Turkish Politics is Exciting Again

From about 2002 to 2013, Turkish politics was boring. The AKP had come to dominate the political system, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had come to dominate the AKP. The Turkish Armed Forces, having seemingly expended its last strength pushing Necmettin Erbakan out in 1997, was moving in slow motion, unable or unwilling to confront the AKP government and stop the hemorrhaging of its own autonomy and power. No credible political alternative existed to either Erdoğan or the AKP, leaving elections to be more about how much stronger the two might get than a real contest for power.

The outbreak of the Gezi protests in May followed by this week’s anti-corruption probe turns everything on its head. The latter, in particular, represents the most serious threat to Erdoğan’s power since 2002. It’s clear now that the AKP’s dominance has its limits; significant and various groups within Turkish society and politics don’t accept the increasing authoritarianism of the party or its leader. What’s not clear is how long opposition to the AKP can be maintained, and what the outcome of this very public clash might be. But some things that bear watching are:

1. It is, as Michael Koplow reminds us, part of a long-simmering rivalry between the Justice and Development Party and the Gülen movement. Both are powerful and entrenched in the Turkish polity and in society, which potentially makes this struggle very destructive of Turkey’s institutions. Erdoğan’s decision to eliminate the dershanes (preparatory schools designed to help Turks study for university entrance exams but run by Gülen), the anti-corruption investigation itself (which is looking into banks, politicians, and business enterprises), and the AKP’s campaign of dismissing police chiefs and investigators (widely seen as a response to the anti-corruption probe) will leave some gaps in important Turkish institutions. How—or whether—they are filled could have long-term effects.

2. Was 2002-2013 an incubation period? The rise to power of Erdoğan and the AKP was facilitated by the infighting and self-inflicted, mortal wounds of the secular parties, most of which vanished by 2002, and the unrepentant radicalism of Erbakan and the Welfare Party. This left the political field open to the AKP, without any serious challengers. It might be that rivals and opposition parties needed that time to recharge and re-form. I’m skeptical of such a process, since neither of the two existing non-AKP parties (The Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party) have the public support, organizational reach, or political savvy necessary to directly challenge the AKP and its leaders; and there aren’t any viable alternatives on the horizon either. But maybe in retrospect something else will be obvious.

3. The economy. I think that while both Gezi and the current anti-corruption probe pose serious challenges to the AKP and Erdoğan, there is still a long way to go before either loses power. These political processes might undermine their ability to protect their interests and promote loyal allies, but per my second point, it won’t matter without a political alternative. But the economic fallout of this instability could have a larger, longer, and more immediate effect. And because much of Erdoğan’s popularity rests on economic development and the economic gains that Turks have reaped since the 2000s, his and the AKP’s allure will be tarnished if these trends stall significantly or are reversed.

4. Is there hope for Abdullah Gül? Observers have long wondered about the polite rivalry between Erdoğan and Gül, the two preeminent leaders of the AKP. Conventional wisdom is that their respective powers are locked into a zero-sum game. On this point, Henri Barkey has a very interesting piece at Al-Monitor discussing whether Gül will, in fact, be the ultimate beneficiary of the Erdoğan-Gülen spat.

5. Finally, how will all of this affect Turkish foreign policy? Ankara’s international policy is in flux since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, but it hasn’t been stable since the end of the Cold War. Given Erdoğan’s tendency to see international conspiracies everywhere, he is likely to emphasize this point as part of his reaction to the anti-corruption probe. But more worrisome is how distracting this will be to Turkey’s efforts to construct a viable foreign policy in the region. Given Turkey’s economic and diplomatic weight in the Middle East, a Turkey that staggers around without a clear sense of direction will make resolving the region’s problems that much more difficult. And as Turkey has trouble getting others to take it seriously again, it will continue to feed Turkish perceptions of Otherness, superiority, and wounded pride, undermining its ability to look after its own interests and work constructively with allies.

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