This article was first published by Stratfor Worldview and is reprinted here with permission.
Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan is playing 2020s politics with a 2000s playbook — and though it’s not clear Turkish voters are ready to truly turn the page on nearly 20 years of his Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s rule in upcoming elections, what is clear is that Erdogan’s usual bag of tricks – from economic and religious populism at home to nationalist saber-rattling abroad – are no longer providing the electoral dividends they used to. Yet Erdogan seems committed to run the AKP campaign as if his electorate hasn’t changed since the last election in 2018 despite growing evidence that Turks, especially younger ones, want a new political future for their country.
Irrational or Out-of-Touch?
In a proximate examination, Erdogan’s waning popularity has a clear cause: the economy. Since 2013, Turkey’s GDP has declined (as measured by U.S. dollars) from $957 billion to $720 billion, as the so-called Turkish miracle of the 2000s was battered by a currency crisis in 2018, then subsequently the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, inflation and investor flight as the AKP increasingly politicized the central bank’s management.
It’s that last part — the management of the central bank, investor flight and inflation — that, at face value, appear to be an act of political suicide on Erdogan’s part. But his political choices make more sense when they’re seen less as an ideologue’s irrational impulses, but more as a politician using outdated policies for a world that no longer exists. Erdogan is once more betting that the benefits of having a cheap local currency, like increased tourism and more competitive Turkish exports, will produce enough jobs and wealth that it’ll offset popular anger at inflation and the Turkish lira’s decline. He’s also betting that religious voters, his most loyal political bloc, will reward the AKP in 2023 as he holds the line that interest rates are usury and therefore un-Islamic. And Erodgan’s hoping that nationalist voters – another major part of his support base – will believe his narrative that the country’s economic woes are due not to the AKP’s leadership, but a combination of bad luck from the COVID-19 pandemic and foreign machinations trying to take down a strong Turkish leader.
On each of these fronts, Erdogan’s logic has notable weaknesses. His bet that Turks will put up with inflationary pain at current levels, at least through the election, is in part rooted in the age of the voters that make up much of the AKP base. For voters who lived through the 1990s, when inflation hit 105% in 1994, the current woes are painful but not nearly as bad as the pre-AKP era. The 1990s was also an era of investor-pleasing policies, something not lost on many Turkish citizens who do not see the national interest as the same as that of investors. Many will probably use that perspective to justify votes for the AKP, but not all — and certainly not “Generation Z” Turks who are now in their late teens to mid-20s and have sky-high expectations after growing up during the boom years with no memory of chaotic years that proceeded them.
Religious voters, meanwhile, may well be motivated to stick with the AKP through inflation and economic crises as they see the party as the best way to preserve the political and social gains they’ve made against the once-dominant secular Kemalist establishment in Turkey. But such voters appear to be a shrinking part of the electorate. In 2019, the pollster Konda found rates of religious self-identification among Turks had declined between 2008 and 2018, with those calling themselves “religious conservatives” dropping from 32% to 25%, and overall self-identification of “religious” dropping from 55% to 51%. At the time the poll’s findings were released, the results were widely seen as a backlash to the AKP’s attempts to make Turkey a more religious society, especially among younger voters. Once more, Erdogan was gearing these religious policies in part to older voters, many of whom resented the enforced secularism of the Kemalist era before 2002. But some voters are worn out on the enforcement of religion, while younger voters have no memory of the Kemalist suppression of religion in the public space.
Finally, Erdogan’s nationalist narrative has a similar weakness as his economic and religious pitches: Turks are either worn out by their country’s confrontational behavior abroad or are simply unimpressed with the results it’s yielded after nearly 20 years. Since 2002, Turkey has transformed into a regional military and diplomatic power, with troops in Syria, Libya, Qatar, the Horn of Africa, the Caucuses and, in just the past two years, proxy wars against Russia in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Though these foreign adventures are often popular for a time, their electoral bounce fades, and the risks they entail for the economy seem to be driving nationalist Turks to seek alternatives like the Good Party, a nationalist opposition party that, apart from being secular, is ideologically similar. Such defections have been enough to convince the AKP and its ultranationalist ruling partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to consider lowering the country’s sky-high electoral threshold to ensure the MHP can still survive the 2023 elections.
In Search of a Strategy (and Scapegoats)
As it becomes clear that their old tactics aren’t working, Erdogan and the AKP are more likely to tinker with the country’s electoral institutions and media, while seeking scapegoats to deflect public criticism. The ruling party is already considering constitutional changes that would lower the electoral threshold from 10% to potentially 7% — a convenient number, given that's where the MHP is often polling. But that might not be the end of it. The AKP could reshape electoral districts, try to suppress the vote in opposition areas, and/or use its control of state media to shut out the opposition voices and publish only favorable stories for the party – all tricks the party has used in elections since 2015.
Meanwhile, the AKP will also look for someone to blame for the country’s worsening economy. The 4 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey are the easiest target at home, as many Turks already see these refugees as competitors for jobs and scarce resources. While the AKP traditionally has been a steward of refugees as part of its pan-Islamic platform, the party will increasingly, especially on the local level, indulge in nativism against refugees to offset anger. In more extreme scenarios (which could happen if economic conditions further deteriorate), the AKP might seek to evict refugees and send them back to Turkish-controlled territory in Syria, even though such zones are unlikely to be viable for long-term resettlement.
Syrian refugees will not be the only scapegoats, however. The AKP will also blame foreign investors, Europe and the United States for the country’s woes – especially if the U.S. Federal Reserve raises interests rates in 2022 as is increasingly expected, which could impede Turkey’s ability to finance its ever-growing debt load (much of which is in U.S. dollars).
The Danger of Doubling Down
These moves might help the AKP to secure a fresh term in 2023, but they’ll also likely further isolate Erdogan’s government from key allies on the world stage. The United States and Europe will react with alarm to fresh attempts to twist the electoral system in the AKP’s favor, fearing that Erdogan is turning ever more authoritarian. That alarm will, in turn, undermine investor confidence in Turkey, which could exacerbate its economic crisis even further encourage opposition groups to take to the streets. The AKP will likely react to public protest the way it often has: deploying security forces to control public spaces and then using the subsequent clashes between protesters and police as an excuse to sweep up opposition politicians who might have otherwise stolen AKP seats in parliament.
The United States and Europe are unlikely to outright cut ties with Turkey. But crackdowns against opposition protests, politicians, or refugees could prompt Europe, in particular, to enact more human rights-related sanctions on Turkish officials, further exacerbating Turkey’s economic problems by weakening investor sentiment and therefore capital inflows.
Through this turmoil, the AKP is unlikely to make many concessions. If anything, Erdogan and his party will double down on controversial policies to try to maintain the loyalty of their base and suppress the opposition. But while this approach may have worked in the past, the AKP’s tried-and-true tricks that have helped keep it in power appear to be losing steam.
Despite herculean efforts to flip the 2019 Istanbul mayoral race, including twisting the electoral board and re-running the election, the AKP still lost the seat. And if Istanbul is a hint of things to come, Turkey is headed for a tumultuous election season in 2023 – but one that could also yield a new government for the first time in two decades.