Turkey’s Erdoğan back in the driver’s seat

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be as secure in his position as Turkey's leader as he has ever been, even after widespread international condemnation of his Syria offensive and what many saw as debilitating electoral losses earlier this year. 

Some 300,000 people have been displaced since Turkey launched a military operation in northeast Syria on Oct. 9, aiming to clear the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from its border areas. 

The European Union has suspended weapons sales to NATO-member Turkey and threatened sanctions. The U.S. House of Representatives has approved sanctions on Erdoğan and other Turkish officials for the Syria offensive, while a range of prominent figures and organisations have described actions by Turkey and its rebel allies as ethnic cleansing and war crimes, pointing to reports of white phosphorous use and roadside executions. 

There has been criticism at home as well. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu delivered a detailed criticism of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Syria policy on Tuesday, highlighting seven errors, including enabling the passage of foreign fighters to join Islamic State (ISIS).

But a survey out on Tuesday found support for Erdoğan had surged since the launch of the operation, with support for the president at 48 percent, the highest in 18 months. 

“Erdoğan has definitely taken advantage of the incursion,” Tezcan Gümüş, lecturer at the University of Melbourne and analyst of Turkish politics and democracy, told Ahval in a podcast. 

Several analysts have argued that Turkey’s Syria offensive was in large part a political move during difficult times. Gümüş pointed to Turkey’s significant economic downturn since a currency crisis that peaked in August 2018, the AKP’s electoral defeats in major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, earlier this year, and the looming challenge posed by two former senior AKP members readying new political parties. 

“It was a very opportunistic move in terms of reversing the electoral slide and regaining its popularity -- and this rally around the flag strategy seems to have worked instantly for Erdoğan’s popularity,” he said. 

Gümüş, whose forthcoming book is about opposition parties in Turkey under authoritarian rule, points out that Erdoğan has two major advantages over predecessors like Adnan Menderes, prime minister from 1950 to 1960: he has de-fanged the military, which in previous eras would step forward to halt any slide toward authoritarianism, and implemented a presidential system that has given him unprecedented power. 

“Since the constitutional referendum in 2017, pretty much all the levers of the state and government are under the president,” said Gümüş. “The overwhelming power is in the hands of Erdoğan and there’s really nothing opposition parties can do.”

Gümüş points out that in the 12 months after the referendum, more than three-quarters of all new laws (77 percent) were made by presidential decree, without due process or parliamentary involvement. 

Some see Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu as a potential challenger to Erdoğan, particularly in light of his landslide victory in the rerun mayoral vote in June, which many hailed as the beginning of the end for Turkey’s president.   

Yet Erdoğan has begun using his presidential powers to erode İmamoğlu’s influence, such as with a new draft law that would hand authority over all variety of development near the Bosporus Strait to a new national body, taking it away from the Istanbul municipality.

Gümüş expects Erdoğan to continue issuing decrees that whither away the power of opposition-controlled cities, in particular Istanbul, a key source of AKP patronage. İmamoğlu could push back against such moves in court, but can do little to reverse them.

“There’s a long ways to go for İmamoğlu to challenge Erdoğan, given that Erdoğan has vast control of the political landscape,” said Gümüş.

Strengthening Erdoğan’s position is the fact that critics are often silenced by criminal charges and the vast majority of Turkish media outlets are pro-government. This might explain why little has been heard in recent weeks from former economic czar Ali Babacan and the former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, both of whom recently broke from the AKP and had been expected to launch new parties this month. 

Gümüş wondered if they might bide their time until the nationalist wave of popularity passes and then try to capture the public’s attention. He could also see Erdoğan calling for early elections - none are scheduled until late 2023 - before the new parties are able to get their footing. 

“That could definitely happen given that he’s riding a massive wave of popularity,” said Gümüş. “But that would just mean he would win again.”

Besides Turkey’s still-troubled economy, the weak point in Erdoğan’s political armour may be the absence of support from Kurds, some 18 percent of the population. Much of Turkey’s Kurdish community supported the AKP in Erdoğan’s early years, particularly once the peace process started in 2013. 

But since the renewal of conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in mid-2015, Turkish Kurds have seen many of their cities destroyed, many of their leading politicians indicted, arrested and jailed, and just this year the mayors of the three largest cities in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast removed from office within weeks of electoral victories. 

Now Ankara is taking its fight to Kurds across the border in Syria as it sees the YPG and SDF as extensions of the PKK, which is labelled a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Turkey, 

“This has fomented a lot of distrust toward the government that they will do anything right by the Kurdish community,” said Gümüş. “The domestic Kurdish population arriving at some sort of political solution, I think that’s null and void at this time.”

Yet Erdoğan has been able to stay on top of Turkish politics for so long mainly because he is a shrewd political player; Gümüş expects him to remain in power for many years.  

“I definitely don’t see Erdoğan going anywhere, voluntarily or electorally,” he said. “Throughout Turkey’s multi-party history we do see precedents of what’s happening now, but Erdoğan is the only leader who’s been able to amass so much political power in his hands and wield it freely and unchecked.”