Darkening skies for Turkey’s strongman ahead of elections

Is the tide turning against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the run-up to snap elections on June 24? Until recently, Erdogan was seen as electorally invincible but he may be running into trouble.

If so, the fragmented opposition is not to blame. The opposition lacks a comprehensive vision and is unable to offer viable alternative policies.

The real challenge to Erdogan seems to be his own economic policies. All signs point to accelerating decline. As this column has repeatedly pointed out, Erdogan really has one formidable adversary and it is himself. If he falls, it will be caused by his erratic decision-making and well-known obstinacy.

That moment may have come and the opposition parties might be able to challenge Erdogan or at least target disappointed voters away from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

This is because of the economy. “A slump in the lira’s value — the country’s fragile currency hit a record low against the US dollar [May 4] — may be exposing [Erdogan] to a serious challenge from opposition figures,” wrote Mark Bentley on Ahval News Online.

Bentley, formerly bureau chief for Bloomberg News in Turkey, added that the opposition was “sure to draw attention to his [Erdogan’s] increasingly questionable record on steering the nation’s economy.”

The analysis makes a good point. The lira hit a low of 4.29 per dollar even as consumer price inflation climbed to 10.9% in April from 10.2% the previous month. This is very high compared to inflation levels in other countries — 2.7% in Brazil, 4.3% in India, 2.1% in China and 2.4% in Russia. Erdogan’s government did not heed warnings the economy was overheating and recently announced a fresh round of stimulus measures.

Experts see darkening skies for Turkey’s strongman. Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management in London, told Ahval: “If the lira continues to sink the message to voters will be that Erdogan has lost the plot on the economy front.”

The opposition seems to smell blood even though it is unable to nominate a unity candidate to run against Erdogan. Instead, each of the four main opposition parties will run a candidate while keeping fingers crossed Erdogan doesn’t win the election outright in the first round. The opposition’s approach to the election can be summarised as “take him down and then we’ll see.”

They know that, if they succeed, they will have taken over a ruin on almost every aspect due to a massive systemic crisis.

There have been no credible opinion polls — and it is far too early anyway by Turkish standards — to predict which way people will vote. However, if the economy worsens, as Ash said, it may foretell the electoral verdict.

Erdogan was determined to ensure the entire media would be under control when he announced early elections but there is a limit to the usefulness of such a strategy. Even with a submissive media, Turkey’s president cannot get voters to ignore the effects of economic trouble.

So what’s in prospect for Turkey after the election? There are three scenarios:

• Erdogan wins the presidential election and his AKP maintains a parliamentary majority. This is the president’s dream scenario. If it comes to pass, he will have consolidated a strong Islamist-nationalist bloc. It will legitimise Erdogan’s policies both with friends and foes in the international arena. Such a result would give Erdogan carte blanche to extend his purge of the opposition and dissenting civil society groups. The political changes under way in Turkey will have been signed and sealed for an indefinite period.

• Erdogan loses both the presidential race and parliamentary majority. This is fairly unlikely. Its immediate outcome would be political chaos but it would certainly mean the end of Erdogan’s rule as well as of the AKP as the last bastion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiments with power. If it happened, all the president’s men would probably start to disperse and it would take time to restore Turkey’s wrecked systems.

• Erdogan wins the presidential race but loses the parliamentary majority. If his chief opponent — the economy — continues to work against him, this could be a likely scenario. If the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party wins more than 10% of the vote, thereby crossing the threshold needed to enter parliament, a united opposition alliance could be the majority grouping. In such a situation, Erdogan would struggle not to become a lame duck. That said, he is a skilful politician and could manipulate his opponents by appointing ministers from opposition parties. He could also try to rule by presidential decree to marginalise the opposition.

No matter what happens, Turkey’s elections will only serve to expose the depth of its systemic crisis.