in the AKP's ranks. But for determined defectors, such legitimization tactics are unlikely to succeed in keeping them in line. 

At the same time, delegitimization may be only a prelude to more determined action. The AKP has previously used emergency powers to remove mayors from posts in the Kurdish southeast — it may be tempted to do so again, especially to gain control of Istanbul and Ankara once more. But international and domestic backlash would be swift should it make such a decision.

The AKP can also use handouts, contracts and a generous printing spree at the central bank to try to maintain the personal loyalty of AKP defectors. But without Istanbul and Ankara in its hands, it won't be able to benefit from the lucrative contracts of the country's biggest demographic and political centers. And more central bank printing will only increase inflation — something that's already undercutting the AKP's economic legitimacy. Additionally, the optics surrounding handouts to loyalists have irritated many Turkish voters, who dislike the favoritism at a time when the country is struggling. These tried-and-tested tactics are not, in other words, as reliable as before.

The AKP will incur risks, accept domestic and international blowback and strain the nation's rule of law in its pursuit to hold on to the reins of power.

Finally, the AKP can use its leverage in parliament and the electoral board to try to change the goalposts for electoral success for the opposition. Here, it would have a few options, including modifications to Turkey's parliamentary election laws. First, it could increase the electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament to past 10 percent — itself a very high number that routinely complicates matters for the HDP, the Good Party (a splinter itself from the MHP) and, potentially, the AKP breakaway party. It might also end the rule that allows smaller parties to group together to pass the 10 percent threshold — hurting smaller parties that need alliances to pass the high bar. The AKP could also abandon the proportional system and implement a first-past-the-post system that would increase the party's success given that it is the preeminent party in many more provinces than any of its competitors. Indeed, in the June 2018 elections, the AKP won 64 of 81 provinces; the CHP, by contrast, won just six. And to further stem the bleeding in new municipal elections in the future, the AKP could also engage in gerrymandering by resizing electoral districts to favor its voters.

But in the final calculation, that institutional leverage carries major risks — and no guarantee that it would work. Abusing the state's institutions for party gain would outrage the opposition and actually strengthen competitors' popular appeal. Alternatively, such moves could destabilize the country by causing protests, strikes or even violence. Meanwhile, few of Turkey's major allies in the West would welcome such attempts to shore up the AKP's power, as it would increase friction with the European Union, which is already at loggerheads with Ankara over Cyprus drilling, and the United States over Turkey's decision to take delivery of the Russian-made S-400 missile system. Meanwhile, any institutional move wouldn't address the core reason why the AKP rebellion threatens Erdogan's rule: the poorly performing economy and the assertive personality of Erdogan himself — two factors the AKP cannot really control.

That leaves the AKP with few viable options to combat defections and maintain its current political dominance. Even so, the AKP will not simply accept that such long odds proscribe it from using all means at its disposal to maintain power. In the end, the party will incur risks, accept domestic and international blowback, and strain the nation's rule of law in its pursuit to hold on to the reins of government. Even on the backfoot, the AKP will remain a major force defining Turkey's future for some time to come.

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