Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow, March 2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow, March 2020
Reuters

Over the past few months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has looked increasingly desperate. He has stepped up his repression of critics and political opponents, including, most recently, Metin Gurcan, a founding member of the opposition Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), who was arrested in November on espionage charges. He has threatened to expel diplomats from the United States and some of Turkey’s NATO allies. And as his popularity at home has nosedived, he has embarked on a reckless experiment to lower interest rates amid already high inflation, a policy that has pitched the country into economic turmoil. Meanwhile, he faces an emboldened—and increasingly united—opposition that for the first time poses a direct threat to his rule.

The shift has been dramatic. For much of the past two decades, first as prime minister between 2003 and 2014 and then as president since 2014, Erdogan has seemed invincible. Bringing new prosperity to Turkey’s middle classes, he has pushed his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to victory in more than a dozen nationwide elections. He has weathered wars on his doorstep and, in 2016, an attempted coup. Styling himself as a new sultan, he has gained sweeping control over the judiciary, the media, the police, and other institutions of the state and civil society, even as he has ruthlessly cracked down on political opponents.

In recent years, however, Erdogan’s authoritarian populism has lost its magic. Since the coup attempt, his government has become increasingly paranoid, going after not only suspected coup plotters but also members of the democratic opposition and subsequently arresting tens of thousands of people and forcing more than 150,000 academics, journalists, and others out of their jobs on suspicion of ties to the coup or simply for standing up to Erdogan. And his growing willingness to meddle in elections—including a bungled effort to reverse the outcome of Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral election—has galvanized the opposition.

Now, with his support drastically eroding, the leader of the oldest democracy and biggest economy between Italy and India faces a reckoning: in 18 months’ time, Turkey will hold a presidential election that Erdogan is very unlikely to win. And because of his long legacy of corruption and abuse of power, he could well be prosecuted if ousted. It seems clear that Erdogan will try to do everything he can to stay in office, including undermining a fair vote, disregarding the result, or even fomenting a January 6–like insurrection. The urgent challenge confronting the country, then, is how to engineer a transfer of power that does not threaten the foundations of Turkish democracy itself, potentially sending shock waves of instability beyond the country’s borders into Europe and the Middle East.  

Democracy Diverted

When he came to power in 2003, Erdogan was greeted as a reformer who would build and strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. At first, he and the AKP seemed to deliver on those promises. He improved access to services, such as health care, and delivered a decade of low unemployment and strong economic growth. Under Erdogan, Turkey became a majority middle-class society for the first time. He also expanded some freedoms, notably offering some minority language rights to Turkey’s Kurds.

For awhile, these policies made Erdogan popular both at home and abroad. Domestically, he built a base of adoring supporters, who were mostly conservative, rural, working, lower-middle-class voters who reliably voted for the AKP in election after election. Meanwhile, his government was held up by the United States and Europe as a model of Muslim liberal democracy, a country that was seriously considered for membership in the European Union.   

But before long, Erdogan began to show far more authoritarian tendencies. In 2008, he unleashed the so-called Ergenekon case, a sweeping and largely inconclusive investigation into Turkey’s “deep state” in which more than 140 people were charged with plotting a coup against the democratically elected government. In fact, it quickly became clear that Erdogan—with help from the cleric Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the Gulen movement and an ally at the time, whose followers in the police, media, and judiciary helped concoct evidence targeting Erdogan’s democratic opponents—was attempting to root out the secularists who had long controlled state institutions.   

In his second decade in office, Erdogan resorted to harsher tactics to maintain power. In 2013, he used force to crack down on the Gezi protests, in which millions of antigovernment protesters took to the streets in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. After the protests, the government tightened the screws on civil society, and the space for political activism narrowed. Then, following the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan used a prolonged state of emergency to further repress perceived threats to his rule. He launched a sweeping retribution campaign against his former allies in the Gulen movement, purging thousands of alleged and known Gulenists from government posts and throwing them in jail. And they were joined by growing numbers of socialists, social democrats, the Alevis (a liberal Muslim sect), liberals, leftists, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, centrists, and even some conservatives opposed to Erdogan’s strong-arm populism.

Meanwhile, Erdogan began to pivot away from Turkey’s longstanding ties to Europe and the United States. In 2013, he blamed President Barack Obama for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup in Egypt, aligning himself increasingly with political Islamist forces in the Middle East, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Although they were initially on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin also eventually entered an entente. Following Putin’s outreach to him in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt, Putin agreed to allow Turkey to go after the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the United States had relied on to fight the Islamic State (or ISIS), and Erdogan committed to buying the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system. By 2020, Erdogan faced tough U.S. sanctions for the Russian defense agreement, and the seven-decade alliance between Washington and Ankara was entering its greatest crisis in recent memory.

The Sultan Amendment

For years, as Erdogan pushed forward his authoritarian populism, he could count on a divided opposition. Among the nearly half-dozen factions that have regularly challenged him at the ballot box, ranging from Turkish nationalists to Kurdish nationalists and secularists to political Islamists, their mutual hatred usually transcended their shared opposition to AKP rule. These divisions meant that Erdogan’s party could win elections easily, as it did continually for the first 15 years of his rule.

In 2017, however, Erdogan made a fateful mistake. He succeeded in ramming through a constitutional amendment that switched Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidential one. In addition to abolishing the office of prime minister, the amendment gave Erdogan more direct control of the state bureaucracy and significantly weakened the powers of the legislature. In effect, Erdogan crowned himself as Turkey’s new sultan—simultaneously becoming the head of state, head of government, head of the ruling party, and head of the police (which is a national force in Turkey).  

Yet even as it gave Erdogan more power, the constitutional reform inadvertently strengthened the opposition. Under the parliamentary system, elections were fought among all the parties at once, giving the AKP a natural advantage over its multiple rivals. But the new presidential system requires a runoff between the two leading candidates. This means that the leading opposition candidate now has the ability to bring together a broad anti-Erdogan coalition under one banner.

Giving himself more power, Erdogan inadvertently strengthened the opposition.

The current opposition block depends on an alliance between two key factions: the secularist, leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the centrist, Turkish nationalist Good Party (IYI). The pro-Kurdish, liberal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has supported this alliance informally, as have a number of other smaller, centrist and right-wing forces, including the Felicity Party (SP), a political Islamist party that opposes the AKP for its corruption, among other reasons. Politically, these parties are far apart on many issues, but they are increasingly united in their desire to defeat Erdogan.

Meanwhile, the president’s AKP base is crumbling. Support for the governing populist block, which includes the AKP and the smaller Nationalist Action Party (MHP), an Erdogan ally since 2018, has fallen to around 30 to 40 percent in the polls, down from 52 percent in the 2018 presidential elections. Some former AKP supporters have flocked to the MHP, and others have gone to more recently established opposition parties such as DEVA, led by the former economy minister Ali Babacan. This means that Erdogan now has to rely on a minority to repress the majority, which, with the new runoff system, will be increasingly difficult to do.

A Tale of Two Cities

Along with the new presidential electoral system, Erdogan’s largest vulnerability is the economy. In 2018, the Turkish economy sank into its first recession since Erdogan came to power, and in the years since, the slump has eroded AKP support in the nation’s two most important cities, Istanbul and the nation’s capital, Ankara.

In 2019, the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu won the mayoral contest in Istanbul, showing for the first time that the opposition could defeat the AKP at the polls in a two-way race. But the election also showed the lengths to which Erdogan was prepared to go to try to maintain AKP dominance. When his candidate lost, Erdogan claimed irregularities in the election boards overseeing the vote and forced a new election. (The boards’ national supervisory body delayed its final certification of the outcome for weeks, waiting for a cue from the president, and then, after he declared in May that a fresh vote was necessary, it stepped in and called for a repeat election the following month.)  Voters, however, were not fooled: whereas in the initial election, Imamoglu defeated Erdogan’s candidate by a narrow 13,000-vote margin, the CHP politician won the rerun three months later by a whopping 800,000 votes.

That outcome—combined with a second CHP victory by Mansur Yavas in Ankara in March—effectively destroyed Erdogan’s image of invincibility. According to current opinion polls, both CHP mayors as well as Meral Aksener, the leader of the nationalist IYI party, would defeat Erdogan in a two-way presidential contest. All three are jockeying for overall leadership of the opposition, but in a recent trip to Turkey, I learned that each would back the front-runner against Erdogan in a second round.

These poll numbers leave Erdogan in a dire situation. With inflation expected to top 20 percent in 2022, the prospects of an economic turnaround are increasingly dim. For the moment, his best strategy is to try to drive a wedge between the IYI and other right-wing factions against their leftist partners. But opposition leaders, mindful of their 2019 victories, are committed to staying together. Barring a dramatic turn of events, such as Erdogan banning key opposition parties and jailing their leaders or indefinitely postponing the elections, the most likely outcome for Erdogan in 2023, then, is a resounding defeat that he and his supporters will do everything they can to subvert. 

Erdogan vs. the Electorate

If the current situation holds, Erdogan is headed for a collision with the electorate that will have profound implications for Turkey’s future. There are two likely ways the collision might go. In the first, Erdogan loses the election but immediately claims widespread fraud. Then, in a replay of Istanbul in 2019, he seeks to have the result thrown out, pitching the country into crisis.

As in the United States in 2020, such an attack on the national election system would be unprecedented. Yet it seems plausible for Erdogan, given his previous willingness to undermine democratic insitutions in Turkey, the nature of his current inner circle, and his determination to hold on to power. Since 2018, Erdogan has become increasingly isolated in his decision-making process, with a self-serving clique inside the presidential palace having largely displaced the professional arms of government and the vast political network he once relied on. These are the palace advisers who pushed Erdogan to throw out the Istanbul results, and if Erdogan is humbled again, they could do the same on the national level. Following his 2019 playbook, Erdogan could spread a false narrative of “fraud and illegality” and then exert pressure on the courts and the electoral boards to support and underwrite his claims.

At that point, Erdogan would face an overwhelming public outcry, with hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters filling the streets of Turkey’s major cities. But he could deploy the national police—a modern, well-armed force over 300,000 strong reporting directly to him—precipitating a crackdown. He would outlaw all demonstrations immediately, arrest key protest organizers, shut down social media, and probably declare a curfew, followed by a possible state of emergency like the one he imposed after the 2016 coup. Pro-Erdogan groups could also carry out vigilante violence against protesters with tacit police support. Already, in the years since the switch to the presidential system, there has been a disturbing wave of violence against opposition leaders and opinonmakers, including an attack on CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu by a pro-Erdogan mob in April 2019 before the repeat vote in Istanbul. A victory by Erdogan’s police would end democracy in Turkey.

Erdogan backers could stage a January 6-style insurrection.

But moving to cancel the results is not the only way Erdogan could undermine the election. A second possibility is that he and his advisers could attempt to fix the vote in advance. If they do so, they are very likely to fail. In this regard, the experience of Istanbul in 2019 is telling. When Erdogan canceled the first vote, the opposition organized a masterful “protect-the-vote” campaign for the rerun election, drawing on some 100,000 volunteers to monitor polling stations, document the vote count on smartphones, and even spend the night literally sleeping on top of ballot boxes to prevent rigging. (In Turkey, citizens are allowed by law to observe the vote tally.) Any effort by Erdogan to meddle in the 2023 election will be documented, triggering an immediate popular backlash, including among many of those who voted for him.

The most likely outcome, then, would either be huge protests, in which the police and the opposition would once again, and unfortunately, be drawn into a race to take control of Turkey’s streets, or, if meddling is detected early on and the vote is successfully protected, a victory for the opposition. But Erdogan and the forces under his control may still refuse to accept the result, and there would be the difficult question of how to ensure a peaceful and smooth transfer of power if he and his supporters refuse to concede, without throwing Turkey into instability.

The Amnesty Alternative

Given the likelihood of destabilizing interference by Erdogan and his backers in the presidential election, a better strategy for the opposition would be to seek a grand bargain with him to leave office willingly. In fact, the opposition has significant leverage in one area in particular. For in addition to losing power, Erdogan faces the likely prospect of criminal prosecution for corruption as well as for the deaths of dozens of people at the hands of the police and the suffering of many others abused by his government. Members of his family have also been implicated in corruption scandals and could be charged. There is a real prospect that Erdogan could spend his final years locked up in a Turkish prison or in exile, if he loses the vote. Thus, the opposition could convince him to step aside in return for clemency for him and his family, resulting in a smooth transition of power. 

A grand bargain will be difficult to achieve. Many opposition groups on the left will be reluctant to support an amnesty of any kind. And Erdogan himself may not agree to take the olive branch, regardless of how ironclad its terms are. Many of his supporters are unrepentant and refuse any dialogue with the opposition. A recent meme gaining popularity on social media includes a picture of Erdogan’s interior minister and de facto chief of police, Suleyman Soylu, holding a machine gun, saying, “Come take us to court!”—implying that AKP leaders will respond to electoral defeat with an armed insurrection, similar to what happened in the United States on January 6, 2021.

One alternative is to have the Turkish Armed Forces, traditionally the most respected institution in the country, act as the guarantor of an Erdogan-opposition deal. Given Turkey’s history of military interventions—including the brutal 1980 coup—it may not appear to be a good idea to invite the generals into politics. As a conscript-based force, however, the Turkish military is one of the country’s sole remaining institutions in which pro- and anti-Erdogan Turks come together, including women, who serve in the officer corps. In recent years, the military leadership has also embraced a policy of neutrality regarding the country’s domestic politics, making it one of the few remaining arms of state to preserve a largely non-partisan identity.  As Turkey’s allies, the United States and the European Union could also help back a swift transfer of power and threaten sanctions against individuals who seek to undermine it. Such a strategy is not guaranteed to work—especially if the military were tempted to reinsert itself into the country’s political leadership—but it may be the best option available to prevent a broader and more immediate collapse of Turkey’s democracy.

As a close observer of Erdogan’s career, I have become a firm believer in term limits. Had he left the scene after his first decade in office, with a record of strong economic growth and broad popular support, he would be regarded today as one of Turkey’s most successful leaders. But his pursuit of unchecked power in recent years has taken him, and Turkey, in a far more dangerous direction. And if an effective strategy for getting him to leave the scene is not put into play now, he may well wind up being remembered as the Turkish leader who “pulled a Trump,” claiming that the election was stolen and throwing his country and its citizens into chaos.

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