Turkey’s cloudy post-Erdoğan future

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been running Turkey for 17 years, but with the coronavirus pandemic arriving during a time of economic trouble and on the heels of last year’s local electoral defeats, some observers see this as a good time to imagine the post-Erdoğan political landscape.

Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said his new paper for the Washington Institute, The Outlook for Turkish Democracy: 2023 and Beyond, was largely motivated by this idea.

“How does he envision handing off the governing apparatus that he’s created? How does he imagine building continuity for his vision for Turkey?” Danforth told Ahval in a podcast. “He might do this on the succession model. He might have someone inherit the government from him.”

More optimistic observers see Turkey after Erdoğan reverting to a reliably liberal and pro-Western democracy. “The longer the current trajectory continues, the harder that is to imagine,” said Danforth.

Coronavirus continued to grip Turkey this week, with its case total crossing the 13,000-threshold on Tuesday (along with 214 deaths), placing Turkey among the world’s 10 most infected countries. On Monday, Erdoğan decided against imposing a full lockdown, instead urging Turkish citizens to keep the wheels of the economy turning by continuing production.

The president also called on wealthy Turks to donate to a collection fund for the country’s poor, contributing seven months of his own salary. But on Tuesday, in a possible sign of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fear of political rivals, the government blocked donations to municipal charity drives, allowing only contributions to the national fund.

Last year, the AKP lost mayoral control of several key cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, as candidates from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) took charge of urban areas responsible for some two-thirds of the country’s economic output.

Erdoğan and the new Istanbul mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the CHP, appear to have a budding rivalry, and have bickered publicly about the city’s megaprojects and coronavirus response, among other issues. İmamoğlu beat Erdoğan and the AKP machine twice last year, in the March local elections and then again in a June rerun vote, thanks in part to assistance from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

As in several other big cities, the HDP decided not to run candidates in Istanbul and put its support behind the CHP. “The HDP so far has been relatively savvy in seeing how it can play a role in supporting CHP candidates who can actually win,” said Danforth. “I certainly see that happening again.”

Fear of the power of this alliance is driving the government’s campaign to eviscerate the HDP across the mainly southeast of Turkey, according to Danforth. Turkish authorities detained eight more HDP mayors last week and replaced them with appointees. Some 40 HDP mayors have now been dismissed since the elections one year ago, while former top HDP figures like Selahattin Demirtaş have been in jail for two or more years.

“Erdoğan, by cracking down on the HDP, is attempting to break apart this newfound alliance and create a situation where the CHP is forced to respond,” said Danforth, adding that for years the AKP and its backers had suggested the CHP was in league with the HDP and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Erdoğan’s thinking, according to Danforth, is that in the end the CHP will either condemn the government’s attacks on the HDP, which for many voters would make the party seem too friendly toward Kurdish causes, or turn a blind eye to them, which would likely force the HDP to quit the alliance. 

“So far it seems like these tactics haven’t succeeded, that the opposition to Erdoğan is strong enough that people on both sides at least say that the alliance will continue,” said Danforth, adding that in a national election security and foreign policy issues would come to the fore and potentially weaken the alliance.

Danforth sees a certain level of desperation in Erdoğan’s circle to avoid a 2023 embarrassment like last year’s Istanbul rerun vote, which İmamoğlu won by a large margin, and acknowledges a risk that the president may not respect the outcome of an election he loses.

Danforth also agreed with analyst Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish parliamentarian, who feared Erdoğan could use the coronavirus crisis to enact draconian measures that would further consolidate his power. Danforth sees this as increasingly likely as the pandemic takes more of an economic bite.

“If you did see a real, deep, lasting economic crisis coming out of the current pandemic, that would be a threat to the government and it seems entirely possible they would use that same crisis to protect themselves from it in potentially undemocratic ways,” said Danforth.

If Turkey somehow avoids this and the next election is relatively free and fair, the crucial element will be the Turkish electorate being able to rally around the idea of holding the Erdoğan government to account, according to Erdemir.

“Then Turkey’s opposition, which has had a good streak of wins lately, would have a growing ability to forge coalitions, to bridge divides and project hope and energy,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “Then we could have a peaceful democratic transition and Turkey could gradually leave behind this competitive authoritarian phase.”

Indeed, if an opposition candidate were to come out on top in the next presidential election, scheduled for late 2023, Western leaders hope Turkey would move to repair relations with the United States and NATO, cut close ties with Russia and embrace the rule of law.

“Even if someone like İmamoğlu would win, it’s hard to imagine him doing that,” said Danforth, adding that many fear that the top long-term alternative to Erdoğan is not secular liberals, but right-wing religious nationalists. “They might not be Islamists, but they’re not going to be the kind of people that liberals in the West want to work with.”

Erdoğan has kept control of the AKP while president, but as a result it has now become so closely associated with him that it is difficult to imagine it surviving his departure in any enduring form. An October 2019 survey by MetroPoll found that among all voters, just 22 percent thought the AKP could continue after Erdoğan, while about two-thirds said the president held the party together.

AKP voters had even less faith in the future of the AKP without Erdoğan; nearly three quarters (73 percent) believed only Erdoğan could lead the party. This may be the crucial question as the president readies to exit stage left - the extent to which the AKP, or another party, will be able to keep together a diverse conservative alliance that includes Islamists, nativists and hardcore nationalists.

MetroPoll also asked voters which political figure is best placed to carry on Erdoğan’s legacy. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu came out on top, with 19 percent. In second with 13 percent was Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, who has long been seen as the president’s favourite to succeed.

But Danforth said Albayrak’s widely criticised stewardship of the economy, plus Turkey’s continuing economic peril and rumours about marital trouble with Erdoğan’s daughter Esra, have eroded his lustre.

Next on the MetroPoll survey are three prominent figures with long-running ties to Erdoğan who have broken away from the AKP - the previous president, Abdullah Gül; former economic czar Ali Babacan, who launched his party last month; and the former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who launched his own party in November.

Danforth expects a contested succession among these key figures, and possibly others, as Erdoğan departs, and the frenzy to fill the power vacuum will lead to a more extreme political discourse that could push Turkey further away from the West.

“Given how widespread anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism in Turkey are, the more you have contestations for leadership, struggle for control of the state after Erdoğan, the more it will intensify and the more difficult it’s going to make it for anyone who comes to power to pursue a pragmatic or even unpopular course of trying to reconcile with the United States,” he said.