Erdogan will continue to gamble — but with higher stakes

A recent opinion poll in Turkey points to a historic change. According to the reliable Turkish pollster Metropoll, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “disapproved” of by a majority of the population, marking a striking decline in the Turkish leader’s popularity.  The percentage of those who expressed discontent with Erdogan recently rose by 2.7% to 45.9%, the poll indicated, while his supporters remain at 43.7%. A significant decline by 2.1 % points was noted among supporters of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The trend is a reflection of Turkey’s post-election realities, with which Erdogan seems to have lost touch of considerably. Metropoll also concluded that 58% of Turkish citizens would prefer Turkey’s former parliamentary system over the super-presidential system, established after a referendum in 2017, if it were repeated today. Nearly a two-third majority blames Erdogan’s palace as the mother of all troubles that have surrounded the country.

With his image fading and his traditionally solid party, the AKP, thrown into a somewhat rudderless reckoning, the issue is how the strongman will react to the storm in the near future, in terms of economic and foreign policy crises.

There are no signs as to whether Erdogan has received a cool-headed analysis of why Istanbulites turned their votes against him by a margin widening from some 13,000 to 800,000 in less than three months.

There are three reasons for that.

First, the electorate felt a sense of injustice after the opposition mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, was deprived of his well-earned victory by the highly partisan Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). This seemed to be the last straw.

Second, the way the ballot box system was used with undue methods seems to have ratcheted up voters’ anxiety across the board about Erdogan and his team, simply because Turkish citizens believe their votes are the only remaining tool they have to express their political voice.

Third, is the economy. Devaluation, recession, inflation and unemployment have badly hit Turkish households since last autumn. ”Under the presidential system in Turkey, citizens are now aware that one-man rule under Erdogan has meant that the president and his son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, are still in denial about the existence of an economic crisis,” wrote Guldem Atabay, in her sharp analysis for Ahval News. ”Furthermore, the motto ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ has failed to resound among Erdogan’s team of advisers and ministers, who seem only to exist to back up Erdogan’s own visualisation of the situation. So much so that they too appear to have lost touch.”

Loss of touch continues. There is no sign of humility to be noted with Erdogan or his closest circles. Even in closed door meetings, it is reported, those who express criticism have been told to shut up.

Instead, signs of resorting to Plan B are growing. The AKP still holds a majority in the city council and, in a daring move, the government is now attempting to strip Imamoglu of his powers to appoint the managers of municipality-owned companies. Plan B is clearly to paralyse the new mayor and force him to throw in the towel. This way, Erdogan will have gained time — he is in no hurry, he calculates — and will be able to damage Imamoglu’s popular image and disperse all the opposition’s hopes for a major challenge in the presidential elections due in 2023.

But in his miscalculation, Erdogan disregards the fact that his real opponent is the economy. Myopic and in denial, he doesn’t realise that the austerity measures his government is forced to apply will lead to rapid deterioration of his rule. Indeed, immediately after the Istanbul elections, prices of tea (a key consumer good in Turkey), sugar and electricity rose. Gasoline, crucial for rural production, followed. A former top figure of the treasury, Hakan Ozyildiz, warned the public in his blog that the Central Bank was preparing to print banknotes.

Certainly, this is just the beginning. The citizenry will not be applauding these steps.

Finding money is the most urgent item on Erdogan’s agenda. Although he is stuck at almost every layer of domestic and foreign policies and thrown into worthless solitude internationally, he will hope that the United States, China or Saudi Arabia will extend a hand that will help him cling to power. He shouldn’t bet on them fully. And even the International Monetary Fund, if further bullied, can make his life difficult. In short, a slow motion downfall of Turkey’s strongman seems in process.