There is such a thing as governing for too long. After about ten years in post, politicians’ once natural feel for the nation’s pulse instead starts to rub the electorate the wrong way. Thatcher, Blair and de Gaulle all saw their time run out.
What about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? He has led Turkey since 2003 as prime minister and since 2014 as president.
This Sunday, he will try to defy political gravity.
Opinion polls don’t suggest a clear outcome in the Turkish election. They suggest that no presidential candidate will get 50 per cent of the vote in the first round on Sunday, and that Erdoğan’s principal and not overly charismatic opponent, the former servant Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has a decent chance of pulling ahead in the second.
This would be a case of Erdoğan being hoisted by his own petard. Under the super-presidential system he himself created, he needs to get an absolute majority of the vote.
A post-Erdoğan era will not necessarily be calmer. The contrast is between one-man rule and of a government trying to find a consensus between six very different coalition partners, supported though a seventh left-wing pro-Kurdish party. Returning independence to the courts, the central bank, the education system, even the police, will be hard.
Erdoğan would also bequeath his successor chaos. If as Prime Minister he marched Turkey up the economic hill in the 2000s, it was President Erdoğan who marched it down again.
The last few years have been ones of real economic hardship. Inequality has increased and inflation is now at around 45 percent (most economists privately believe the real figure to be much higher). Prior to Sunday’s election, the government has been pumping money into the economy and ripping through reserves.
Only this week, the President announced a 45 per cent pay rise for public workers. Not surprisingly, investors are skittish over a possible ‘currency event’ – either a devaluation or even stricter currency controls.
Curiously, Erdoğan’s former deputy, the economy minister Ali Babacan is now part of the coalition that opposes his former boss. Here, there is a clear choice between conventional, prudential policy and Erdo-economics, which has an air of making it up as you go along.
It is not even clear that last February’s horrendous earthquake, which destroyed entire cities and left over 50,000 people dead, has disillusioned Erdoğan die-hards, even though a large chunk of destruction was the result of officialdom turning a blind eye to building code violations. There has been unseemly jostling in the stricken earthquake regions over who gets political credit for relief efforts, with the official government agency pasting their logo on other peoples’ aid.
So while the earthquake might not have eroded Erdoğan and his Justice and Development (AK) party’s support, it is unlikely that the disaster will have allowed him to win much needed percentage points from undecided voters. The analogy is the cognitive dissonance of MAGA Americans who double down on support for Donald Trump the deeper in trouble he gets.
What’s more, there is a notion that opposition to Erdoğan is somehow illegitimate. Süleyman Soylu, the interior minister, has called the coming elections as a ‘political coup attempt by the West’.
Devlet Bahceli, whose party is in alliance with the AKP, has threatened the opposition with imprisonment and even death. ‘What these traitors are likely to take, if anything at all, is aggravated life imprisonment, or they will take bullets in their bodies’, he told a rally.
Of course, there is intense resentment on both sides. One father I know reports that there is a real fear among his daughter’s private school classmates of an Erdoğan victory and should that come to pass, five of her friends’ families already have plans to emigrate abroad.
Yet on the whole, the opposition has tried to shrug off the slings and arrows. Kılıçdaroğlu commanded some respect for openly acknowledging his Alevi roots – the main religious minority, which though a form of Islam, is often demeaned by the Sunni majority. It was both a call for tolerance and a means of pulling the rug out from attempts to use that identity against him.
A commonly given figure is that the AKP now has the absolute loyalty of some 90 per cent of the media. It is also reputed to command an army of social media trolls. Its ability to dictate the public narrative would seem beyond dispute.
Yet with so much media ammunition at its disposal, the regime is still insecure. It is not just journalists, but even school children who are detained for critical tweets.
While the ruling party may have scored substantial victories in its Kulturkampf, it may now be losing the war. It is not so much that the other side is winning but that a style of discourse based on confrontation and polarization, on charges of treachery and unabashed name-calling, no longer works.
On Sunday, Erdoğan will meet his political fate.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.