3 November 2002 is election day in Turkey. Nearly 80 per cent of voters turn out to elect all 550 seats of the Grand National Assembly, and they do so in an inauspicious climate. The country is in deep recession, and the two decades since the 1980 military coup have been marked by unstable and fractious coalition governments and continuing armed conflict in the south-east. Turkey’s application to join the EU is going nowhere, and it is painfully obvious the country is only a half democracy; five years earlier the military forced the resignation of a government led by the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, even though it included secular parties.
Against this background, the voters deliver a harsh judgment on the established parties. All those represented in the last parliament are swept out, falling under Turkey’s high ten per cent electoral threshold. In their place comes the Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded by some of Erbakan’s erstwhile disciples who have chosen to tone down their Islamism and run as a moderate, centre-right party promising democracy and change.
Their leader – the former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – becomes Prime Minister the following year after a constitutional ban on government office is overturned. From this point on he is Turkey’s most powerful man, a position he is yet to relinquish.
The first two terms of AKP government are transformative, and at the time, seem to be democratising. The power of the military is dismantled, and the country makes real progress on EU membership for the first time. The economy booms, and the government begins to make headway on peace in Kurdistan. But after he is re-elected for the second time in 2011, Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies come into full view.
Autocracy behind a democratic façade
Dissent is increasingly frowned upon – as manifested in the ruthless response to the 2013 protests against new a development in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Frustrated with the results of 2015’s general election, which saw the AKP loose its parliamentary majority, Erdoğan performs a volte face and embraces Turkish nationalism, sabotaging the Kurdish peace process to put the country on a war-footing. In an electoral re-run later in the year the AKP returns in triumph.
Eager to cement this, Erdoğan lures the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) away from the opposition bloc and pushes ahead with his dream project of turning the country into a hyper-presidential system with himself as supreme ruler and minimal checks and balances on the executive. A 2017 referendum mired by electoral malpractice enshrines the new system in law, and the 2018 election sees Erdoğan take command of this new executive presidency.
This all takes place, moreover, in the aftermath of the most serious challenge to his rule; the 2016 attempted coup staged by members of the armed forces linked to the Islamist Gülen moment (erstwhile AKP allies that have been cast aside). Erdoğan survives the coup and then uses it as an excuse to initiate a state of emergency and purge the military and civil service of his opponents.
In 2018, therefore, Erdoğan stands at the peak of his powers, with a new constitutional structure in place, a pliant military and the noose tightening around civil society and what little independent media remained. Government control extends through all parts of society; enveloping the co-opted business elite; the official religious body, the Diyanet (which now served as a mouthpiece of government propaganda); through the municipalities, many of which had their leftist mayors dismissed and replaced by government placeholders; and even to social media, where freedom of speech is now increasingly difficult. But signs of trouble are arising, and almost immediately life gets more difficult – for the regime.
The opposition rises again
Firstly, the opposition got organised. Coordination between the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the country’s second largest party and other forces begins during the 2018 election when they form the ‘Nation Alliance.’ But it also extends to the 2019 local elections, where they take control of Istanbul and Ankara, meaning the country’s two largest cities are now headed by charismatic and popular opposition figures; and also demonstrating that opposition unity has a chance of defeating the AKP. But more than this, the Turkish economy goes into free-fall in 2021. The Turkish lira slumps to record lows and the country experiences skyrocketing inflation. By the end of 2021 polling shows Erdoğan losing head-to-head matches with essentially every major opposition figure. With the AKP’s support down to around 30 per cent, it is beginning to seem as if electoral defeat was a real possibility.
Erdoğan’s response to the economic crisis is roundly criticised as incompetent, although the situation stabilises somewhat after he pledged to guarantee savings in the lira. But he also attempts to rally domestic support by engaging in a series of foreign adventures, attempting to consolidate Turkey’s position as an independent regional power.
Apart from the country’s incursions into Syria, 2020 sees Turkey intervening in the Libyan civil war, engaging in a sabre-rattling match with Greece and France, and powering the Azerbaijani war effort against Armenia. The conflict in Ukraine also sees Erdoğan playing the statesman, with one eye on the international stage and another on the domestic. The war gives him the chance to show the country is still a member of the western alliance by closing the Bosphorus to Russian warships, but also to play the diplomat and present himself as a bridge between NATO and Russia.
The future is uncertain
Whether any of this will save him in the 2023 elections is unclear at this point. But regardless, this contest will be his toughest yet, and even if he survives, he will be diminished. The opposition has extended its alliance to include AKP splinter parties led by former regime heavyweights, and is going hard after traditional AKP voters. It has a stacked deck of formidable candidates for the first time in decades, and is ready to make hay of the country’s economic problems.
However, one question hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the election. If he loses, will Erdoğan leave? He has already alleged implausibly that the opposition stole the 2019 Istanbul election, and may try to repeat the trick in 2023. Democratic norms have never been sacred to Erdoğan before, and the last two decades give ample reason to believe he will seek to preserve his power at all costs.