Erdogan Has Never Been in This Much Trouble
Surrounded by rivals amid a collapsing economy, the Turkish president is facing the longest odds of his life.
Originally published at Foreign Policy
November 26, 2021 4:53 pm (EST)
- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
In Turkey, it seems, the chickens are coming home to roost. It has been a terrible few months for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is isolated internationally, the economy continues to deteriorate, there are questions about Erdogan’s health, and his and the AKP’s poll numbers do not look good. To a variety of observers and the Turkish opposition, the AKP’s crack-up is coming.
The Republican People’s Party, the Good Party, and others are confident enough that they are advocating for an early election, making plans to ditch Erdogan’s executive presidency and return Turkey to its hybrid parliamentary-presidential system. This may be premature: an iron law of the AKP era has been to never count Erdogan out. Still, the situation for the president and his party looks bleak.
Among all of Turkey’s problems, it is the deteriorating economic situation that is the Turkish leader’s most serious predicament. As a result of Erdogan’s gross mismanagement, the lira has lost around 75 percent of its value against the dollar in the last decade, 45 percent in the past year, and 15 percent alone on Tuesday. It is true that Turkey—defying the odds and a global pandemic—grew its economy by 1.8 percent in 2020. But the overall economic picture for average Turks is grim: Inflation is running at 20 percent; unemployment is 14 percent; and the gap between wealthy and poor has increased. In response to the lira’s collapse, a number of major Turkish banks closed their online operations and people turned out in the streets to protest in parts of Ankara and Istanbul portending possible further and larger demonstrations.
One of the ways Erdogan has recently sought to lift his flagging political fortunes is to improve Turkey’s relations with its neighbors. It is a reversal from 2020 when, for domestic political purposes, the Turkish government embarked on an aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has had some success breaking out of its isolation. The tone of its bilateral relations with the Saudi and Emirati governments has improved with several leadership phone calls and diplomatic visits, though it seems clear there is still no love lost between Turkey and the two Persian Gulf heavyweights.
The Turks have also pursued better relations with Israel, but so far, the Israelis are not biting. They have very little reason to trust Erdogan. First off, two Israeli tourists were recently arrested for taking a photo of Dolmabahce Palace—a site the Turkish tourism authority often features in its promotional material—and accused of espionage. They were subsequently released, but the episode seemed designed to whip up anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments in Turkey for political purposes. Also, in late October, the Turkish leader told his French counterpart that Turkey would not attend the Nov. 11 Paris meeting on Libya if Israel (and Greece as well as the Republic of Cyprus) attended. The Israelis did not participate, though Greek and Cypriot officials were there. What Erdogan and the AKP fail to grasp is that the days when Israel would bend over backward for good ties with Turkey despite Ankara’s attempts to muscle Israelis out of important international meetings, Turkey’s ties with Hamas, and Erdogan’s often-odious rhetoric about Israel and Israelis is something of the past.
Then there is Egypt. Over the spring and summer, the Turkish press and the government’s supporters (which are really one in the same) were periodically triumphant about the coming normalization of ties between Turkey and Egypt. The working assumption in Ankara was that the Egyptians would leap at the opportunity and that improved ties with Cairo would place pressure on the Greek, Cypriot, and Israeli governments. Yet, the Egyptians have not been as eager as Turkish officials calculated, having misread the importance Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi places on his country’s ties with Greece and Cyprus, which help the Egyptian cause within the European Union’s councils.
Speaking of Europe, if not for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Europeans might have sanctioned Turkey for a variety of transgressions, including military operations in Syria, exploration of gas near Cyprus, and threatening to push migrants into Greece. More than anything else, the latter issue underlies fraught EU-Turkey relations. In 2016, the EU began paying Ankara to keep desperate Syrians in Turkey rather than allowing them to make their way to Europe. Despite this deal, the Turks periodically threaten to let the Syrians (and others) go through, creating a new refugee crisis and potentially sowing instability. The Turkish courts are also defying the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled that the continued detention of the Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who is falsely accused of supporting terrorism, is unjust and he should be released. This could result in either the suspension of Turkey’s voting rights in the Council of Europe or expulsion from the body.
When it comes to the United States, the Turkish government made a big deal about the bilateral meeting between Erdogan and U.S. President Joe Biden at the G-20 summit in October, but there has not been much change in relations. The Turkish purchase and deployment of the Russian-built S-400 air defense system remains unresolved, Washington and Ankara are at loggerheads over U.S. support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, and the Turkish government is angry that now three U.S. administrations have refused to extradite the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. In this environment, the Turks have requested 40 new F-16 jets and upgraded kits for 80 more. The Turkish leadership has convinced itself that the deals for the planes will happen, but the Biden administration has been coy. The U.S. president made it clear that there is a “process” for such transactions. This was a polite way of saying that Congress, where there is already opposition to the deal, will have to weigh in.
It is entirely unclear what any improvement in Turkey’s international standing would do to help the Turkish economy, especially since Erdogan has given no indication of reconsidering the economic problems that are of his own making. For years, Erdogan has hammered away at an alleged foreign plot that includes the “interest rate lobby,” the CIA, Zionists, the West, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and others who seek to bring Turkey down, but the only explanation for the economic suffering among Turks is Erdogan’s own mismanagement. In particular, the Turkish leader has undermined the independence of the Central Bank through a revolving door of governors subject to near nonstop political pressure. Erdogan has bullied successive Turkish central bankers—against all economic sense—to keep interest rates low. The result has been the sharp depreciation of the lira, which makes everything more expensive for Turks and wreaks havoc on the balance sheets of Turkish companies that must pay back dollar-denominated loans. A cheap lira does, of course, help Turkish exports, but the social costs are huge. Poorer Turks are living subsistence existences. Instead of the unorthodox policy of low interest rates, a hike is in order. This would also cause some pain, especially to overextended Turks, but it would reverse the lira’s slide, tamp down on inflation, and restore investor confidence. Erdogan’s commitment to low interest rates is based on his calculation that cheap credit is good for growth and growth is good for him politically, but it is not working out that way.
Added to the problems of Turkey’s damaging foreign policies and its economic challenges are questions around Erdogan’s health. At times, he has not looked well. But beyond the actual state of the Turkish leader’s health is the ferocious response to any questions about the state of his well-being. The reaction reflects the cult of personality around Erdogan, but that is hardly new. More revealing is that the intemperate response suggests a growing gap between what the government says—not only about the president’s health but also democracy and prosperity—and objective reality. Here government spokespeople, media mouthpieces, and social media agitators have tried to fill the space with vitriol, trolling, and repression.
The sheer number of people locked up in Turkey because they have criticized the government is a clear indication that Erdogan and the AKP are convincing fewer and fewer people of the wisdom of their agenda. The effort to shore themselves up politically becomes a vicious circle in which government officials and the press continue to offer a narrative that does not conform to what people are experiencing, leading to more questions about Erdogan and the party’s stewardship—all of which results in more arrests, more lies, more questions, and more Turks in custody, as well as the progressive deterioration of Erdogan and the AKP’s political position. This dynamic has begun to show up in recent polling, which shows Erdogan losing a presidential race against the mayors of either Ankara or Istanbul, and projects the Good Party’s leader also beating the President.
If Turkey under the AKP had become the leading edge of democratic reversals, blazing the path for Hungary, Poland, and even the United States, perhaps it is now at the forefront of a democratic correction. It is difficult to predict, of course, but it is hard to imagine that Turkey’s raft of problems, especially its economic troubles should they persist, will not influence the AKP’s electoral prospects. At the same time, it is also hard to imagine that Erdogan is willing to lose an election fairly and squarely. The Turkish opposition can only hope.