Erdogan down but certainly not out

It was a bad week for Erdoğan. But it is too early for schadenfreude. I hate to rain on the victory parade, but the master of Turkish politics has survived much worse when he was politically much weaker.

In case we tend to forget the obvious, Erdoğan now has total control of Turkey’s politics and media. His autocracy is too deeply entrenched to be shaken by a couple of corruption scandals buried in history and overtaken by more powerful recent events.

Yes, Erdoğan is vulnerable on the financial front but even there the macroeconomic fundamentals are not as alarming as doomsayers predict. 

Erdoğan’s political survival skills are unmatched in Turkish political history. He not only survived but managed to emerge stronger after each existential challenge to his rule. 

Those who believe this time will be different – as I sometimes do despite myself – may be suffering from premature jubilation syndrome.

The best antidote for this ailment is a small dose of memory combine with a tad of realism. Just remember with common sense how Erdoğan survived a series of monumental challenges.

It is a long and impressive list of debacles: the e-coup of 2007, the economic downturn of 2008, the Gezi protests, the corruption probe of 2013, the June 2015 electoral downturn, and the July 2016 failed coup. We are all getting older as Erdoğan is getting stronger.   

This last debacle taking place in a New York City court room comes at an opportune time for Erdoğan – at a time when he has already emasculated all opponents and silenced all effective critical media.

There is nothing left in today’s Turkey that remotely looks like a vocal civil society. Instead, what we have is a draconian emergency law where even the main opposition leader can easily end up behind bars.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu may indeed “pay a very heavy price” (as Erdoğan threatened him with on Friday) for daring to reveal tax evasion schemes implicating the Sultan and his inner circle. 

Under such circumstances, Reza Zarrab’s confessions of widespread bribery and corruption will find no mass response in Turkey.

To be sure, the fact that Zarrab’s confessions so directly involve Erdoğan’s cabinet members and potentially Erdoğan himself create a disturbing sense of deja vu among dispirited Turks. In the eyes of jaded observers of Turkish politics, what is new in Zarrab’s confessions is only the scale and scope of “systemic” corruption. 

To me, Zarrab’s mindboggling testimony clearly shows how close Erdoğan “the survivor” came to the end of the road when this whole corruption scheme was made public in December 2013 after the arrest of Zarrab himself and some of his partners.

In a country governed by the rule of law, this corruption scandal would have immediately ended the political career of all those involved. Instead, Turkey is a country where no real legal, journalistic or political effort is made to find where people like the former Minister Zafer Çağlayan who received 40 to 50 million euros in bribes is now hiding. 

It is also a tragedy of historic proportions that the December 2013 corruption probe came in the context of a power struggle between Erdoğan and the Gülen network.

In other words, what should have remained strictly legal turned highly political in December 2013. The fact that the whole criminal and judicial investigation was led by Gülenist prosecutors gave Erdoğan a lifeline which he handsomely exploited.

Despite clearly incriminating evidence, his propaganda machine managed to convince Turkish public opinion that he was the innocent victim of a coup attempt. 

There was indeed legitimate ground to believe that the Gülenists were after Erdoğan because of their personal vendetta.

Gulenist prosecutors knew all along the scale of the corruption within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ranks. But they cooperated with the AKP for as long as Erdoğan supported their network. Only when the partnership was broken did they decide to pull the trigger.

This was not the Turkish equivalent of an Italian “clean hands” operation led by an independent prosecutor.

Instead, it was one mafia gang going after another because the bosses differed on how to share the spoils.  

Despite all this, the whole Zarrab case and the exposure of AKP’s dirty laundry still creates a sense of delayed justice. But delayed justice will not translate into anything tangible in Turkey where political dynamics are now clearly in favour of Erdoğan.

Erdoğan will ride this storm because there is an unprecedented amount of anti-American nationalist frenzy in the country fuelled by the Kurdish problem and the image of Fethullah Gülen as an American project.  

Erdoğan will also survive this crisis because despite looming financial penalties for the banking sector, the macroeconomic fundamentals of the country are still sound enough to allow him an electoral victory next year.

Political risk is nothing new for a Turkish economy that still enjoys resilient growth and strong public finances. Yes, public finances have deteriorated marginally over the past year due to fiscal stimulus and the weaker lira.

But Turkey’s public debt-to-GDP ratio is still at a very respectable 30 percent. This is the greatest achievement of a decade of fiscal discipline and it fuels Turkey’s sovereign creditworthiness. Turkey has ample public reserves and borrowing capacity to weather the approaching financial storm.

In short, Erdoğan may appear down, but he is certainly not out.