from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Erdogan for the Win

January 23, 2014 12:34 pm (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a stunningly gifted politician.  He can be thuggish, high-handed, painfully arrogant, but he also seems to have an innate sense of what makes many Turks tick and how to connect with them.  The Gezi Park protests that began last spring—and never really ended—brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, as well as smaller demonstrations in other cities to denounce the Turkish leader and his AK Party, but Erdogan was able to muster hundreds of thousands of supporters in response.  At the time I wrote that Erdogan was weak and vulnerable precisely because the prime minister felt compelled to stage rallies to prove his popularity.  That piece seems to dovetail well with more recent articles wondering if the current corruption scandal roiling Turkey means the “end of Erdogan” or whether his days “are numbered.” I stand by everything I wrote in “The Strong Man at His Weakest,” but Erdogan is not going anywhere.  He may even be the prime minister again. That does not mean that the apparent slugfest has not damaged Erdogan, it certainly has. Yet these injuries (mostly self-inflicted) are offset by the fact that the prime minister’s opponents have some significant political disadvantages and constraints of their own.  It may not seem that way, but upon close inspection Tayyip Bey may very well ride out this scandal.

It seems that everyone in Ankara and Washington is waiting for Turkish president Abdullah Gul to exploit the prime minister’s current problems and wrest control of the AKP.  This makes sense, Gul is an enormously appealing personality.  Like Erdogan, he is charismatic, but in an altogether different way.  Gul is the quieter, confident, more thoughtful and statesman-like of the two. I have met President Gul on a number of occasions and after each encounter, I’ve wanted to stay at the Cankaya Palace so that some of his wisdom and what can only be described as that inner Gul-ian centeredness and self-actualization could rub off on me.  (Those who have also had the privilege of meeting the Turkish president know exactly what I am talking about.) By all measures, Gul is popular among Turks.  Large and enthusiastic crowds turn out to greet him whenever he travels around the country, leading some observers to speculate that Turkish voters might be tired of Erdogan’s bombast in favor of a more understated leader like Gul. Finally, the president has signaled, albeit mostly implicitly, that he disapproves of Erdogan’s decidedly illiberal turn domestically and his undisciplined approach to the world.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan

When the Gezi Park protests kicked into high-gear last spring one of my Turkey yodas wondered aloud whether the president had the stomach to fight Erdogan.  It’s a good question, though I suspect Gul’s been in a fair number of political brawls in his time.  Whether the president has guts is not the problem.  Gul is an important figure in Turkey and in the AKP—he was among the party’s founders in August 2001 and served as Justice and Development’s first prime minister while Erdogan remained banned from politics—but one wonders how broad and deep his support runs in the party.  Of government ministers, I count only one who has remained solidly in the Gul camp while others became Erdogan men and the party’s parliamentary caucus belongs to the prime minister.

There have been stories coming out of Ankara about a steady stream of AKP notables making their way to Gul’s office to encourage him to enter the political arena when his term is up this summer and take on Erdogan. That is good news for Gul boosters, but I am not sure this pilgrimage adds up to that much politically.  It is true that leaders tend to wear out their welcome after a decade—give or take a few years—and there is a noticeable uptick in Erdogan-fatigue of late, compounded by the corruption scandal. Yet the prime minister’s eleven years in office combined with both his particular political style and the fact that Gul’s position places him above politics gives Erdogan a certain advantage. The AK party is vertically and horizontally integrated into political and economic life of the country.  Erdogan’s patronage networks have taken a hit recently and the press is getting a bit braver, but these are not necessarily fatal problems for the prime minister.  I do not mean to minimize his political problems nor the very real challenge that the corruption investigations pose to Erdogan’s mastery of the political arena, but the prime minister still has considerable resources at his disposal that Gul does not have, if only because the president by dint of the apolitical nature of his office has not been pulling the levers and making things happen since 2007 when he was elected to the post.

In addition to weighing his chances in a fight with Erdogan, Gul has to calculate how much damage it would do to the AKP.  The party may have become an expression of Erdogan, but it is also Gul’s baby and the vehicle for the president’s own success and Turkey’s transformation.  More than anything else an Erdogan-Gul fight for political supremacy will do considerable damage to the AKP and up-end both men’s ambitions.  Some observers do not think this is necessarily a bad idea and that it might be good for Turkish democracy if the inevitable result of an AKP clash of titans is a second center-right party.  It could be, but these observers are not Abdullah Gul, who has an entirely different set of issues, incentives, and constraints to consider.  And anyway it is important to remember that the last time there were two viable center-right parties in Turkey—Dogru Yol and Anavatan—it did not have a salutary effect on democracy.

Speaking of parties, there is a conventional wisdom emerging that the Republican People’s Party (known by the Turkish, CHP) may be able to take advantage of Erdogan’s troubles in the March 30 local elections, especially in Istanbul.   There is a ton of buzz about the party’s candidate for mayor of the Greater Istanbul Muncipality, Mustafa Sarigul.  I am perfectly willing to believe that Sarigul is a more viable candidate than the false political saviors of Turkey’s past, but I still have reservations that he has as much appeal in Istanbul as is widely assumed.  It seems that DC and European-based Turkey watchers are thinking like DC and European-based Turkey watchers instead of trying to understand how an average Istanbuli might look at this race.

Let’s remember that the CHP’s left-of-center, European-style social democracy is a meaningless label. It’s primarily an elite affair that does not have much to offer anyone beyond its core 25 percent constituency that is located primarily along the coastal rim roughly running from Istanbul to Anatalya. The party made some sputtering attempts to make an issue of the growing divide between rich and poor in the last national election, but it is clearly the party of the upscale districts of Istanbul like Sisli—where Sarigul serves as mayor of the local municipality.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan

If your average Turk of modest means surveys the last decade, they will no doubt point out that they now have running water, healthcare, transportation, and some money in their pockets.  While the CHP was fighting internally and complaining of the perfidy of Erdogan, the AKP was providing services that Turks need and in the process broadened its constituency. Why would average Istanbulis who have benefitted from the AKP years vote for Sarigul and a party that has been contemptuous of them for years?  The fact that the AKP and people close to the prime minister were recently revealed to be corrupt is not likely to be enough to throw the election to the CHP candidate because of Siragul’s own well known problems with corruption. All things being equal then, the AKP’s candidate—who is not Erdogan, but might as well be—is likely to get the nod from voters.  The wild card here is Fethullah Gulen, the cleric and theologian who commands a huge following in Turkey (from Pennsylvania).  The corruption scandal is widely believed to be part of a larger battle between Gulen and Erdogan over who is the biggest man in Turkish politics: Gulen is rumored to have struck a deal with CHP leaders to throw his support behind Sarigul in the elections.

It would be a setback to Erdogan if he loses Istanbul, his hometown. A symbolic blow to be sure, but in order to divine the prime minister’s political future, analysts are going to have to take a hard look at the local elections returns from all over the country.  Even then, it might not tell us very much.  In 2009, AKP candidates for local positions collectively garnered 38.9 percent of the vote, which was an 8-percentage point decrease from the party’s totals in the 2007 national parliamentary election. It did not tell us anything about the AKP’s prospects because the party came roaring back in the 2011 parliamentary elections with 49.95 percent of the vote—the most ever for a Turkish political party since 1954.

I can hear the screaming of every Turkey watcher from Washington to Brussels.  I can assure them, I recognize the significant differences between 2009/2011 and now.  My only points are that no one has any inkling about the likely outcome of a Turkish election until about 2 or 3 weeks before the polls open and don’t count out Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  He is too good a politician and his opponents have more challenges going into these elections than people realize. No one should be surprised if they wake up on March 31 and it is Erdogan for the win.