Challenges to Erdoğan’s control in Turkey

A month has passed since Turkey’s local elections, and it will take at least a little longer for the Supreme Election Council (YSK) to make its final decision on the appeal by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a rerun of the Istanbul vote. Reports suggest the YSK is under a lot of pressure as it reviews AKP allegations of election irregularities.

Either the YSK accepts the application and decides to rerun the Istanbul vote, or rejects the appeal and re-confirms the opposition’s Ekrem İmamoğlu as the city’s mayor. In either case, the decision will have an unprecedented impact on the future of the AKP and ultimately President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

If there is a rerun and the AKP wins, the result would be seen as another sign of Erdoğan’s all-powerful one-man rule and control over judicial institutions, which would hurt the markets.

With millions in its youth wing, a well-organised party structure and a string of election victories, the AKP has over the past 17 years been the dominant force in Turkish politics. But the power of Erdoğan and his party relies on winning every single vote.

Erdoğan’s ability to lead the masses depends on his invincible image. In the last elections, including the presidential referendum, Erdoğan compensated for his loss of support by aligning with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But the local elections showed that even that alliance could not secure an AKP victory. Some have argued that the alliance cost Erdoğan and the AKP more than it helped.

Used to dictating and dominating the agenda in Turkey, Erdoğan now seems to be struggling on both the policy and the narrative fronts. The AKP’s attempts to rerun the elections have increased İmamoğlu’s legitimacy, while Erdoğan’s conflicting messages about prioritising unity while attacking the opposition have continued in recent weeks.

The political climate in Turkey is similar to that after the June 2015 general elections when the opposition parties and candidates were pushed back by several assaults and a horrific suicide attack in Ankara. The mob attack on the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan’s 24-hour silence on the incident were reminiscent of the security issues that swung support back to the ruling party between the June 2015 general elections and those held in November the same year.

In November 2015, violence and intimidation along with a fear of instability led to victory for the AKP. Erdoğan and his party did not have the domestic and international challenges they have now. The political and economic situation is certainly different now. Erdoğan’s charisma is fading due to his authoritarian rule, economic downfall, and the corruption allegations against members of his inner circle. But the real threat to his rule comes from the economy.

More importantly, the presidential system is failing on both the domestic and international fronts. That is encouraging potential rivals, including the former president, Abdullah Gül, the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, former minister, Ali Babacan, and other former members of Erdoğan’s cabinet who were sidelined in favour of young ambitious acolytes led by the president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak.

Gül has been chasing the opportunity to assume the AKP leadership since the very day he completed his tenure as the president in 2014, but Erdoğan denied him the chance. Waiting for the right moment, Gül has rebuffed several calls to establish a new political party. Davutoğlu’s manifesto, rather a joint statement by Gül, Davutoğlu and other opponents within the AKP, is aimed at Erdoğan who is the core figure above everything and everyone in the party.

The criticism is a clear declaration of their new party’s position against the one-man presidential system, and the corruption and cronyism that dominated the AKP. These issues will probably become the new party’s narrative against Erdoğan. The president’s challengers have crossed the Rubicon and there is no room for hesitation if they are to achieve their goal.

Erdoğan also faces challenges in his domestically-driven foreign policy. Turkey and the United States are on a collision course in several areas, including Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence missiles, northeastern Syria, Iran sanctions, the detention of U.S. and Turkish citizens employed by the United States, Turkey's rapprochement with Russia and Iran, Turkey's reluctance to eradicate Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates, and the unlawful detention of thousands of people. The European Union's perspective on Turkey is similar when it comes to Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule and numerous violations of human rights victimising people from all walks of society.  

Erdoğan is failing on both the domestic and international fronts. The only real way to avoid collapse is restoring the rule of law and full democracy in Turkey. The problem is that for Erdoğan that would mean losing his presidency.

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