Erdoğan emerges stronger (and weaker) than ever

By Yakup Coen

The Justice and Development Party won the referendum on giving President Erdoğan unprecedented powers, but the result exposed the limits of a fracturing political project.

‘No’ protestors in Istanbul following accusations of fraud in the referendum. Source: @tameryazar on Twitter

It would be particularly ironic for the fate of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a man who has built his political career on rallying against an undemocratic state oligarchy  to be decided by the opaque decision of a bureaucratic committee.

But when the Supreme Electoral Board intervened at the behest of his government to accept as many as 2.5 million votes lacking an official stamp of accreditation, it may have done just that.        

In the end, the reliance on such an underhand manoeuvre was a fitting way for President Erdoğan to gain the extra powers that critics say will now allow him to become a dictator. But this crude moment of strength belies just how weak his political project has become.

The AKP was famously built on its ability to integrate whole swathes of Turkey’s disparate political landscape; bringing together old school Islamists with anti-state liberals, Turkish nationalists with conservative Kurds.    

Slowly but surely, this electoral bloc has fractured under the weight of its own contradictions, and in response, the AKP has attempted to shore up its position through a greater and greater centralization of its authority, both within and beyond the state.

It is the unfolding of this logic, rather than simply the personal ambitions of Erdoğan, that explains the drive for one man rule. And a clear pattern has emerged, with the party reacting to each challenge by further concentrating its power; becoming ever more reliant on the state to compensate for its narrowing social base, which in turn, has provoked a further crisis.       

It was the ‘Gezi Uprising’ of 2013 that first demonstrated the limits of the AKP’s hegemony; with the vicious crackdown losing the party its liberal supporters and helping to forge the coalition of leftist, Kurdish, and other minority rights activists that became the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Gezi may have been crushed, but the HDP was able to successfully challenge Kurdish support for the AKP; winning enough votes in the south-east to ultimately cost the government its parliamentary majority at the June 2015 elections.

In response, Erdoğan’s party tore up the peace process and returned to all out war with Kurdish militants; regaining a majority 6 months later by suppressing the HDP and securing the support of nationalist voters.    

An increasingly authoritarian turn necessitated that the party consolidate its position within the state, but this came at the cost of exacerbating tensions within the AKP’s core Islamist bloc. These erupted into all-out war last July when followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen launched an attempted coup upon hearing that the government was planning to purge them from the military.

In this context, rather than the inevitable next step in Erdoğan’s insatiable hunger for power, the referendum becomes a last ditch attempt to save a political project that is no longer able to sustain itself without monopolizing the state and concentrating its power in a charismatic leader.     

The referendum campaign revealed both the potential for, and limitations of, such a strategy.

The state of emergency declared after the failed coup endowed president Erdoğan with a temporary version of the executive powers a new presidential system will bring.

This allowed the government to launch an all-out attack on the HDP: jailing its leaders and decisively hindering the grassroots movement that would have led the ‘no’ campaign against the constitutional changes in the predominantly Kurdish regions.

The result was a ‘yes’ vote that was substantially higher than most had been expecting, which government supporters have pointed to as a sign of Kurdish voters returning to the AKP.

There is plenty evidence to cast doubt on this assertion, with data analysis adding to accusations of vote-rigging. But the lesson is clear: crush the political capacity of the opposition and, one way or another, the necessary result can be achieved.

But the spurious rise in support for the AKP in the predominantly Kurdish regions only just managed to outweigh a dramatic decline in support for the nationalist/ religious-conservative coalition that made up the the core of the ’yes’ campaign, which lost as many as 5 million votes.

It seems that, just as it has done previously, attempts by the AKP to concentrate its power has come at the cost of exacerbated tensions, with resistance emerging in both the Islamist and nationalist movements.

It remains to be seen whether such resistance will gain traction. If, as his supporters hope, an empowered Erdoğan is able to bring back the political and economic stability that marked the early years of the AKP, there is potential to stabilize his new regime by diffusing power in a limited fashion and integrating some elements of the internal opposition.

Given the challenges the country is facing, this is a big if. With the economy faltering and instability continuing to emanate from Syria, even a stable and coherent government would struggle to weather the coming storm.

The priority, therefore, will be to concentrate power further. And having secured complete dominance within the state, Erdoğan will use his expanded powers to continue to do the same throughout civil society, tightening the grip on his base while continuing to crack down on any other opposition.

In anticipation of this, he has already sought to rally nationalist support with promises of further military operations in Syria and a referendum on the return of the death penalty. But the former looks likely to heighten tension with Russia, while the latter may have dire consequences for relations with the European Union which remains Turkey’s largest trading partner.

Thus, attempts to secure Erdoğan’s position at home look likely to continue to come at the cost of long-term stability, requiring an ever greater consolidation of strength to compensate, and in turn, increasing pressure on an already fractured power bloc. In the end, something will have to give, and the AKP doesn’t have much left.   

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