COMMENTARY — Erdoğan survives but faces more serious challenges in Turkey

By Abdullah Bozkurt

After winning the controversial election on Sunday in Turkey after a not free and certainly not fair election campaign, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has secured a dictatorship in a one-party state system. What comes afterwards in the post-election period is that he will consolidate his recent gains on the domestic front and try to secure legitimacy abroad by pretending to engage with allies and partners in a bid to reset troubled ties on the foreign policy front.

His first order of business will be making sure there is no backlash against his rule stemming from either worsening economic woes or the disenfranchisement of voters in the fraudulent election. With direct control over the security forces, both police and military, Erdoğan can easily squelch any potential unrest in the coming days. If push comes to shove, he may even deploy paramilitary forces and the jihadist thugs he has been raising since the start of the Arab revolutions in 2011.

The acts of intimidation and the jailing of some 60,000 people on politically motivated charges within the last two years show Erdoğan is bent on going to an extreme to sustain his regime. For all intents and purposes, Erdoğan’s preference for sticks over carrots in domestic politics will continue.

Erdoğan has masterfully used his political skills and the huge resources of the government to lure more politicians from the opposition bloc, building more alliances in his Baathist-style governance. Already fractured opposition political parties were easy prey for Erdoğan as he has successfully exploited factionalism within opposition ranks, enlisting new allies by offering them wealth, power and positions in the government. He is quite adept at dividing, neutralizing and isolating the opposition. Many politicians even in the main opposition Republican People’s’ Party (CHP) are more interested in lining their own pockets and looking for influence with the help of Erdoğan rather than questioning corruption, mismanagement and mass human rights violations.

Dispensing lucrative state contracts and disbursing cash and patronage to the business community also helped Erdoğan maintain his regime. Moreover, the public remains skeptical of opposition performance and still does not have much faith in any opposition figure to deliver better roads, health care, social services, jobs and education. Last but not least, Erdoğan knows that the nationalist euphoria and religious zealotry has paid off well in holding the line among his supporters and will engage in more of the same in the post-election period as well.

The second item on his to-do list is to try to reset ties with Turkey’s allies and partners, basically to benefit from the trade, business and investment that his government desperately needs to avert a looming economic crisis. Without engagement that will throw a lifeline to the troubled Turkish economy, he knows his rule will be short lived despite winning the June 24 election. In his comments on foreign relations during the election campaign, Erdoğan predicted that the United States and the European Union would re-engage with his regime after he secures a landslide victory, which he claimed would work to his advantage.

How Erdoğan will manage to succeed in this venture while continuing to deviate from Turkey’s traditional and orthodox foreign policy remains an open question, though. Furthermore, he is not seen to be ready to give in much and do his part to stabilize ties with the transatlantic alliance and the European Union. In fact, he said the next government would abolish the European Union Affairs Ministry and merge it with the Foreign Ministry in a clear sign that the next Erdoğan cabinet is not much interested in pursuing accession talks with the EU.

He also vowed to maintain his courtship of Russia with more purchases of Russian arms, in defiance of the Americans, and realign with Iran in challenging the West, especially the United States. He resorted to relentless US and EU bashing to fire up his supporters and will not likely give up on this poisonous narrative, which has fuelled anti-Western sentiment among the Turkish public.

All that notwithstanding, if the Western allies overlook Erdoğan’s dangerous ambitions and still opt for a policy of appeasement with his Islamist government in the hope that Erdoğan will return Turkey to normalcy, restore the rule of law and address human rights violations, they would surely be mistaken. We have seen in past elections how he has further escalated his anti-Western diatribe after each win since 2014 and pushed for further mobilization of Turkish and Muslim diaspora groups as proxies in promoting his hostile and xenophobic brand of Islamist ideology. He will be sticking to the same tactics soon after he starts feeling more confident about his gains.

That means the threat from Erdoğan for countries in Turkey’s neighborhood and beyond will increase further now that he feels he has received public approval and a fresh mandate for the hawkish foreign policy agenda he pursued up until election day. He will likely ratchet up his belligerent rhetoric, backed by more policy actions to send a message to his core constituency that he is keen to deliver on what he has been preaching. The clandestine operations abroad by Turkey’s notorious National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and other state agencies will be intensified. In the meantime, to distract the Turkish public from deteriorating economic conditions, Erdoğan will often turn to policies to deliberately raise tension with neighboring countries as he has done in the past.

Nevertheless, the main underlying problem in Turkey’s one-man regime will be the high susceptibility to an economic downturn and failure to meet heightened expectations of the populace for better social services and more jobs and economic opportunity. Erdoğan cannot provide all this unless his government normalizes Turkey, returns to the rule of law, secures freedoms and restores democracy so that both domestic and foreign businesspeople gain enough confidence to invest in Turkey under his governance. However, the Turkish president cannot afford a return to a functioning democracy with an independent judiciary because such a possibility means his corrupt rule would be dealt a lethal blow considering the serious legal troubles he and his family are facing down the road.

He will be damned either way. With this election win, Erdoğan has bought only limited time and prolonged his political career. He will be busy striving to fend off immediate challenges to his rule so he can survive in the short term. My optimism still stands as I believe Turkey is looking towards more a favorable outlook in the medium to long term. This country of 81 million people cannot keep up with Erdoğan’s heavy baggage that has taken quite a toll on the political, social and economic fundamentals of Turkey.

That is what in fact scares Erdoğan the most and makes him spend sleepless nights in his lavish, 1,100-room palace in Ankara. The specter of people rising up in frustration and possibly storming his palace over growing grievances terrifies Turkey’s long-serving Islamist politician who knows his glorious days will be over one day as has happened other dictators in modern history. The big turnout at opposition rallies suggests the pressure is building in Turkish society, and it will certainly erupt when it reaches the boiling point. (

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