Erdogan at a Crossroads

February 18, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Turkey

Erdogan at a Crossroads

Still alive - but facing the toughest choices of his career.

Rocked by the corruption scandal that erupted a month and half ago, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking resolution. He believes that will be found in winning elections, most immediately and importantly the country’s local elections at the end of March. He believes victory will absolve him from charges of corruption and the many other challenges he faces, and permit him to continue to rule Turkey, from whatever position he ultimately decides to occupy. He will pull out all the stops to ensure victory.

This means taking over the judiciary and preventing corruption investigations, further intimidating the declining opposition media, and denying unfettered access to the internet. He travels incessantly to change the subject from corruption, rallies Turks in the diaspora, intimidates business moguls, and wages relentless war against the Gulen Empire—his erstwhile ally, now accused of being behind the investigation and forming a ‘state within a state.’ This is his menu for the next six weeks. Failure is not an option.

Erdogan recovers

The graft scandal engulfing his government and family shook the prime minister to the core, but he managed to come back. Initially, he grudgingly yielded and sacrificed his ministers accused of corruption and bribery. But he quickly turned upon all he saw as his opponents. He disrupted the investigations by reshuffling thousands of police and hundreds of prosecutors and judges, strengthened his grip over the judiciary with new judicial changes, and now further tightens the screws on the media and internet.

As he consolidates his grip, he benefits enormously from the quiet of the West. Turkey’s western allies, particularly the United States, are treading carefully not to antagonize the prime minister while he incessantly blames foreign forces. Washington largely contented itself with the Turkish leader’s stopping his assaults against the American ambassador, and publicly assured the Turkish government that they will not get involved in Turkey’s internal matters. The European Union has made more noise and may have nudged the government to pull back on some planned judicial changes, but so far has not seriously raised the specter of suspending the membership talks, or adopted any serious action. Erdogan managed to portray his recent trip to Brussels as a great success story.

The ongoing but stagnant peace process with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also provides him an important lifeline. The PKK remains quiet, keeps the ceasefire reached a year ago, and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan throws his full support behind the Prime Minister. Without the Kurdish peace, the effects of the current scandal could have been much more destructive.


Yet however likely victory at the polls may be, Erdogan has been hurt. He has also revived the opposition, who are likely to increase their vote tallies with the support of the Gulenists. Erdogan will get lower numbers, but beyond that it is hard to predict, particularly the all-important cities of Istanbul and Ankara, the bastions of his power. The wild card is the declining economy.

Deepening political instability, high-reaching corruption, Erdogan’s incessant attacks against the nebulous “interest-rate lobby,” and growing concerns about the rule of law, combined with tighter global liquidity conditions, is contributing to Turkey’s already declining economy. Since the corruption scandal erupted, the Turkish lira tumbled to historic lows losing about 15 percent of its value against the US dollar—one of the worst-performing emerging-market currencies—economic growth is expected to slow, while inflation continues to rise. Central Bank’s recent decision to sharply raise the interest rates to stem capital outflows, ease inflation, and stabilize the currency may not be enough to put the economy back on track. Continuing political tensions and lingering questions regarding Central Bank’s independence will likely keep chipping away at Turkey’s economic vitality.

Erdogan still has another important decision to make; whether to run for the presidency or carry on as prime minister. This will largely depend on the results of local elections. At the moment, staying at the helm of the executive branch seems safer and more likely for him. Leaving the government for the presidential palace never worked for those before him. Becoming president might force him to give up significant power, and it would bring up difficult issues regarding succession and his continued control over government decision-making, especially if he is replaced by President Gul who wields strong influence within the party. But staying as prime minister could come with its own price tag. He would have to change his party’s regulations which bar him from running at the parliamentary elections for the fourth time. Too many times he pledged to abide by this rule that he put in place himself.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s reputation is likely to suffer further if Gulenists, who presumably have more ammunition against the government, gear up their attacks. While he has been able to absorb the destructive effects of the scandal so far, many argue that Gulenists have shown restraint and what has been revealed so far regarding government’s involvement in graft is only the tip of the iceberg. If more damaging revelations come out on the eve of the elections, this could seriously alter the balance against the Prime Minister. Most importantly, the opposition parties for the first time are showing some real vigor.

The way forward

Turkey is going through a messy divorce. Former allies who together ousted secular/military establishment and ruled the country for years are now trying the destroy each other. The results of this battle will also shape Turkey’s future.

Prime Minister Erdogan, who looked increasingly vulnerable when the crisis first broke out in December, has managed to recover with a high-handed response. Success in local elections could further boost his position, and bring a degree of stability to the economy that has suffered enormously from the ongoing political uncertainties. But it is still too early for him to pop the champagne, especially if he continues on the same path.

While Erdogan’s repressive tactics have largely worked so far, his problems will not easily go away. He will not likely be able to finish off the Gulen Empire, or undo the damage done by the mounting leaks regarding government corruption or censorship over the media. Turkey’s political and economic stability will continue to be affected by the declining rule of law, intimidation of media and business tycoons, muzzling of dissent, deepening polarization and weakening checks and balances.

Erdogan is a cunning politician. He earned his political spurs when he faced down massive antigovernment street protests last summer. But unlike the Gezi events, Erdogan is not fighting against disunited secular youth, but a highly organized and powerful Islamic movement, and somewhat revived opposition parties. Unless he wins big in the upcoming elections, maintaining his dominance will not be easy.

Omer Zarpli is a research associate at The Century Foundation.

Image: Flickr/Adam Jones. CC BY-SA 2.0.