Turkey could be on the cusp of a new era

A variety of factors, including a troubled leadership, make the country ripe for political reinvention

Late pandemic-era Turkish politics has the feel of a dinner party set to go off the rails, with rumours of early elections, new parties turning up every few weeks, an irritable host staving off decline and a queue of potential successors waiting in the wings.

Toss in lingering economic gloom and a looming constitutional redo, and for the first time in two decades a leader with vision would seem to have a real opportunity to step forward and haul Turkey into a new age as the republic hurtles toward its 100th birthday in 2023.

Start with the explosion of new players in the race. In 2018, Turkey witnessed the launch of two political parties. The next year, the number leapt a whopping 50 per cent, to three. In the 20-plus months since, however, 40 political parties have sprung to life (27 in 2020; 13 so far this year), as detailed by Balkan Insight reporter Hamdi Firat Buyuk last week.

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The new outfits run the gamut, from Kemalist to Islamist, far-left to western-leaning liberal and conservative nationalist. The main reason they have come along now is that Turkey’s political sphere smells blood in the water. As previously detailed in this column, an economic crisis that began in mid-2018 has led to persistently high inflation and unemployment and steadily declining popularity for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In the local elections of early 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP lost control of a handful of major Turkish cities to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Within a few months, former economic czar Ali Babacan and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu had resigned from the AKP to launch their own parties – opening the floodgates for all variety of new entrants.

In addition to Mr Babacan’s Deva (Remedy) Party and Mr Davutoglu’s Future Party, other notable new players include the Homeland Party of former CHP presidential candidate Muharrem Ince, the Victory Party of Kemalist-nationalist Umit Ozdag, the Innovation Party of MP Ozturk Yilmaz, formerly of the CHP, a new Green Party, fighting for the environment, and the latest iteration of the Pirate Party, focused on digital rights.

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan gestures during a press conference on the steps of the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting in Istanbul on February 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ OZAN KOSE (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)

None have enough support to cross the 10 per cent threshold to enter Parliament, but recent developments are set to remake the playing field. First, the AKP and its parliamentary partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), plan to lower the threshold to 7 per cent, possibly because the latter’s polling numbers dropped to 8 per cent in recent months. This, of course, gives new parties an easier path to Parliament.

Even more relevant is the emergence of political alliances, such as the AKP-MHP partnership or the CHP’s alliance with the nationalist Good Party. Under Turkey’s presidential system, only the alliance, not the individual parties within it, needs to meet the threshold. Thus, as part of an alliance the Innovation Party could, for instance, get just 2 per cent of the vote yet win a handful of seats. This makes almost any new party a potential kingmaker.

Another key driver of excitement for the opposition is the apparent vulnerability of Turkey’s longtime leader. The AKP’s decline in the polls has been well documented. The health concerns swirling around Mr Erdogan have received significantly less coverage. As detailed in Foreign Policy last week, Mr Erdogan has looked frail in several recent videos: appearing to lean on his wife, Emine Erdogan, while negotiating a flight of stairs, for instance, and seeming to have difficulty walking at a public event in Ankara.

Rumours of his declining health have swirled for at least a decade, and no recent reports have cited a medical record or official diagnosis. It’s possible that Turkey’s president, known for his resilience, is in excellent health. But Mr Erdogan is nearing 70 and has undergone a number of surgeries in recent years, so it seems worthy of consideration.

If he is forced to step down before the next general election, scheduled for June 2023, the leading candidates to replace him would be intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu – none of whom have anywhere near Mr Erdogan’s charisma, political savvy or popularity.

What’s more, Islamist parties such as the AKP have been in decline for about a decade. This past summer’s political upheaval in Tunisia was largely a move against the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Ennahda party. Last month, Morocco’s JDP lost all but 12 of its 125 parliamentary seats. In Egypt, the original Muslim Brotherhood is no longer a political entity, after being pushed out of power in mid-2013 and labelled a terrorist group. Several observers see these developments as signalling the end of Islamism in the region.

All this, plus rumours of Turkey’s next vote being advanced to late 2022, explains the recent jockeying of potential presidential challengers. Many thought Good Party leader Meral Aksener, who has boosted her popularity by making Turkish nationalism more progressive and worldly, might throw her hat in the ring. But last week she said she would not run for president and would instead seek the prime ministership under a new parliamentary system (under the presidential system, Turkey has no prime minister).

Following CHP chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s August call for Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas to seek second terms, the path seems clear for Mr Kilicdaroglu to be the CHP-Good Party candidate. Since Mr Kilicdaroglu is viewed much like pre-2020 Joe Biden – eternal candidate, inevitable loser – this has done little to curb the fervour of other contenders.

Count analyst Can Okar among those who say the CHP chief should not be the chosen one. “He would lose fairly easily once the machine gets to work,” he said in a tweet last week. Thus, the door is likely to remain open for Mr Imamoglu and Mr Yavas, and perhaps even Ms Aksener, as well as alternative party candidates such as Mr Ince and even imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, to step up and change the narrative.

“A new story is needed for the future of the country,” veteran columnist Bekir Agirdir asserted in his latest column. Such shifts and transitions are easier in Turkey than in most countries due to the way founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk broke with the Ottoman past in the republic’s early days, according to Jenny White, author of several books on Turkey, including Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks.

“Turkey’s uprooted institutions and re-engineered social identities,” she wrote in a recent essay, “have made national identity and its material and geographic expression particularly vulnerable to reinvention under the influence of politics and the market.”

Right now – amid the persistence of Covid-19 and economic trouble, talk of a new constitution and a troubled leadership – seems like a moment of particular vulnerability.

Published: October 4th 2021, 4:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National