from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Turkey: "What Next?"

April 21, 2014

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“What next?”  That is the question that virtually everyone in Turkey is asking and it has Turks on edge. It has become shorthand for a series of other questions: Will Prime Minister Erdogan declare his presidential candidacy? Probably…maybe…,but you never know. Will President Gul oppose him? Unclear. Can Erdogan remain prime minister?  Yes, but he seems to want to be president. Would Gul be willing to be prime minister if Erdogan becomes president? He says he won’t play Medvedev to Erdogan’s Putin, but that may just be a tactic.  If not Gul, then who would assume the prime ministry? Perhaps deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, but whoever it is—besides Gul—it will certainly be someone Erdogan can control or intimidate.  Can Erdogan be marginalized in the officially apolitical presidency? The prime minister is the sun around which Turkish politics revolves; he does not do “marginalized.”

In August, Turks will go to the polls and for the first time directly elect their next president.  This would have been a historic and interesting affair under ordinary circumstances given the personalities that were likely to be involved, but in light of the Gezi Park protests, the corruption scandal/AKP vs. Gulenists smack down, and last month’s municipal elections the presidential election has taken on a larger meaning about the future trajectory of the country.  And, until that issue is settled, nothing else is.  A lot of Turks seem to be living in suspended animation waiting for some clarity.  They are anxious after a long and difficult eleven months.  All the questions about what Erdogan and Gul might do seem to be as much about finding some kind of emotional anchor as they are about the political struggle that is unfolding in front of them. Turkey seems unmoored within itself.  Everything that everyone told themselves about a liberalizing, prosperous, confident country is open to question.   It must be a difficult way to exist.  Outwardly the AKP folks remain confident, buoyed by municipal elections results that gave them 44 percent of the vote.  Peel back that number and take a closer look at the results and the ruling party lost 2 million votes and gave up huge percentages relative to previous elections in areas where there were actual contests. That has got to be unsettling.

Still, the AKP is not going anywhere and all the attempts to gain some clarity on what might happen in the coming presidential election are not worth the effort.  One can understand why the Turks have invested so much energy in it, but the outcome is not in doubt.  No one knows what Erdogan will do.  There are compelling reasons for him to seek the presidency and there are equally compelling reasons for him to stay put.  The point is that it seems entirely up to Erdogan.  One day soon he will decide what he wants to do and then he will leverage the AKP’s parliamentary power, its virtual ministry of information, and the inability of the opposition parties  or anyone else to do much about it to make it happen.  Erdogan and the party’s spokespeople will couch every move in the context of “democratization” and all critics as jealous enemies of Turkey’s progress.  In other words, the answer to “what next?” is more of the same.