Erdoğan’s dead end: learning a difficult lesson

As President of Turkey and head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has begun to learn one of the difficult lessons of Turkish politics. Even if he does not yet understand the lesson, sooner or later he will have to realise it: one of the facts of Turkish leadership is the inverse relationship between the presidency and party leadership.

There are two examples of this in Turkish history. Following a military coup in 1980, General Kenan Evren became president of the republic. In the years following the coup, the head of the centre-right Motherland Party (ANAP), Turgut Özal, became prime minister and developed a reputation as one of the most powerful politicians in the country. But when Özal took over the presidency in 1989 from Evren, he lost control of ANAP and his grand ambitions were dashed.

A few years later, the same thing happened to Süleyman Demirel, head of the centre-right True Path Party (DYP). After he moved into the presidential residence in Ankara’s Çankaya district, his relationship with his party was compromised and party leadership fell into the hands of a different cadre. The ambitious and incompetent party leaders that followed managed to bring about the demise of both political parties.

Erdoğan’s ambitions have been even grander. In the absence of any real opposition, Erdoğan eliminated all potential competitors and increased his influence. His goal was to sit at the top of an administration with unquestionable power, immune to opposition and exempt from prosecution. After weathering a few storms, he eventually achieved this goal in the April 16, 2017 constitutional referendum that ushered in Turkey’s transition to an executive-style presidency.

This is when his problems began to deepen. It is not easy to govern Turkey from a single centre. Both Özal and Demirel tried to consolidate control and become the chief decision maker at every level, but they learned the difficult lesson that their ambitions and position were, in a sense, inversely proportional. As they fortified the position of the presidency, they became removed from public politics and organizing, as well as from effective governance. They eventually realized their mistake, but not before it was too late.

Erdoğan is still in the initial stages of learning this difficult lesson. The AKP that he leads is not the old AKP. It has alienated folks, lost their trust, and driven them to the opposition. Erdoğan has filled his party with mediocre advisors that are more obedient, more opportunistic, and less capable than previous AKP cadres, and has consequently made the AKP even more vulnerable to collapse than the DYP or ANAP had been.

These politicians will disperse, and the more sensible representatives will regroup around AKP veterans such as former president Abdullah Gül or former cabinet member Ali Babacan. As for former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who has made unforgivable mistakes in Turkey’s Middle East and Kurdish policies: he is on a trajectory that lags far behind his ambitions.

An important point at this stage is that by ordering a repeat of the Istanbul mayoral election originally held on March 31, Erdoğan has left AKP voters in a stage of confusion and insecurity, without any direction, options or alternatives.

Due to his misguided decisions in both domestic and foreign policy, and most importantly his obstinacy that has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse, it does not seem possible for Erdoğan to return to his previous status. He will continue on his path as a lame duck, and the only way he can avoid this trajectory is by taking steps towards compromise, thereby opening the door for normalization.

Nevertheless, this 180-degree turn would require him to give up on the position of “super-executive president” that he proudly adopted on April 16. He would have to curb his authority, return the judiciary to a position of independence, release the tens of thousands of political prisoners that were unfairly imprisoned, adopt a prudent approach to the economy, and give up on his adventurous foreign policy. In other words, he would have to further compromise his political position, which is already vulnerable. For him to take such actions would go against everything he has done so far.

It is for this reason that Erdoğan, as he mentioned in his last speech, is hoping to continue with his “People’s Alliance,” a coalition between the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It is not that he does not have other options, but rather that he has pegged his personal survival to the darker forces in that coalition.

The situation abroad is no different: knowing that Russian President Putin does not trust him enough, Erdoğan seeks answers in reaching an agreement with American President Trump. He is pursuing a lost cause: he does not realize that unless he makes a U-turn on Turkey’s purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia, Trump’s ability to help him is limited and fleeting.

This is where the paradox lies: domestically he is relying on coalition partners that are virulently hostile towards the West, but in his meeting with Trump in Japan, the injured president will signal to Trump that if the American president protects him, Erdoğan will do anything Trump wants.

An Erdoğan that is in the middle of a risky clash of global interests, who is struggling to juggle interests to prolong his regime, now governs Turkey. Meral Akşener, leader of the centre-right Good Party, recently made a speech warning that winter was coming. Perhaps she was alluding to Erdoğan’s autumn, or fall.

The countdown has begun for the collapse within the AKP in Parliament, which was rendered obsolete by the April 16 referendum. Erdoğan knows what is coming; in his usual pragmatic style, in order to once more consolidate his control over the party, he could try extending an olive branch to AKP founders. It is unclear whether he would be successful. However, he has created such an impossible conjuncture that he will eventually be left without an exit.

In the Istanbul elections that were repeated on June 23, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu won by 806,000 votes, and shook up the playing field. The campaign slogan that brought him the mayorship, that “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” may or may not come to fruition, but one thing is certain: from now on, in Erdoğan’s political life, everything will not be all right.

© Ahval English

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