Turkey 2.0 is a fragile state, and getting worse
Sunday’s municipal elections were deeply unfair, thanks to the government’s near-total control of the media. As a result, the outcome was predictable: the AKP won once again.
The AKP leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is a perennially populist leader, speaking to the hearts of his followers, especially the poor and pious. Since 2002, they have found a voice in Erdoğan and given him landslide election victories. On Sunday in around 1,000 towns and 81 cities, voters chose the mayors and municipal leaders of Erdoğan’s new Turkey – Turkey 2.0.
But the results marked a bitter victory for the AKP, tinged with significant losses. The AKP and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) ally took 51.6 percent of the total vote, but lost the mayoral races in Turkey’s three biggest cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir - to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
For the first time since 1994, a party linked to Erdoğan lost Istanbul and the capital Ankara, a symbol of the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Istanbul is not only the biggest city and financial hub, responsible for nearly a third of Turkey’s GDP, but also where Erdoğan began his political career as its mayor in 1994. The election results therefore represent an increasing show of no confidence in Erdoğan’s one-man rule, and the country’s democratic backsliding and economic downturn.
Let us make no mistake: the result of these elections does not mean the end of the AKP’s electoral hegemony and Erdoğan’s one-man rule. Still, local elections are important as they reflect the effectiveness of the AKP’s traditional networks of political patronage.
In the past, Erdoğan has benefitted from the weakness of the CHP, which has failed to offer a strong alternative to the AKP’s populism and economic success. It was a financial crisis that brought the AKP to power in 2002, and has been economic success that has kept the party in power all these years.
Today, it is Turkey’s economic recession that will determine the party’s future. Sunday’s marginal AKP victory will do nothing to resolve the country’s long-term political and economic problems.
There are serious concerns about the future of Turkey 2.0. As I wrote in August, what has happened in Venezuela is an example of what could happen in Turkey.
When the 14-year rule of populist President Hugo Chávez ended with his death in 2013, Venezuela was no longer the richest country in South America, but was already on the path to instability and chaos.
Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, focused more on consolidating executive power than social reforms, similar to Turkey 2.0. Maduro’s policies increased unemployment, poverty and inflation. Venezuela is now the third most rapidly declining country in the Fund for Peace’s 2018 Fragile States Index. Turkey was ranked 92nd of 178 countries on the index in 2008, but has fallen to 58th in the latest rankings.
The most pressing issue in Turkey is the economy, which has been in a downward spiral since Erdoğan was re-elected president and took on executive powers last June. The country experienced sharp falls in the lira in August and unemployment has reached 13.5 percent, while youth unemployment was even higher at 24.5 percent at the end of 2018. The lira lost nearly a third of its value against the dollar last year and has suffered further losses in recent weeks.
Erdoğan warned that bankers betting on lira depreciation would pay “a very heavy price”, and regulators opened investigations into JPMorgan Chase and other banks on allegations of providing misinformation, stoking volatility and pushing clients to buy foreign currencies.
“With archaic measures of this kind he will scare away even the last courageous Turkey investor,” Ulrich Leuchtmann, head of FX & EM research at Commerzbank in Frankfurt, said of Erdoğan. “Who would want to invest in a currency that’s valuation is only based on fear?”
Turkey has entered a recession and inflation stands at 20 percent. While the country needs foreign capital, Erdoğan has forcefully argued against an IMF loan, which would come with tough conditions. The Turkish economy is in uncharted territory and many foreign investors have left the country.
Like Venezuela, Turkey 2.0’s relations with the West, especially the United States, are at a critical juncture. In 2004, two years after the Islamist AKP came to power, Turkey became an official candidate for European Union membership.
In February, the European Parliament called for accession talks with Turkey to be formally suspended due to concerns about human rights, the rule of law, media freedom, corruption and the country’s “all-powerful presidential system”.
But becoming an EU member is no longer an aspiration of Turkey 2.0, and relations with the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally and strategic partner, have reached new lows over a range of issues, including Ankara’s support for Maduro and Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems.
Erdoğan continues to rage against the West, shamelessly turning footage of the New Zealand mosque attacks, in which 50 Muslims were killed, into an election propaganda tool. Attacking the West for the rise of Islamophobia was nothing but a desperate and cheap attempt to tap into anti-Western feelings and gain the support in the local elections. The message was that only Erdoğan cares about Muslims.
Erdoğan is deliberately shifting away from Turkey’s pro-Western outlook and undoing the democratic-secular republic established by Atatürk. The president has been extremely successful in leading Ankara’s EU candidacy into a dead-end, destroying its democratic progress, and damaging Turkey’s economy and international image.
All political leaders are corrupted by power, but no leader is immortal. Just like Venezuela under, and after, Chavez, the political trajectory of Turkey under Erdoğan is like watching a car crash in slow motion.
Turkey used to be criticised for having a strong state, but Turkey 2.0 is now a fragile state on track to follow Venezuela into becoming a failed state.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.