How a desperate Erdogan could end Turkey’s authoritarian drift

The US and EU have in recent weeks praised Turkey’s efforts to calm tensions in the eastern Mediterranean

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during the Grand Congress of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey, March 24, 2021. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
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European leaders Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen are set to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on Tuesday as the Turkish government aims to continue to revive ties with the West, which hit a new low last year when Turkey purchased Russian missile defences and came to the brink of war with Greece.

The US and EU have in recent weeks praised Turkey’s efforts to calm tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkish vessels have stopped drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece. Turkish and Greek delegations have met twice for diplomatic talks. And following a leaders summit last month, the EU issued a hopeful statement about restarting negotiations with Turkey on issues including migration management, the customs union and visa-free travel.

Yet domestically the momentum appears to be headed in the other direction. In the past few weeks, Turkey has: moved to shut down the third largest party in parliament, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP); stripped human rights activist and HDP member Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu of his parliamentary seat, sent him to prison for a 2016 tweet and forcibly taken him from his home; sentenced several journalists to jail; and pulled out of the world’s leading global compact to combat violence against women, the Istanbul Convention.

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration in Istanbul, Friday, April 2, 2021, against Turkey's withdrawal from Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women from violence. The Istanbul Convention states that men and women have equal rights and obliges national authorities to take steps to prevent gender-based violence against women, to protect victims and to prosecute perpetrators. Conservative groups and some officials from Turkeys President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-oriented ruling party take issue with these terms, saying they promote homosexuality. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Protesters at a demonstration in Istanbul against Turkey's withdrawal from Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women from violence. AP

Finally, last week Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the driving force behind the effort to ban the HDP, called for the country’s top court to be shut down. This explains why a group of 20 rights watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch, Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders, penned a letter urging the visiting EU chiefs to prioritise rights and freedoms in their relations with Turkey.

These developments may be a prelude to political jockeying. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in desperate need of its parliamentary partner, the MHP. But in recent weeks the polling numbers of the ruling Nation Alliance have fallen to 45 per cent or less and for Mr Erdogan, the MHP and Mr Bahceli may have become political baggage.

Insiders say Mr Erdogan and the AKP have already begun casting about for a new parliamentary partner

Turkish nationalists had since the Second World War been pro-West and pro-Nato. But today the dominant strain of nationalists, as represented by the MHP, sees the US and EU as implicated in the 2016 failed coup and is no longer wedded to the idea of Turkey in the West. This aligns with Turkey’s Blue Homeland doctrine, which sees Greece and the West as a threat to Turkey’s regional dominance and thus the need for renewed military, and particularly maritime, strength.

The isolated, 73-year-old Mr Bahceli may be increasingly out of touch with Turkey's population, more than half of which is under 30. As mentioned in a recent column, Meral Aksener's Good Party has come to represent a hipper, more worldly and Western-leaning style of Turkish nationalist. Mr Bahceli, on the other hand, hearkens back to the instability and violence of Turkey's 70s and 80s and to the strongman era of Middle East politics.

People enjoy a snack by the Golden Horn in Eminonu open market in Istanbul, Friday, April 2, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Turkey continue to raise and the total number of infections in the country stands at 3.3 million. On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government re-imposed restrictions, including weekend lockdowns, amid a sharp increase in the number of infections-less then a month after the measures were relaxed. The government has also announced restrictions over the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
People enjoy a snack in Istanbul on April 2. The government has announced restrictions over Ramadan. AP

Appreciating the extent to which Nato-member Turkey needs solid relations with the US and its top trade partner, the EU, Mr Erdogan has begun to shift away from all that, with less assertiveness in the eastern Mediterranean and efforts to improve ties with Western allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Later this month, Turkey will host Afghan peace talks and join UN-led talks on resolving Cyprus.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) greets Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu prior to a Nato foreign ministers meeting on March 23, 2021 at the Nato headquarters in Brussels. / AFP / POOL / Virginia Mayo
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) greets Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu before a Nato foreign ministers meeting in Brussels last month. AFP 

Will Mr Erdogan go one step further and drop the MHP? Thanks to a pandemic-driven increase in poverty and shaky financial markets, Turkey watchers generally agree that, barring more repressive measures or some sort of pivot, the AKP is doomed to fall in the next election, set for mid-2023.

Insiders say Mr Erdogan and the AKP have already begun casting about for a new parliamentary partner. Former HDP co-leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, who has been in prison for more than four years, said in an interview last week that the AKP had reached out to several opposition parties about working together to pass a new constitution that would reinstall the parliamentary system.

This would put an end to the executive presidential system installed via a 2017 referendum, which all but negated parliament and put so much power in the hands of Turkey's leader. Might Mr Erdogan willingly give up the power he worked so hard to attain? Would he really choose to reverse Turkey's decade-long authoritarian drift – of which he was the main driver and beneficiary?

He might well go in the opposite direction – double down on the democratic backsliding and become a despot. But let's not forget that in the 2000s Turkey made democratic reforms that put it on the fast-track to EU membership and Mr Erdogan was hailed as the great symbol of hope for Muslim democracy.

“Turkey has defied all analytical assumptions over the past decade,” says Asli Aydintasbas, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It was the poster child of rising democracy, and today it’s the poster child of rising authoritarianism. Who knows what the story will be.”

Mr Erdogan is desperate to still be president in late 2023, when the Turkish Republic will mark its centennial – an event he has been talking up for years. The pressure applied by the threat of sanctions and other punishments from the US and EU is considerable, and the threat of losing the next vote is real.

After nearly two decades in power, is Mr Erdogan desperate enough to shape-shift yet again and embrace liberal democracy to stay on top? It may sound ludicrous, but nothing is impossible when it comes to Turkish politics.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National