Hagia Sophia mosque changes nothing for Turkey’s Erdoğan

Rumours that Turkey’s Council of State had decided to re-convert Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s iconic cathedral-turned mosque-turned museum, back into a mosque spread like wildfire on Turkish social media this week, yet at least one analyst saw the decision leaving Turkey’s political landscape, and the outlook for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, largely unchanged. 

“This has been an electrifying issue that has polarised society,” Berk Esen, international relations professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University, told Ahval in a podcast. “If it is finally turned into a mosque, it’s going to be seen as a victory for Erdoğan and the Islamist movement...But I don’t think Erdoğan will be able to expand his voter base.”

Esen saw a parallel in Erdoğan’s long-running effort to build a mosque in Taksim Square, which is now nearing completion. Yet that success failed to increase support for the president and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which lost the mayoralties of several of Turkey’s biggest cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) last year. With the Hagia Sophia’s proposed conversion, voters may again shrug.

“It’s going to be a Pyrrhic victory. The overall economic status of voters will not change,” Esen said, pointing to Turkey’s troubled economy and to denunciations of the Hagia Sophia decision from leading officials in Greece, Russia, and the United States. “Erdoğan will get some kind of backlash in the international arena.”

In addition, the change is unlikely to have any impact on Turkey’s younger voters, who, according to a June study by the Gezi Research Centre, are tilting away from the AKP.

“Particularly for young voters, Hagia Sophia is not really an important issue. For them what is much more important is obviously a lack of good job opportunities, lack of educational opportunities, the economic downturn,” said Esen, adding that they could make a significant impact in the next elections, scheduled for late 2023, despite representing only about 12 percent electorate. “The last few elections have been quite close and even a 2-3 percent point swing would really change things dramatically.”

The Gezi study found that an estimated 13 million young Turks are more environmentally concerned than previous generations and do not share the conservative values of the AKP. Perhaps more importantly, more than a quarter of them do not have jobs, as unemployment for Turkish citizens aged 15-24 has hovered around 25 percent in recent months.

Still, in the Gezi study many of these dissatisfied youth talked about not voting for any party at all or leaving the country to seek their future in Europe or the United States.

“Erdoğan is beginning to seriously lose the Generation Z vote, but the jury is out in terms of how the vote will go - whether these people will basically become apathetic and not vote or go for the opposition,” said Esen, who said that because of pandemic-related travel restrictions he did not see them leaving Turkey en masse.

Nor did he see them automatically voting for the CHP, which until last year’s vote, had done little to instil confidence in recent years.

“The opposition parties cannot take for granted these voters. They really need to actively recruit their support,” said Esen, suggesting that the CHP focus on relevant issues and begin to welcome younger members into the party, to run for office and represent it. “They need to do more, substantially more.”

Another reason some Turkish voters have turned away from the AKP is a perceived slide into authoritarianism and away from the rule of law, particularly since the failed coup of 2016, after which the government enacted a state of emergency and purged more than 150,000 public servants from the police, judiciary, military and education system.

Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens were jailed for links to the alleged coup plotters, while dozens of journalists, activists and prominent politicians, like Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş, were jailed on spurious charges. In addition, a largely pro-government media and significant private and public funding has boosted the AKP.

In February, Carnegie Europe scholar and former European Union ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini told Ahval that Turkey was shifting toward autocracy. Esen disagreed, mainly because Turkey still regularly holds relatively free and fair elections, in which opposition parties have a real chance at winning, as happened last year. But he did acknowledge that Turkey’s president had largely monopolised state power.

“The AKP has been cast aside,” he said. “It’s now Erdoğan and a small circle of people around him.”

One region in which the political environment is not competitive is southeast Turkey. The state has cracked down sharply on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), dismissing more than 125 of its elected mayors, jailing dozens of its leaders, including Demirtaş, and detaining thousands of its members - all due to alleged terrorism links.

If Erdoğan were to take a similarly aggressive posture toward the CHP, and some have suggested he might, Turkey might then be accurately described as an autocracy, according to Esen, who did not see that happening. 

“It’s much smarter for an authoritarian leader to remain competitive at least in the electoral arena because it gives you some popular legitimacy and some support in the international arena and probably allows you to stabilise the situation a lot more easily,” he said.

Thus, barring a significant further erosion of democracy, Turkey’s opposition should have a real chance in the next vote, particularly considering the economic downturn that has left so many without work and barely able to afford rent and put food on the table.

In a recent journal article, Esen and co-author Şebnem Gümüşçü of Middlebury College argued that a significant economic shock would severely limit the hand-outs the AKP is able to give to its two main support networks, business elites and the urban poor, which could lead to the disintegration of their decades-long mutual interdependence.

“With the economic downturn and shrinking economic base, the party’s electoral fortunes have changed quite dramatically,” said Esen.

As with young voters, Esen said the opposition had much work to do to convince undecideds and dissatisfied AKP voters to go their way. Yet he acknowledged that the conditions were favourable for opposition support to increase between now and November 2023.

This may push Erdoğan to call for early elections, as several analysts have predicted. Esen did not see that happening this year. Instead, he pointed to a year and a half from now - before the former AKP figures’ splinter parties have been able to gain ground, yet after the Turkish economy has had some time to recover - as a possible sweet spot for Erdoğan’s chances at re-election.

“Calling for elections by the fall of 2021 or spring of 2022 would give Erdoğan that perfect moment, that most opportune moment of being able to compete against the opposition,” he said. “It would still be an uphill battle...but it would be for him I think the most ideal time.”