Erdogan’s Crisis of Legitimacy and its Consequences

Erdogan’s Crisis of Legitimacy and its Consequences

Despite the destabilizing effects of his economic and foreign policies, as well as a major election loss, President Erdogan shows no sign of interest in course correction.


The March 31, 2024, Turkish municipal elections dealt Turkish President Erdogan a devastating blow. For the first time since his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), came to power in 2002, it polled second nationwide. In what will now look like a terrible political miscalculation, Erdogan, who campaigned tirelessly everywhere, chose to make local contests all about him and his rule. Unaccustomed to losing, he now faces an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy with consequences for both domestic and foreign policy.

His speech after the results were announced appeared uncharacteristically conciliatory, as he called them a victory for democracy. However, in the years since 2002, he has morphed into a populist-authoritarian leader who single-handedly controls all aspects of the Turkish political system. His rule rested on two legs: an authoritarian one that eliminated the autonomy, starting with the judiciary and the Central Bank, of all institutions, rendering them subservient to his whims and wishes. Civil society leaders, politicians, and journalists have routinely been hauled off to jail at his request. There is no Turkish foreign policy per se, but Erdogan’s. 


The second leg of his political edifice is his populism; he has constructed an image of himself as “a man of the people” who, like all other populist politicians, combats the corrupt elites and old establishment. This message is incessantly drummed in by all the press and information channels, private and public, he controls. The election results, however, have punctured this second leg of his political construction.

The main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which he had equated with the old corrupt establishment, outstripped the AKP nationwide, held on to all its municipalities, and captured many AKP-ruled ones. However, the defeat stings the most in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic core and Erdogan’s central objective. He had started his political career there, and the city is the source of economic rents that bankroll his party. He bitterly contested its loss in 2019, and since he has tried to undermine the city’s popular incumbent, Ekrem Imamoglu, by initiating dubious court cases to remove him from office. Despite the pressure, Imamoglu defeated Erdogan’s handpicked candidate and many others by garnering an absolute majority of votes cast. As important as the margin of victory was, he also won a majority of the seats in the city council, which, previously dominated by AKPers, had undermined his policies. A formidable, charismatic politician and unlike his CHP predecessors, Imamoglu has emerged as Erdogan’s primary opponent.

The electoral reverses only serve to deepen the challenges facing Erdogan. Turkey’s economic crisis, characterized by high inflation rates, was one of the main reasons for souring the electorate. Since the beginning of the decade, Turkey has been battling these high inflation rates. The situation worsened as Erdogan, contrary to conventional economic principles, pursued a policy of low interest rates to promote high growth rates. Despite peaking at 85 percent in October 2022, Erdogan forced the Central Bank to continue to lower benchmark rates to as low as 8.5 percent in May 2023. With a complete economic collapse on the horizon, he made a U-turn by reappointing Mehmet Simsek as treasury and finance minister in June 2023. Simsek, who is internationally respected by investors, went on to engineer a step-by-step return to economic orthodoxy.

Still, the official inflation rate stood close to 70 percent on the eve of the municipal elections. A high current account deficit and low foreign exchange revenues further sour the overall economic picture and constrain Turkey’s room to maneuver internationally. Turkey is far more dependent on the goodwill of foreign investors and the support of the American and European governments.

In addition to economic problems, he is likely to encounter other challenges; the principal among them is the perception that his populist-authoritarian rule is ending. Imamoglu will likely emerge as the most formidable competitor as a future presidential candidate. Moreover, Erdogan hoped to mastermind a constitutional change that would allow him to run again at the end of his current mandate in 2028. This will have to be postponed in the hope of a more favorable environment.

Notwithstanding these unprecedented circumstances, counting him out would be a mistake. He will seek to rebuild his support. So, what are his options going forward? The most important constraint he faces is the state of the economy, which is heavily dependent on foreign direct investment, tourism, and manufacturing exports to selected Western countries. Simsek’s nascent economic plan will need at least two more years to deliver visible results.

His governing style has recently been increasingly characterized by divisive rhetoric, aggressive actions at home and abroad, and the pursuit of nationalist objectives combined with a loud anti-Western, especially anti-American, agenda. These were intended to bolster his charismatic leadership style and nationalist bona fides. However, the Turkish public is increasingly weary of these policies as they contend with deteriorating economic conditions and a perception that Erdogan has abandoned them.

His first inclination was to continue and even double down on aggressively pursuing the domestic opposition. This would include increasing the imprisonment of opponents, real and imagined, closing down news outlets, and especially harrying the Kurdish opposition. Following the 2019 municipalities, elected Kurdish mayors in the country’s southeast were dismissed without explanation and replaced with government-appointed officials. 

In Van province, the Kurdish party winner was arbitrarily deemed ineligible and replaced by an AKP politician, who received 27 percent compared to the winner’s 55 percent vote. Unlike in 2019, the Kurds had been preparing to resist and confront the government with expected support from a self-confident CHP under new leadership. In Istanbul especially, it is clear that the Kurds, though not officially aligned with Imamoglu, made a strategic decision to support him and help him win. The decision unleashed immediate and massive demonstrations in Van and elsewhere in the Kurdish southeast, and the CHP very publicly and forcefully expressed its support. In what can only be termed a humiliating reversal, the Ankara government invalidated its own decision, fearing an uncontrollable expansion of instability. However, it became clear that he not only risked domestic strife and political trouble without any guarantee of success, but the instability engendered would compromise the economic program dependent on direct foreign investment.

If he is domestically constrained, another option is to ratchet the pressure on regional antagonists and rivals. Among these are Syrian Kurds aligned with the United States who are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). While Turkey has been continuously bombing them and risking a major confrontation with Washington, Erdogan had hinted at widening the operations. He recently visited Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, the economically and politically struggling northern autonomous Kurdish region, where he was well-received. Among his primary aims was to coordinate a cross-border operation against Turkish Kurdish insurrectionists ensconced in the mountains of northern Iraq. Washington would not object to an Iraqi operation, but a Syrian one risks furthering the already tense relationship with the Biden administration.

Reviving tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece is also not an option, given Turkey’s dependence on the European Union at this economic juncture. In effect, assuming a far more aggressive stance against Israel is probably the only relatively cost-free option he currently has. In the immediate aftermath of October 7, Erdogan expressed his strong support for Hamas, contending it was not a terrorist organization but rather a group of “mücahit” (roughly meaning “warriors for Islam”). He subsequently ratcheted down his pro-Hamas rhetoric as it became an impediment to Turkey’s potential participation in post-war reconstruction and peacemaking. 

However, the success of the Islamist New Welfare Party led by the son of his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, who decried his insufficiently anti-Israeli policies, has made him reconsider his stance. On April 9, Turkey announced trade sanctions on Israel pending a ceasefire. Given its trade surplus with Israel, these sanctions are unlikely to be effective and could hurt Turkey far more. Since then, Erdogan equated Hamas with Turkish irregular forces (Kuvayi Milliye) that participated at the onset of Turkey’s independence movement after World War I and announced that he would end all relations with Israel. In recent days, he has gone out of his way to host Hamas political leaders in Turkey.

His strong denunciations of Israel have impacted relations with Washington. Erdogan had finally succeeded in procuring a much-coveted invitation to the White House. However, the impending May 9 visit increasingly unnerved the Biden administration. It probably feared the prospect that Erdogan, a most pro-Hamas political leader (and ally), would, for his own political calculations, try to visibly interject himself into the Israel-Hamas war and steal the limelight, thereby embarrassing the administration. Washington’s visible hesitation about the visit ended with its “postponement.” Either way, Erdogan will make Israel the focus of his efforts in the near future.

Erdogan can pursue alternative strategies that seek domestic peace, as during his earlier years in power when he advocated for democracy, free markets, less government intrusion, and integration with the West. This would require him to abandon his combative rhetoric, make overtures to the Kurds, reduce the heavy-handed repression, and release prisoners jailed on trumped-up charges, such as the former Kurdish party leader Selahattin Demirtas and civil society persona Osman Kavala. These would be powerful signals that he intends to start anew.