Gökhan Bacık
Jun 26 2019

Can Erdoğan change?

After the humiliating defeat of his party in the rerun elections to choose a new mayor of Istanbul, the question is how will Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan react. Will the president, who has run the country since 2003, change course or continue on his path of authoritarian rule?

Change is likely when people are able to criticise their leader. If the leader is immune from criticism, change is not likely.

Some leading figures in Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have claimed the Istanbul defeat was not the fault of the president, but of those around him. These are nothing but tactical arguments employed by the party leadership. It is unlikely that AKP members would criticise Erdoğan for the defeat, or question his role in it. The cult of the leader within the AKP is a major obstacle to its reform.

Secondly, change is possible if political actors diagnose their own mistakes and do not see fictitious enemy plots as the cause of their defeat.

So does the AKP believe it lost the Istanbul elections due to its mistakes, its authoritarianism, hubris, corruption and economic failures? Or, does the AKP continue to blame various enemies for plotting its downfall?

Thirdly, change is possible if a party is able to remove those who were at fault.

There are a number of ministers, senior party figures and pro-government journalists who have played key roles in the formation of present-day AKP strategies. So will the AKP be able to remove these key figures?

Since Sunday’s election defeat, it is clear these party figures AKP talk of the need for self-criticism, but it is apparent they will never let it happen.

It is important to remember that the AKP is an Islamist party and its religious adherence makes change and pragmatism more painful. It is difficult to challenge and criticise the leader of an Islamist party, as his leadership is replete with almost religious symbolism. Today, for many people within the AKP, Erdoğan is more than a party leader, he is also a kind of religious leader who is perceived to have a global mission to lead Muslims across the world.

Thus within the Islamic movement it is to taboo to criticise the leader. Instead, the standard in-group narrative is that defeat is because of the failure of members to understand the leader. This cultish idea of leadership makes all Islamic parties and groups hard to change.

Finally, change is also possible if it helps to the survival of a political party. Democratisation or more freedom of expression is unlikely to boost the chances of the AKP’s political survival. The AKP’s survival in the recent years has been more due to its ability to impose authoritarian rule. 

Erdoğan and his party are likely to make some short-term, pragmatic shifts, but maintain its familiar agenda. Real change within AKP is hypothetically possible, but realistically unlikely. 

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