Recent earthquakes have raised the stakes of an already fraught election year for Turkey. Failure in the face of disaster and harsh criticism of the centralized presidential system he has created have backed President Erdogan into a corner.
2023 is not just the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. It may also turn out to be its most critical year. The February 6 earthquake that devastated four provinces and damaged others, killing more than 50,000 people, is likely to have an enduring legacy on Turkey’s politics and society.
Moreover, Turkish voters will be going to the polls on May 14 to decide the fate of the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for twenty years. Erdogan—who at first pursued inclusive policies and represented a major break with Turkey’s former, military-guided political system—has lately ruled with a remorseless iron hand. He has transformed the Turkish political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one, where he has single-handedly come to dominate every single institution in the country. He has eviscerated the autonomy and independence of the press, the central bank, the university system, parliament, the bureaucracy, and most importantly, the judicial system. The latter has been converted into an instrument to punish, often with extraordinarily long jail terms, both real and imaginary enemies.
Two crises await the outcome of the elections. The first is the perennial Kurdish issue. It is an enduring one. There was a brief moment that offered a glimmer of hope during Erdogan’s rule, but this prospect has disappeared. Following his alliance with the extreme right-wing Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Action Party, Erdogan reneged on many of the basic rights that the Kurds had won. He has persecuted the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), whose former co-chair was sentenced to a long-term jail sentence while its elected mayors and parliamentarians were removed from their positions. The party is under constant threat of being banned.
The second crisis is Turkey’s once promising economy, which has also come to suffer under Erdogan’s increasingly mediocre management style. He has dismissed competent and internationally-respected managers and replaced them with cronies and loyalists. Similarly, betting the country’s economic future on a ceaseless construction campaign—one that favored just five companies—resulted in expanded foreign exchange liabilities, balance of payments crises, and rampant inflation. Nominally in power but with little governing to do, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) members have morphed into a giant deal-making machine. The devastating earthquake has rightfully undermined confidence in the construction sector and has further damaged the economy.
Underlying the two challenges listed above is the hyper-centralized presidential system that is dependent on Erdogan for making every decision, however big or small. Its drawbacks became evident, even to people who were not politically engaged or may even have been his supporters, with the delayed and chaotic response to the earthquake. Faced with a setback, Erdogan and the AKP’s modus operandi is to blame someone else, preferably foreigners and their minions at home. This time, however, the buck stopped with the AKP government. Years of “earthquake taxes” collected from the citizenry were nowhere to be mobilized, and the government-funded rescue organization, AFAD, was unprepared for the task that awaited it. Also, the 2018 “construction amnesty” that legitimized illegal and shoddy construction projects was not only a primary cause for the death toll but has also scared denizens of major cities like Istanbul, where people are afraid to fall asleep in their homes.
All of these point to a possible opposition victory in the upcoming electoral contest. The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu has succeeded in imposing himself despite serious misgivings among the ranks of the 6-party opposition alliance. Not the most charismatic and able of leaders, Kilicdaroglu’s monotonous style may prove to be an asset under current circumstances. With all the predicaments facing Turkey, the populace may be comforted by Kilicdaroglu’s manner as opposed to the always angry and combative Erdogan.
In other words, 20 years may just be enough.
Still, it would be a mistake to count Erdogan out. He has proven to be a wily and resilient politician, the likes of which Turkey has rarely seen. He has chosen not to postpone elections despite the earthquake’s devastating results because he knows that conditions are likely to become even more unfavorable for the government as time goes by and frustration levels rise.
One should therefore count on Erdogan having a number of tricks up his sleeve. One option is an invasion of northern Syria in pursuit of the American-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that he calls terrorists. But such a move may no longer be an option for Erdogan: Both General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and, Michael Erik Kurilla, the commander of CENTCOM, have made very public recent visits to northern Syria, signaling to Ankara that any military action in that direction would be unacceptable.
At the moment, closing down the HDP is perhaps the easiest option available to Erdogan. While the HDP is not a formal member of the 6-party opposition coalition, its leaders have made it clear that their first objective is to aid in Erdogan’s defeat. Banning the HDP, especially days or weeks before voters go to the polls, would almost certainly result in chaotic and confusing conditions. These in turn will help him suppress participation rates among opposition voters. It is difficult to predict exactly what Erdogan might do to remain in power, or how far he will have to go to do so. What is increasingly clear, however, is that this year’s election will be a referendum over his presidency.
The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.