Erdogan vs the Opposition: Experts at Washington, D.C. panel analyze Turkey’s elections and future

Erdogan vs the Opposition: Experts at Washington, D.C. panel analyze Turkey’s elections and future
A+ A-
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies gathered experts to discuss the upcoming elections in Turkey, rapprochement with the West, and the opposition’s ability to rally voters.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C. has published senior fellow and Turkey expert Sinan Ciddi’s monograph “Turkey After Erdogan.” Ciddi surveys the twenty years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule and questions the outcome of Turkey’s upcoming elections, which many consider to be the most consequential in the country’s recent history.

“Turkey After Erdogan”

Ciddi maps the trajectory of Turkey’s transformation from a rapidly democratizing country with a flourishing economy to a burgeoning autocracy at odds with its allies through the twenty years of AKP rule. Ciddi points to the Gezi Park protests and foreign policy developments to highlight critical moments in the AKP government.

Ciddi agrees with analysts that Erdogan could be toppled in the May elections, as his reputation is challenged by skyrocketing inflation, which hit a 24-year high of 85.5 percent, and his government’s politicized and inept response to the earthquake tragedy last month.

However, he warns that “U.S. and European leaders should not let their hope cloud their vision.” Erdogan may still win the election — even without resorting to stealing votes — and rapprochement with the West may not be welcomed by the public even under an opposition victory.

In fact, though the opposition clashes with the AKP government in its domestic policies and its vision for Turkey, the two groups have commonalities when it comes to foreign policy. According to Ciddi, Erdogan’s fervent anti-Western sentiment is shared to some degree by the general public, the Good Party, and even the Republican People’s Party (CHP) whose leader has become the opposition’s presidential candidate.

Though a new president could soften the tone in relationships with the West by ratifying Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership or divesting Turkey of the S-400s it had purchased from Russia, Turkey may be intransigent in other matters. The country is unlikely to severe its financial relationship with Russia and nor will it be conciliatory towards the SDF, a group that is Washington’s ally and Turkey’s foe in Syria.

Ciddi is also not optimistic about the ability of an opposition candidate to rally voters and convince them of a better future. For one, Ciddi stresses that the opposition’s alienation of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has a broad base of support among the Kurdish electorate, due to concerns that the public associates the HDP with PKK terrorism, could cost them the election.

Perhaps most worryingly, Ciddi writes that the opposition alliance has not “put forward a clear vision for how to repair Turkey’s faltering economy, problematic foreign policy, and troubled democracy.” In the absence of such a vision, voters “may still prefer their current strongman to an untested opponent.”

Ciddi also raises concerns that the elections will be neither free nor fair. Erdogan may ban opposition candidates from politics, as he did with Istanbul mayor Imamoglu or with many HDP politicians, or he could have the election results overturned by loyalists in the Supreme Electoral Council. In any case, Erdogan will not go easily as he has filled the ranks of the media, judiciary, law enforcement, and other institutions with loyalists.

If an opposition candidate does come to power, the new president will have to contend with the public’s demand to send back the roughly four million refugees in the country which may not be an easy feat. The opposition will also have to deal with the economy, the $84 billion in damages suffered after the earthquake, the restoration of independence for the central bank, plummeting investor confidence, and transparency in government funding.

The new president’s hope of returning to democratic norms and instilling a culture of rule of law will be complicated by Erdogan loyalists in the bureaucracy. According to Ciddi, any potential reforms would be even more difficult in the event that the election results in an opposition president and an AKP-led parliament.

Expert Panel on “Turkey after Erdogan”

The FDD also invited experts to discuss post-election changes in Turkey on their panel yesterday. Senior Fellow for FDD Sinan Ciddi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on foreign Relations Henri Barkey, Turkey Program Director for the Project on Middle East Democracy Merve Tahiroglu, and Senior Director of Research at Freedom House Nate Schenkkan talked about Turkey’s political and economic landscape.

Barkey said, “Europe and the U.S. can send messages. Whether or not Erdogan listens, however, is another matter,” and that much of the public will vote simply because “they want to get rid of Erdogan.” Barkey stressed that, “the future of who wins the elections will very much depend on what happens to the HDP.”

Tahiroglu was less pessimistic than her counterparts on the panel. She pointed to the diversity of the opposition coalition as an asset that would “appeal to different segments of the population, and [that has] the potential to rally voters.” Tahiroglu said, “In this specific moment we have more reason to be optimistic about Turkey’s election delivering an opposition win than we have ever been in the past twenty years – caveat, yes, it is not going to be a free and fair election.”

Tahiroglu acknowledges that an overwhelming percentage of Turkey’s media is state-controlled but reminds that this has effectively made the Turkish public redirect political conversations onto social media where dialogue can take place. In this regard, Tahiroglu views a potential attempt by the government to block access to social media as votes are being tallied to be a “major threat to the integrity of the election.” Still cautiously optimistic, she notes that pressure by the international community can prevent this from happening.