A dangerous vortex in Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on the brink of making a vital choice.
Since local election results were announced on the evening of March 31, when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of Turkey’s two largest municipalities, Istanbul and Ankara, the president has looked like a stork standing on one leg, hesitating over its next step.
It would not be an overstatement to say that both Erdoğan and Turkey are at a critical crossroads.
The chain of events that developed against the backdrop of Turkey’s ongoing economic crisis and peaked in Sunday’s mob attack on Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the centre-left opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), require a cool-headed analysis.
These developments are happening within the confines of a triangle comprised of Erdoğan, Kılıçdaroğlu, and Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) that is allied to the AKP.
However you look at it, the signs point on the one hand to economic crisis, and on the other hand to the Kurdish problem.
Columnist Abdülkadir Selvi made a revealing observation in the opening of his article that appeared in the Hürriyet newspaper on Monday:
“I was planning to write an article about the surprise offer that CHP President Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was preparing to offer President Erdoğan concerning a ‘Turkey alliance’. In fact, I wrote it. Just as I was finalising the piece, I heard the news about the attack on Kılıçdaroğlu. The pen dropped from my hand.”
Erdoğan’s concept of the “Turkey Alliance” is the most important statement he has made since the elections.
But Bahçeli, speaking in the southern city of Antalya, reacted angrily and said his coalition with the AKP - the People’s Alliance – was incompatible with the concept and intent of the Turkey Alliance.
To place these developments in their broader context, let us consider this excerpt from Bahçeli’s speech:
“Our alliance is not cyclical … The People’s Alliance has been infused with the legacy of Turkish history … the People’s Alliance is Turkey; it is defence against treason, resistance against invasion, and a steadfast bulwark against domestic and foreign fronts of evil. We believe that the People’s Alliance is Turkey’s hope for salvation. If we loosen these beliefs, make compromises, and fall prey to games, Turkey will pay a heavy price.
“The People’s Alliance was not founded with political apprehensions or intentions. Of course we cannot know what our esteemed president means by a Turkey Alliance. What we do know is the People’s Alliance. What we believe in is national unity and cooperation. Our goal is to ensure the perpetuity of our nation forever.”
Have no doubt that recent attacks on Kurdish mothers in the streets, the argument over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, the economic crisis and relations with the IMF, and most explicitly, the mob attack on the CHP leader, these are all occurring within the framework of the newly emerging clash between the Turkey Alliance and the People’s Alliance.
Like our aforementioned indecisive stork, Erdoğan has been off balance for the past three weeks, precariously standing on one leg.
Should he give up Istanbul, or not? What next?
The president is unable to gauge the effects that giving up control of Turkey’s biggest city and financial centre would have.
Though he has been previously deft at seeing into the future, now the optics are muddy.
Nevertheless, Erdoğan has taken away two lessons from the election:
- The People’s Alliance with the MHP was a strategic mistake. The main beneficiary was the MHP and as the MHP grew, the AKP crumbled.
- An economic crisis has descended upon Turkey and is not a storm that can be easily weathered. Erdoğan’s only hope is to reject the adventure-seeking policies of the MHP, and instead to get closer to the CHP and proceed with a broader coalition.
Bahçeli’s passionate declarations signal that he is aware of the new political deal under consideration and that both the CHP and the centre-right Good Party are preparing for Erdoğan’s new political offer. The assault on Kılıçdaroğlu is a symptom of this power struggle.
From Erdoğan’s perspective, his own political survival has become inextricably linked to that of the nation.
At the heart of the story of Erdoğan’s rule is his ability to secure the perpetuation of his power through temporary alliances, disposing of them when he sees fit and quickly forming new ones. His tactics are very straightforward, and yet the opposition falls for them every time.
Erdoğan’s ascendency began in the first years of the millennium through internal alliances with the other AKP co-founders. As prime minister from 2003 to 2014, he secured the legitimacy of his government against attacks from the military and the media, through alliances with centre-right and left reformist circles, as well as foreign partners.
This period of cooperating with these opponents ended when the AKP won a 2008 court case that called for the closing of his party.
But throughout this time, the longest alliance Erdoğan had was with the Gülen movement, under the leadership of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Unlike the Gülenists, who saw cooperation as a power sharing arrangement, Erdoğan planned to jettison the partnership once he had consolidated his personal dominance. Thanks to the deep hatred for the Gülen movement amongst many in political life, he was easily able to break the alliance.
The new alliance he has developed since 2014 has been very fruitful for the continuity of his personal dominance. He has taken his strategy – that observers have politely termed pragmatism, but is in fact a spineless opportunism - to such an extreme that he has cooperated with militant/authoritarian circles that had previously made every extrajudicial attempt to undermine his power.
Even the Kurdish movement was blind to Erdoğan’s tactics, helping him initiate a peace process in 2013 that the president trampled on two years later.
The two groups that have paid the heaviest price for this misplaced trust are members of the Kurdish and Gülenist movements. More than 45,000 of these people now populate prisons in Turkey.
It might be useful to look at the post-election crisis through this lens in order to better understand what the future holds.
Seeing that the MHP alliance is deepening divisions in the AKP, Erdoğan might dissolve the People’s Alliance, just as he has done with such previous arrangements before.
Erdoğan realises that the economic crisis not only hurts the AKP and its voters, but also directly threatens the one-man rule he has so arduously constructed. He knows the only way out of this crisis is through working with the CHP, which has good relations with global economic and political circles.
But does the CHP realise that Erdoğan owes his entire political career to useful alliances? Do CHP leaders understand that historically, once Erdoğan has profited from his alliances, he ruthlessly breaks them and inflicts enormous damage on his former allies?