Guldem Atabay
Jun 28 2019

The economy has shaken politics in Turkey, soon politics will drive its economy

Opposition politician Ekrem Imamoğlu’s landslide victory in Istanbul’s mayoral elections on Sunday is shaking up the Turkish political landscape.  Analyses mostly focus on the choices President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces in keeping his party’s ranks firmly intact in the months ahead, the possible routes the dissidents in the party could take and, of course, the increasing prospect of bringing forward general elections from 2023.

Therefore, it would be illuminating to take a look at the results of opinion polls held since the June 23 election rerun to assess the state of play. 

Fifty-eight percent of Turkish citizens would now prefer Turkey’s former parliamentary system of government over Erdoğan’s presidential system were a 2017 referendum be repeated, according to Ankara-based polling firm Metropoll.

Metropoll also carried out striking fieldwork in the Istanbul regions of Fatih and Eyupsultan.   These are areas of the city which the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) have dominated politically over the past two decades but which have now turned to Imamoğlu by quite a margin. 

When randomly asked about the reasons for such a sharp switch, people who used to be AKP voters mostly pointed to the party’s loss of touch with reality regarding the ongoing economic crisis in Turkey.  

Other striking answers from the poll’s respondents included the AKP’s polarising rhetoric, in which it characterises almost every opposition party as “terrorists” and the its alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP).  When we talk about AKP policies, we are now talking about Erdoğan’s policy choices of course; given the one-man presidential system that exists in Turkey since last summer. 

Imamoğlu’s support is also strong outside Istanbul. While he won 54 percent of votes in the city, his support in the greater Anatolia region has hit highs of around 60 percent, according to polling company ADAMOR. Whether Imamoğlu will be able to retain this popularity remains to be seen. Nonetheless the result is striking, seeing as Erdoğan was elected president with 52.6% of the vote last year.  

KONDA, renowned in Turkey for its accurate polling, highlighted the disgruntlement of voters about the cancellation of the initial election for Istanbul mayor on March 31, which Imamoğlu also won but by a much narrower margin.

Combining all of the above reveals several simple facts. 

The first is the flawed presidential system in Turkey. It solely aims to consolidate Erdoğan’s power. Turkey is being governed through the naturally limited vision of one person and collective rationality is failing to get Erdoğan’s attention. Turkish citizens were promised that such consolidation of power would bring swift solutions to economic problems. But what people have seen over the course of just one year is exactly the opposite.  Economic difficulties have intensified.

The second simple fact is that the economic situation in Turkey played the major role in turning the bulk of voters away from the ruling AKP.  Under the presidential system in Turkey, citizens are now aware that one-man rule under Erdoğan has meant that the president and his son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, are still in denial about the existence of an economic crisis.  Thus, the announced support packages for the economy were ineffective and rather led to a rapid deterioration in the budget.

Furthermore, the moto “it’s the economy, stupid!” has failed to resound among Erdoğan’s team of advisors and ministers, who seem only to exist to back up Erdoğan’s own visualization of the situation. So much so that they too appear to have lost touch.

Finally, as reflected by the opinion polls, Erdoğan’s survival instincts, which have encouraged him to polarise society, have made life harder for him as they appear to have angered his voter base.  Given the need for the support of his hardcore nationalist ally the MHP, the president was bound by such rhetoric, which he himself created and became a prisoner of. Voters in Turkey, the younger ones especially, do not favour conflict but rather seek a brighter future backed by hope rather than hatred.

The economy was at the heart of the AKP’s election successes over the past two decades. But now the AKP’s failures are economic ones in the eyes of Turkish voters. 

Living standards were improving for Turks and life was getting easier, but now the heady years of the AKP have morphed into a death cycle with the lira’s meltdown, high inflation, high interest rates, economic contraction, the absence of foreign investments and mountains of debt spurring unemployment and bankruptcies at an increasing rate. Some voters now blame the badly designed presidential system for their hardship, the consequent consolidation of decision-making, and finally the mistaken policies of Erdoğan and Albayrak.  

A significant amount of AKP voters now appear ready to give a chance to an opposition politician who is in touch with reality, acknowledges economic hardship, and who seeks and offers solutions based on a positive outlook.

As the political competition is going to get tougher and tougher, it will be harder and harder for the president and his loyalists to implement the tough measures needed to right the economy.

New competition from within the AKP itself, most notably the political duo of former President Abdullah Gul and Ali Babacan, who is renowned for his successes when in charge of the economy, are likely to draw support. They also appear ready to work hand in hand with Imamoğlu and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Kurdish movement, and the secular nationalist IYI Party. Such an alliance, if successful, would soon create positive expectations for the economy.

A reversal of Turkey’s course to one-man rule, or at least a partial one, could work wonders for the Turkish economy.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Erdoğan and his far-right political allies will backtrack or address the reasons for the faltering economy in Turkey and the deterioration in democracy and the rule of law. Rather, it appears that they will try to use these problems to their advantage with the aim of garnering more votes at the next election.  

In summary, Turkey’s economy will remain in limbo for some time to come.  With the AKP now in an existentialist mode, it appears almost impossible for Erdoğan to support rationality that would either sideline him or shrink his powers.

Yet, just as during the financial crisis of 2001, economic maladies have again dictated political change.  Sooner rather than later, the change in politics will start steering the economy. There is reason to be hopeful, motivated and committed. 

And nobody says change is easy.  

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