Not very long ago the future of Turkey seemed assured. The country was widely praised for its seemingly strong economy and stable, ‘moderately Islamic’, politics. After a month of nation-wide protests, excessive police reaction, and continued vehemence from the prime minister the country’s future no longer seems so assured. The social fabric has been badly split, cracks have appeared in the broad coalition of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) coalition, the long-term well-known (by all except the prime minister) vulnerabilities of the economy have become even more apparent, and the vision of Turkey in the European Union is fading fast.
What happens now? Where does the country go from here? There are several issues, but four come to mind immediately.
1. The Opposition: The opposition political parties have been handed a huge gift. But, as usual, they have no idea what to do with it. A simple statement along the lines that they offer ‘real’ democracy compared to the ‘so-called’ democracy of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, that they respect all the different, complex religious and ethnic factions in Turkey, that they will in fact listen to people would go a long way to making the opposition credible. Unfortunately, none of this seems to be happening.
2. The AKP: Here the situation is more complex. The AKP is a very broad coalition of true believers in Tayyip Erdoğan, more pragmatic members from former conservative political parties, technocrats, and devout Moslems who resented the heavy-handed secular Kemalist bureaucracy of previous decades. Now a gap is opening between the person of Tayyip Erdoğan and the party as a whole. Erdogan enjoys wide support, but there is some question about how deep this support is.There are signs that the pragmatists are getting nervous that the prime minister’s incoherent rants and repression will cost the AKP dearly.
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The party risks losing everything it has struggled to gain in the last 10 years. President Abdüllah Gül has expressed this very fear. In his statement “You are risking our gains of 10 years” it was unclear – perhaps on purpose – whether the ‘you’ in that sentence was directed at the protesters or the prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç is rumoured to have stormed out of a cabinet meeting after being criticized by Erdoğan for his criticism of the police over reaction. A loyal AKP business owner in central Turkey sent buses filled with his employees to the recent pro-Erdoğan rallies. But he expressed total disgust with the prime minister and was quoted as saying “We will never make him president. He is ruining us.” Even the AKP mayor of Istanbul is backtracking quickly. He now says the people will be consulted over everything from bus stops to park development.
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All major political players in the AKP and elsewhere are playing a long game with their eyes on the 2014 elections and developments about the presidency. Everything they say now is nuanced and influenced by their plans for those elections. Erdoğan desperately wants a constitutional change giving the president strong executive powers. It now looks doubtful that such changes will get through parliament. In that case if he still wants the presidency will he be satisfied with the largely ceremonial role? If there is a popular vote for president could he even be elected? A recent poll showed that President Gül is by far the most popular politician in the country. Erdoğan is seen as divisive. Gül is playing his cards very carefully and not saying just what he wants when his term is over – another term as president or perhaps moving to the more powerful position of prime minister. For the time being he seems content to play the ‘Good Cop’ to Erdoğan’s ‘Bad Cop.’
3. The Economy: This is Erdoğan’s real Achilles Heel. He continues to rant and rave about ‘foreign plots’ and the so-called ‘interest rate lobby’ working to undermine Turkey’s economy. But the real vulnerability is the very structure of the Turkish economy. It depends entirely on $200 billion per year of foreign investment – and most of this is short term so-called hot money. Since the Federal Reserve indicated a possible end to the quantitative easing program all markets, especially emerging markets, have been hard hit. The Istanbul Stock Exchange dropped more than 18% in the last month, yields on Turkish bonds have increased sharply, and the currency has dropped to an all-time low against the U.S. dollar. It is true that Turkey has been harder hit than most emerging markets, but that has nothing to do with his ridiculous conspiracy theories. These developments have led one anti-AKP economist to predict that ‘They will go as they came” – i.e. on the back of falling economy.
4. Witch Hunt: The worst part of the prime minister’s furious, vengeful reaction to the protesters is the witch hunt against any who oppose him. University rectors were told to identify any faculty members who joined the protests or encouraged their students to do so. The Koç group, owners of the Divan Hotel, were threatened because protesters sought refuge in the hotel. Bank executives who supported the protests were lectured. State controlled companies withdrew their deposits. Other executives who failed to support Erdoğan suddenly found tax officials on their door step. Even the imam of a mosque was arrested when he failed to back up the prime minister’s outrageous lie that protesters entered the mosque with beer cans. Even after he learned the truth Erdoğan continued to repeat this lie.
It is not yet clear how Turkey will emerge from this turbulence. But what is clear is that the protests that began in small Gezi Park are having a profound, long lasting political, economic, and social impact. It remains to be seen whether Tayyip Erdoğan has the ability to learn anything, or whether he will merely become a footnote in Turkish history.