Defeated Erdoğan will try to divide Turkish opposition

The response of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the results of the March 31 local elections underscores a simple fact: Turkey’s president is desperate.

The country’s deepening economic crisis, now officially a recession, is the main curb on Erdoğan’s ability to manoeuvre. There is little hope of economic recovery on the horizon given that Erdoğan is unlikely to embrace radical change in his economic agenda. Even if Erdoğan were to concede to rational economic policy, the austerity measures would likely lead to reduced electoral support.

But the president has been signalling that he will continue his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) populist economic policies, fearing the loss of support even in conservative Anatolian towns that have solidly backed him until now. The problem is that Erdoğan and the AKP are virtually out of money.

In the last two years, Erdoğan has sought to re-energise the economy simply by transforming the state into an agent of cheap credit. That strategy has resulted in a backlash, in the form of non-performing loans, inflation, increased unemployment and a lingering currency crisis.

Erdoğan’s second major conundrum is foreign policy. In the last few years, Turkey has seen relations with the European Union and United States deteriorate and begun leaning toward the Russian sphere of influence, a shift that is unlikely to boost Turkey’s economy or its security.

A third problem is the direct result of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism: his AKP is now dominated by mediocre loyalists and yes-men. This so-called “Erdoğanism” has significantly weakened the AKP’s political and institutional abilities.

Erdoğan’s ambitious strategy to transform himself into a powerful one-man state has succeeded, but it has also led to the marginalisation or dismissal of respected and qualified figures such as former President Abdullah Gül and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan. To a large extent, today’s AKP can offer its chief little more than loyalty.

Given these troubles, Erdoğan is very unlikely to pull a political rabbit out of the hat, as he did in 2015 after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority.

Tough days await Erdoğan regarding the economy and foreign policy. As he did during the campaign, the president is likely to embrace negative strategies that seek to undermine the opposition. Erdoğan’s political theory of survival goes something like this: “If unable to strengthen your own position, attack and weaken your opponent.”

Along these lines, Erdoğan is likely to develop new strategies to erode cooperation between the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), its nationalist partner the Good Party and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Though the HDP was not formally part of the CHP-Good Party coalition, its indirect support was a game changer in the local elections, particularly in western Turkey.

But despite the parties’ electoral cooperation, many nationalist CHP and Good Party supporters remain sceptical about the HDP. Seeing this, Erdoğan is likely to attempt to exploit rifts between the HDP and the other two parties. He knows very well that the Achilles heel of the anti-AKP coalition is the Kurdish issue.

Hawkish policies towards the Kurds may sideline Kurdish voters since the CHP and Good Party both tend to take a pro-state stance in such circumstances.

Bear in mind, Kurds’ support for the CHP is a reflection of their opposition to Erdoğan, and has very little to do with the persuasiveness of CHP policies.

Indeed, Kurdish support for the CHP, like most political alliances, is conditional, and depends on how the CHP performs on the Kurdish issue. For example, how would the CHP react if Erdoğan dismissed more elected Kurdish mayors? What might the Good Party do if Erdoğan attempted to lift the parliamentary immunity from prosecution of more HDP deputies?

Turkey’s president is surely considering questions such as these in the wake of his electoral defeat.

* The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.