The defeat of the Presidential party in Istanbul where Erdogan used to be mayor may indeed mark the beginning of his slow decline
“Who conquers Istanbul, conquers Turkey” is something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often claimed, and now – after disappointing electoral results in the biggest cities in the country, in which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered resounding defeats – there’s large question mark as to whether it will hold firm and on the political future of the country. With the repetition of the Istanbul vote Erdogan suffered a terrible own goal in favour of the opposition candidate: by a margin of ten percentage points and victory in almost all the electoral districts, Ekrem Imamoglu won a landslide victory, standing as the new politician capable of changing Turkey’s destiny. Compared to the election on 31 March his support hasn’t just grown exponentially, snatching most of the historic conservatives seats out of the hands of the AKP, but even where the president’s party did win out, its support has drastically fallen. This defeat was perhaps foreseeable, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. In actual fact, after the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) ruled in favour of the appeal for supposed irregularities filed by the AKP, a large section of society took to the streets behind the slogan Her şey çok güzel olacak (It will all be very more beautiful), proving that, in spite of everything, individual choices cannot be denied. All the electoral song and dances produced by the AKP were for nought as was its rather defensive reply based on the hashtag #DahaGüzelOlacak (it will be all the more beautiful).
That the duel was a vital one was confirmed by the debate between the two mayoral candidates – the first to take place after 16 years – and Erdogan’s low profile, as he retreated into an unusual silence. So the 23rd of June marked a turning point in Turkish political dynamics, and heralded the start of the AKP’s decline. If the truth be told, compared to the previous elections in June 2018, the support garnered by Erdogan and his party has remained pretty much unchanged, guaranteeing a nationwide majority and control over 15 metropolitan cities as well as 24 provinces. However, if one looks a little closer, the first signs of trouble within the AKP’s single party rule could be gleaned from the early elections called the previous year when, after the revision of the electoral law, the “People’s Alliance” was set up to boost support thanks to the convergence with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). At the time the AKP seemed to be concerned about capitalising on the consensus of the nationalist block on regional issues, well aware that the drastic downturn in the economic figures, the real social adhesive and the pride of his administration, would take its toll. The 24 June elections were bandied as the elections that would change Turkey’s political structure, turning into a presidential regime and Erdogan, the joint candidate of the Alliance, won out with 52.5% of consensus. Though the compromise between national pride and religious values has been its main social mainstay, the AKP failed in its aim of achieving an absolute parliamentary majority, but continued to rule thanks to the coalition with the MHP.
With a view to contrasting the president’s hegemonic design, for the first time in the country’s history, all the opposition groups, despite their considerable differences and traditions that up to then had always proven irreconcilable, joined forces. This approach led to an evolution of the traditional party fracture lines based on models such as ‘religion-secular’ and ‘suburb-city’ to a more overriding ‘pro or against Erdogan’ one. The same realignment, ideally suited to splinter the AKP’s electoral catchment area, was repeated in the more recent vote in Istanbul, providing further proof of the social change now taking place in the country. The vote in favour of Imamoglu was not just provided by republican supporters but it was more strikingly a protest vote by those disappointed with the management of public assets and its exceedingly personal and nepotistic connotations; by the liberal-conservatives who have gradually felt alienated from the AKP’s political programme and its transformation into a state party; by the more conservative and Islamic sectors who at a certain point realised they’d been cast out of the party’s network in favour of its marriage with the MHP nationalists and finally by those who wanted their own instances of representation to be acknowledged. The search for compromise, the adoption of a language tailored to the normal citizen and a striving from bottom-up legitimacy were the real lynchpins of the new electoral positioning, which in any case tended towards the centre of the Turkish political spectrum.
And it is based on these same precepts that one should view the recent resignation from the AKP of Ali Babacan, the former foreign minister and architect of the “Turkish economic miracle”, and the rumours surrounding the possibility that he may set up a new party under his leadership. Stating that he has “grown mentally and now feels emotionally separate from the AKP” and that Turkey needs a “new vision”, Babacan has announced that “he shares with many colleagues a sense of responsibility towards the country”, suggesting that the time is ripe for the appearance of a new political formation. Though no specific details are available, the project is supposedly shared by the former President of the Turkish Republic – Abdullah Gul, the cofounder of the AKP and the promoter of the idea of “politics as a service to people”. Having left the party ranks at the end of his presidential mandate in 2014, Gul has often been the focus of speculation given his clashes with Erdogan. What is known is that the two visions haven’t always been in agreement, especially where the introduction of the presidential system was concerned and the critical issue of the populist approach of the current administration. Though Gul throughout his career has always proven to be an intellectually profound and moderate politician, though not the kind to stand in opposition and fight, there are indications that point to him taking on a guiding and mentor role in this new formation. The former president would therefore embody the figure that in Turkey is known as the “ağabey” – meaning the older brother, the wise old man who dispenses advice that is well-heeded.
Of course Erdogan, as we soon found out, was not going to let these actions go unheeded. He met Babacan personally and his subsequent comments revealed a degree of annoyance. “Fine, go your own way. But you have no right to break up the ummah. And that is what you are doing, and you won’t go very far if you are a party to a disruption of the ummah“.
That the reaction involved the instrumental exploitation of concepts that clearly refer to the Islamic community comes as no surprise given how they have been included in presidential rhetoric for some time and in certain sectors of society he is even viewed as the “Rab” (Master). The comparison between the AKP and the ummah, therefore, helps to raise the political discourse and his leadership role to that of a spiritual guide, whereby any fractious actions are perceived as being contrary to the teachings of Islam. But there’s more. The references to Babacan’s defection reveal concerns over a possible dissolution within the AKP’s ranks and within the government itself. “Those who are involved in these betrayals shall pay heavily for their actions”, Erdogan boomed during a party summit. After all, Babacan’s intentions were officially announced two weeks after the historic debacle in Istanbul, and somehow lent formal ratification to the internal rift within the AKP that dates to a few years earlier and marks a growing level of dissent towards its leader. The main criticisms call into question the polarising rhetoric and the authoritarian tendencies of the current administration while a preference has been voiced for a more moderate and all-embracing political approach that would once again link the country to Europe.
At a time when the economic data are depressing, the attention is focused on reducing risk and promoting the country’s prospects on the international stage. “Today Turkey’s only option is to be an open economy” – Babacan stated emphatically quite a while ago – “and therefore, its economic and financial structure must be built on credibility and integration with the rest of the world (…). Populism is a common political disease and we must not fall into this trap”.
It follows that the new group intends to follow in the footsteps of the original spirit of the first AKP: a fiercely Liberist and liberal party in economic terms that looks outward, guaranteed the rule of law and was socially conservative, playing up to the urban and peripheral middle classes with an inclusive and non-polarising approach. Though there have yet to be confirmations, in all probability the team will be made up of those who, having managed major portfolios, have already left or are ready to abandon the AKP and by very high level personalities who have lost faith in the current political trend.
A degree of criticism has also been expressed by the former prime minister and current foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu who, though still a member of the AKP, agrees on the need for renovation and seems to be preparing to stand as the solution of the country’s ills. However, if he does stand for election he is unlikely to gain the consensus of a large part of public opinion that accuses him of being among the promoters of the isolation and the problems experienced in Turkey since the Arab Springs. Though there are no certainties about when these figures may stake their claims, the question is of crucial importance in terms of parliamentary arithmetic: according to Turkish legislation, a parliamentary group can only be formed if it can secure at least twenty seats and thus join the parliamentary commissions.
Given the existing rift within the president’s party and with more members of parliament leaving, there is a question as to whether the AKP can hold on to its absolute majority and how the alliance with the nationalist MHP group within the Great Turkish National Assembly will pan out. Then again Erdogan, despite being a little out of joint, seems to prefer the hard line and a rhetoric that calls on the principles of loyalty and service to the nation. “The AKP is Turkey’s party. And the path through which one can serve the nation,” which – as he puts it – is open to all those who aspire to serve Turkey while “all those who are not loyal to the organisation and its members cannot show loyalty to their cities, their country and their nation”. Despite expectations, this political strategy is in line with the one he’s being toeing for years, emphasising the importance of more efficient infrastructural projects, improving living conditions, fighting terrorism and protecting national interests both internally and beyond its borders.
In other words Erdogan the president, head of government and party leader in line with the polarising rhetoric underlines the need to “continue doing what the AKP has always done” with a spirit of renewed brotherhood. Yet that “catch-all” brotherhood, that has marked the last twenty years of Turkish politics seems to be yielding and forcing the AKP to adopt a more openly religious and nationalist approach. From a position of invincible predominance, right now Erdogan’s group finds itself in need of coming up with effective defensive strategies. After all, the recent social rifts are an indication that Turkey has entered a new stage: a change is underway that is promoted by a dynamism that in all probability will lead to further splits and opportunities even on a political level. The path to 2023 – the date of the next electoral appointment – is still long and windy, and the real winner will be the one who is able to represent all social motions and is prepared to handle with them in a pragmatic and liberal way.
This article is also published in the September/October issue of eastwest.