Erdoğan after the Istanbul elections

Summary: Istanbul election defeat accelerates gradual ebbing of the AKP’s popularity, but President Erdoğan still holds other cards; a slow down in Turkish foreign military activity.

We are again grateful for the article below to David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.

Just before departing for Osaka for the G20 meeting, where he will meet President Donald Trump, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spent Tuesday morning making his first public speech to the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) parliamentary group since the AKP’s swingeing defeat on Sunday in the re-run of the Istanbul mayor elections.

The tone of the speech was sombre with clapping from his listeners occasion that was only very slightly less ecstatic than usual. Parts of the international press picked up on his admission that the election of an mayor in Istanbul was a signal of disapproval from the voters. The AKP are not, he said, “going to sulk at the nation for voting against them,”  continuing “We don’t have the luxury of turning a deaf ear and ignoring the messages given by the people,”

But largely unnoticed by media, most of the president’s speech was a pledge to continue along exactly the same lines as before in domestic and foreign policy.  This impression was confirmed on Wednesday  by a fierce speech from the President’s main political ally, the ultra-nationalist leader Devlet Bahçeli, to his parliamentary group, mentioning the Crusades, warning that Turkey was a state ‘under siege’ (presumably from the West) and surrounded by fire that the priority remained fighting terrorism and the PKK.

The president’s speech was not as outspoken as that, but he went through the foreign policy agenda, and the building of massive infrastructural projects, point by point, insisting there is going to be no change of course.

Assuming that he means exactly what he says, will the system be able to stand the strain? For example, the government is still pledged to stage military operations in Syria and Iraq to eliminate the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] from its strongholds. But apart from regular bombings by Turkish air force jets on PKK hideouts at Metina, Kakurk, Avasin-Basyan in northern Iraq (something that has been going on for more than a decade) not much else is happening and the 2019 campaign season is now almost half way over. International diplomatic obstacles may be part of the reason for the slow-down but one suspects that cost pressures could be another.

If this is the case, though Turkey will not withdraw from Syria, its operations there may mark time, and the long promised assault on the PKK headquarters on Mount Qandil in Iraq may once again be put off until next year.

Then there is the steadily deepening rift with the US.  On Tuesday the President pledged yet again that the purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles is going ahead. (The first delivery has been brought forward to mid-July.) It is a matter of ‘national sovereignty’ the president said. It seems that Turkey is gambling on the US not going through with the retribution against Turkey for the purchase which many  congressmen are demanding. A test for this will come when Erdoğan meets President  Trump at Osaka and tries to dissuade the US from implementing threatened sanctions. The costs of failing to do so do not seem to be written into Ankara’s political forecasting.

At home the Istanbul election defeat merely accelerates a gradual ebbing of the AKP’s popularity over the last few years.  The steady drop in its percentage support means it no longer commands an overall majority either in parliament or in elections, and must rely  on Bahçeli and the ultra nationalist MHP. But there is a problem here. The AKP rank and file see Islamism rather than simple nationalism as their ideology, one which appeals to non-Turks like Kurds and Arabs. Ultra-nationalism is not something they relish. So the present situation is only a provisional expedient.

The government now faces a double challenge on the domestic political front. The more urgent one is it must decide how to cope with the fact that Istanbul, which is home to over 15 million people and about 45% of the country’s GDP and more than half its foreign trade, is in opposition hands. This is likely to imply a tough blow for companies, projects, and political groups linked to the ruling party. It is a financial as well as a political setback.

As yet no one knows how well the new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu will perform but he is already the darling of the masses. These are not simply what some Western writers refer to as the ‘secular elite’ (a loaded and actually pretty inaccurate way of describing the Turkish middle class). Moderately religious people in some cases support him too, perhaps in protest at the plutocratic style of AKP rule. At the end of the campaign women in headscarves made a point of gesturing to TV cameras that they supported him too.

İmamoğlu, though hailed by secularists, has responded to his victory with emphatically inclusivist, pro-diversity, language, welcoming all faiths, ethnic groups, and sexual orientations, a natural response perhaps for a politician whom his opponents pretended was really an ethnic Greek not a Turk.

The opposition groundswell may be alarming and perhaps in time become a real challenge unless İmamoğlu’s rise is nipped in the bud, but President Erdoğan probably has little to fear from the opposition leadership of the CHP (Republican Peoples Party) where in-fighting is often the order of the day.

Much more worrying are signs of protest in the AKP press and some politicians. The party is a new creation, less than 20 years old, and with its officers handpicked and regularly shuffled by the leadership. The only overt challenge comes from side-lined former associates of the president. Several of these, notably former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, former President Abdullah Gül, and the former economics minister, Ali Babacan, are signalling that they may set up new political parties. This would be an irritation but probably not much of a threat to President Erdoğan. A new party set up by Gül and Babacan might take a few dissidents from the AKP and so make it more dependent on the MHP, but it would be unlikely to achieve much more than that, especially since there will almost certainly be no local or national elections again in Turkey before 2023.

It will take a few weeks before the new situation in Turkey falls into a clear perspective. Prospects of a prolonged ‘coexistence’ phase in relations look between Ankara and the new mayor look pretty poor. On the other hand, given the presidential system and the long gap until the next elections, all the cards are still in President Erdoğan’s hands if he chooses to play them correctly.

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