Could economic crisis mean the end of Turkey’s Erdoğan?

Eric J. Zürcher, a leading expert on Turkey, said in an interview with Ahval that only an economic crisis could stop Turkey’s drift towards fascism.

On the other hand, economists like Ümit Akçay are of almost the opposite opinion. To them, the crisis in Turkey is likely to foster more authoritarianism.

It is possible to find arguments backing both Zürcher and Akçay and there no direct correlation between economic crisis and fascism.

Those who share Zürcher’s thesis argue that only a deep economic crisis can weaken the attachment between Erdoğan and his constituency. This line of thinking emphasises the pragmatic nature of Turkish people who would demand political change as a result of economic crisis.

There are examples such as the 2001 Turkish economic crisis, which both changed the ruling party as well as the general rules of the economy.

Erdoğan has signalled that he fears economic crisis may trigger social unrest. Reflecting this fear, the state does not tolerate even the smallest protest.

A worker at the construction site of Istanbul’s new airport who protested the late arrival of a bus to take him to work was arrested. Police questioned a journalist for posting footage on social media of council workers in the Black Sea town of Rize cutting down a 100-year-old tree in the city centre.

Erdoğan knows there is no possibility of challenging him in elections so worries are focused on protests triggered by worsening economic conditions. Thus the state employs a pre-emptive strategy of not tolerating protests even by individuals.

There is a simple calculation behind this strategy. Erdoğan expects an economic recovery at some point so until then he has two instruments to deal with the crisis; propaganda and oppression.

Since traditional concepts like electoral behaviour are no longer very relevant in Turkey, propaganda theories are now critical to understanding how people learn, think and behave. Alongside propaganda, the state will continue to suppress protest against the government.

In employing both tactics, Erdoğan expects to smother disaffection with the economic crisis until the point of recovery. In this model, what is expected from the Turkish people is to wait patiently while internalising state propaganda.

If Erdoğan’s plan works well, his regime will survive, but Turkey will become more authoritarian and poorer proving the thesis of economists like Akçay

But what about the other possibility? What if Erdoğan fails to turn around the economy?

There is one critical point to grasp. Unlike Bülent Ecevit, who was unseated as prime minister as a result of the 2001 economic crisis, Erdoğan is not a standard political leader. Erdoğan is also creating a new political system to replace the Kemalist one.

Losing power for leaders like Erdoğan who have an agenda of building a new regime is very costly and the cost is usually more than just the loss of office. In the case of Erdoğan, Turkey may witness a new type of crisis where those in power resist change even if social and economic conditions get much worse.

The golden years of Erdoğan and his Turkey are over. It has now been almost six years that Turkey is a country of political and economic instability. In the last six years, Erdoğan has managed to survive, but the cost has been poverty and growing authoritarianism.

These are not merely abstract concepts. Behind them lies deterioration in standards of public service, poorer education and decays in cultural life. So if this continues for several years, Turkey could become another Egypt where the numbers of poor and unemployed is registered in the tens of millions.

Turkey, like Egypt, is a large country with a big population and that means once problems become structural and entrenched, there is no way to solve them in a short time.

 

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