The revolution eats its children… and its dreams
In the run up to the Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his echo chambers in the overwhelmingly pro-government media were full of promises. Chief among them was that after the election, the numerous and varied challenges facing Turkey would, as the clock struck 12, magically disappear.
Erdoğan was duly re-elected to lead a new political hierarchy that saw Turkey switch to a full-blooded presidential system of government conspicuously short of checks and balances.
Turkey’s problems did not disappear. This may not have come as a surprise to those who suspected Erdoğan had accumulated too much power even before the election, but the rate at which those problems have accelerated and the manner in which they have metastasised has surprised many.
Turkey is now in a crisis, the most prominent though by no means the only symptoms of which are the rapid devaluation of its currency and rampant inflation. The lira slumped more than 20 percent this week alone. Even the government-controlled media, for all its dissembling, is struggling to conceal the gravity of the situation from a largely captive audience as previously affordable items, such as potatoes, become expensive luxuries.
The questions that now loom are how bad things have to get before the roughly half of the populace that supports Erdoğan start to turn against him and, should this happen, what the response will be.
In attempting to placate his base, Erdoğan will doubtless resort to the same playbook already open in front of him. This consists of the not-so-subtle, but hitherto effective, ploys of distraction and of rallying the troops around the flag with lurid tales of foreign conspiracies intended to stymie Turkey’s apparently inevitable rise which are the cause of all the country’s ills.
It remains to be seen whether the populace will willingly continue digesting this fare in lieu of, rather than in addition to, actual food. But the speed with which Turkey’s economy is heading south implies it may not be long before this is a less than hypothetical proposition. Still, given the extent to which Turks find it easy to believe Erdoğan’s conspiratorial explanations, and the fact that support for him is premised as much on emotional as on rational grounds, it is likely they are ready to endure considerable pain.
Even so, assuming Turkish authorities are unable to halt the slide in living standards, a psychological tipping point will, sooner or later, be reached ― one all the spin, goodwill and wilful ignorance in the world can, at best, only delay.
In this situation it is not particularly difficult to envision the response from the opulent presidential palace from which Erdoğan and his advisors direct the country. They will reach for the same well-thumbed playbook, this time opening the page that deals with dissent. We know this story already too, for it is the same one played out in Turkey since 2013’s Gezi Park protests. Those who threaten the government are denounced as “terrorists”, purged, and ostracised from society. Protests are brutally suppressed. Some have their assets seized and/or are imprisoned. The remainder, hopefully, are cowed into submission.
The problem is that this amounts to sawing off the branch you are sitting on. But Erdoğan has been here before, most notably with the Gülen movement, former allies that he now blames for a failed coup in July 2016, and old habits die hard. Barring a revolution, against which Erdoğan has devoted most of his efforts for years, or a catastrophe, it is hard to see how his grip on Turkey will be broken. After all, plenty of authoritarian regimes get along quite well without doing much for, or enjoying much support from, the people.
None of this, of course will help Turkey rise in the world, as we are told it must. The opposite will happen. But this will not end the aspiration. Turkey’s leaders will cling to the dream ― one that might once have been realistic ― because they will have nothing decent left to cling to, nothing else to offer the people they supposedly serve. But it will always be tomorrow’s dream, never today’s. And the only difference between now and this hypothetical future is that today, at least, many Turks believe the hype.