The events in Turkey since December 2013 confirm that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who completely dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, writes Erik-Jan Zürcher.
Barely six months after the end of the massive “Gezi Park” protests in Istanbul, prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan faces another, and for him ultimately more threatening, challenge to his position as Turkey’s political leader. When earlier I described my experiences in Turkey in the last days of May (“A Week in the shadow of Taksim”) I concluded by saying that it could take a while but that Erdoğan’s demise had become inescapable. The events since 17 December to my mind confirm that we are witnessing the beginning of the end for the man who has completely dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade. Here is why.
As is his way, Erdoğan has reacted aggressively and provocatively to the new crisis, making himself the “voice of the national will” and calling on his followers to fight against foreign conspirators and their local henchmen. As in the Gezi protests of May and June, he depicts his opponents as immoral and unscrupulous, subservient to foreign interests, and their actions as treason. This latter point is especially important. In Erdoğan’s universe state and party have coalesced into one single entity and opposition to his one-party government is tantamount to high treason. That is why his new minister of the interior can describe the actions of the prosecutors and police officials against corrupt officials and their families as “a kind of coup d’état.”
Erdoğan still has a loyal following among the rank and file of the “National Vision” movement in which he made his career in the eighties and nineties. With them the dark references to international conspiracies – presumably by Jews, Freemasons, the “Interest lobby”, Germany, Israel and the US – resonates. It is a discourse that was the stock of trade of the “National Vision” movement from the early seventies onwards and it is rooted in the deep Turkish anxieties about the sustainability of the Turkish Republic (the “New Sèvres” syndrome). The references to the “deep state” and the characterization of the prosecution as a coup d’état attempt likewise awaken old traumas of a “National Vision” constituency that has seen its parties banned four times in the past.
At the same time the recent events have also shown up how isolated Erdoğan has become outside the circle of his loyal followers. Internationally Erdoğan’s regime has almost no friends left. Relations with Iraq, Syria and Egypt are at an all-time low. Israel has been alienated by his open support of Hamas and the US by his stance on Iran. The brutality used in the repression of the Gezi movement got a lot of exposure in European and American media and severely damaged the image of the Turkish government and its claim that its rule shows how democracy and Islam can go hand in hand.
Internally, Erdoğan has declared war on the secularist urban middle class and on some of Turkey’s most powerful business conglomerates. The important Gülen faction within the AKP clearly has decided to part ways with him now that Erdoğan is making an effort to roll back their growing influence in the fields of security and education. Erdoğan’s handling of both crises of 2013, defining those who criticize him not as opponents, but as enemies and traitors has made compromise nearly impossible.
Although as prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan represents the state, his ability to use the organs of the state to defend his position is seriously compromised and mostly through his own doing. Starting in 2007, with the second landslide victory in the elections of the AKP, Erdoğan has used his position to bring Turkey’s armed forces to heel. Using every means at his disposal, including political trials, he has made sure that the Turkish general staff is no longer in a position to interfere in politics and to topple governments as they have done so often in the past. But by the same token, he cannot call on the army to take his side in the political conflict that now engulfs him. The army has already made it clear that it will not meddle in politics.
Along with the army the legal establishment (judges and prosecutors) was a stronghold of secularist Kemalists but there too the AKP has broken the Kemalist monopoly. Ironically many of the judges and prosecutors appointed since 2007 to get a judiciary that was more in line with the political mood of the country were followers of Fethullah Gülen – the very people who have now created all this trouble for the PM. The police forces and intelligence apparatus likewise seem to have been infiltrated by followers of Gülen. In other words: where in May and June Erdoğan could unleash the forces of the state against the secularist youth of the Gezi movement with full vigour, it is very doubtful whether he can do so against his new foes from the Gülen camp. This is what explains the large-scale purges now going on in the police apparatus.
In the meantime Turkey is paying a price – in terms of loss of prestige, a flight of foreign investment, a steep decline on the stock exchange and a sharp devaluation of the Lira. One might argue that this was bound to happen anyway, given the fundamental imbalances in the Turkish economy, but it now happens in a very sudden and disorderly fashion. It is a matter of time before influential groups that have supported the AKP over the past decade, who lived in a cosy symbiosis with the ruling party during the years of the economic miracle, will decide that Tayyip Erdoğan is part of the problem, not of the solution, as he is starting to cost them too much money. What will happen then?
Democratically elected leaders worldwide have a tendency to lose touch with reality when they stay in power too long. Generally this seems to happen in their third term. Typically they start to see the state and their own political leadership as indistinguishable, hence to define opposition as treason and to build on an ever narrower circle of loyalists. It happened to Thatcher after 1988, it happened to Blair after 2005, it happened to Menderes after 1957 and it is happening to Erdoğan. Thatcher and Blair resigned when it became clear that they had lost the unqualified support of their parties. Menderes was toppled and killed.
There is no real chance of the army toppling Erdoğan. But, based on historical precedent one has to conclude that the chances that the AKP will jettison its party leader are also slim. Turkish political parties are “leader parties” in which elected leaders bring in a whole slate of supporters in all leading positions within the party. Over time their grip on the party machine tends to increase as potential crown princes are weeded out. It is therefore almost impossible to unseat established leaders from within. Even a leadership challenge from someone like Abdullah Gül, one of the original founders of the party, is unlikely to succeed.
However, the party may very well break up. Big conservative parties like AKP have always been coalitions of many different interest groups held together by a strong leader and by the prospect of political and economic gain through patron-client networks. That was true for Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party, for Süleyman Demirel’s Justice Party and for Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party. It is equally true for Tayyip Erdoğan’s Party of Justice and Development. These coalitions can and do break up, as Demirel discovered in 1969 and Özal after 1987.
The early signs of this kind of break-up often is a trickle of individual resignations and that is precisely what has now started to happen in Ankara. If an attractive alternative emerges this trickle may turn into a stream. Together with the Gülen movement, business interests may well decide that the time for such an alternative has come, and by and large they will find the international community, at least Turkey’s traditional allies, on their side.
The transition process will be long drawn out and there is every chance that it will be nasty. The municipal elections of March 2014 will be an important moment, especially if a division of the Islamist vote allows the traditional opposition (the CHP) to take over power in the metropolitan areas of Ankara and Istanbul. If that happens, it will create deep anxiety in the ruling party in the run-up to the presidential and national elections. There is every chance that new repressive legislation will be introduced restricting the activities of civil society, but I am convinced that there is a good chance that the Turkey that will emerge from this period of political and economic crisis will be a more mature democracy and better balances in both the political and the economic sphere.