Erdogan is not down and definitely not out
Will 2018 be the year Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces serious, possibly even destabilising, challenges at home or will it be the year he consolidates his iron rule through which he will be considered, even to leaders of the democratic world, as somewhat indispensable?
Erdoğan’s rise to supreme authority was always a race against time and a battle waged against all odds.
He has long displayed something that observers describe as a raging paranoia, the fear that he is surrounded by forces determined to oust him from power.
Might Erdoğan be right about the perilousness of his position? He has placed himself at the centre of foreign policy, leading the missteps and the swerve away from Turkey’s traditional posture on Armenia, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt and other issues. Each time he has intervened, it caused a stir.
Erdoğan has not strengthened Turkey’s position abroad, except with Sudan, Qatar and Somalia. He needs to make political investments at home. The president knows that he can pick fights abroad and gain popular support in Turkey but this will mean little unless he builds new alliances on the national stage. His survival depends on national backing.
There is little doubt about Erdoğan’s ultimate ambitions. He seeks to be Turkey’s supreme leader, above the rule of law. By all accounts, he would go to extremes to achieve this dream but to do so he needs to keep his government and party together, his enemies as close as he can and retain popular support with fear-mongering rhetoric.
After years of dazzling political fellow travellers with grand visions of a different sort of democratisation, Erdoğan stands exposed and isolated.
The murky background of the 2016 coup attempt continues to pose a challenge. Erdoğan is surrounded by ultra-nationalists and Turkey’s old guard, which includes civilian and military elements of the so-called inner state. The latter is a leftover from the Turkish version of the post-second world war Operation Gladio, which involved complicated false-flag manoeuvres to combat the threat of Soviet Communism.
Erdoğan has a testing agenda for the year ahead but he can look back on the recent past with satisfaction. He has won many battles, including last year’s crucial referendum that granted the office of the president sweeping new powers.
Erdoğan, however, still must win the war. Local, national and presidential elections are scheduled for 2019 and the math doesn’t add up in his favour. Erdoğan needs 51% of the vote in the first round to win but opinion polls suggest he would get less than the required number.
The presidential vote is crucial for Erdoğan. Were he to lose, he could face corruption cases and it would mean the end of his extraordinary political trajectory.
Unsurprisingly then, he is trying desperately to build an alliance around an ultra-nationalist axis. He is embracing the far-right Eurosceptic Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the fourth biggest force in parliament, and he is trying to appeal to the MHP’s core base. MHP is also cosying up to anti-NATO and anti-Western elements within the political sphere, including so-called Eurasionists and hard-line Kemalists.
It is a huge gamble, possibly Erdoğan’s most audacious. Erdoğan is hoping to surf a nationalist- Islamist wave, reminiscent of the course set in Pakistan years ago, and build a lasting coalition between Turkey’s traditionally powerful and conservative elements — the military, the pious-nationalist flank of the bureaucracy and its extension on the political right.
In the process, he hopes to create conditions for an Erdoğan dynasty.
The odds appear favourable to him. Erdoğan’s nationalist rhetoric — threatening Greece on territorial issues — has forced the Republican People’s Party — the Kemalist main opposition party — to change its tune. The more he pushes an anti-Western agenda, the more he appeals to the MHP’s ultra-nationalist grassroots.
Meanwhile, the opposition seems stumped. Neither the left nor the right has formulated a strategy offering an alternative vision for Turkey.
Erdoğan is not even down, so how can he be out?