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Turkey needs a new path

Cihan Tugal, professor, sociology | May 11, 2023

The Turkish opposition has never been as hopeful as it is today. Despite the many difficulties of the past two decades, never have so many factors lined up against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P.

The economy, after the lira spiraled downward in 2018 and none of the government’s haphazard policies could put it back on track, is in shambles. Poverty has been intensifying, including among the A.K.P.’s own base, and disquiet with Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic stewardship is on the rise. The earthquake that devastated the country in February, causing more than 50,000 deaths and untold damage, appears to be the last straw.

Ironically, it was another earthquake, in 1999, that helped bring the A.K.P. to power. Back then, once the disaster exposed the bankruptcy of the mainstream parties, Mr. Erdogan’s party was seen as the only clean and competent option. Now the aura of competency is shattered. To judge from the polls, it really does look as if Turkish voters may end the A.K.P.’s 21-year conservative and authoritarian reign.

That’s an exciting prospect, of course. But any euphoria is premature. If the opposition were to prevail, it would face the same structural problems that have stymied the country for years — and even if Mr. Erdogan is dethroned, his political project is going nowhere. That should be enough to curb unbridled enthusiasm. Turkey may soon be rid of its autocratic leader, but it remains in deep trouble.

One of the most common words the opposition uses is “restoration.” The six parties that constitute the coalition do not agree on everything, but there are strong indications of what they want to restore. Two of the opposition parties are headed by high-profile former members of the A.K.P. One of them, Ali Babacan, devised the party’s earlier economic policies. The other, Ahmet Davutoglu, is widely credited with its approach to foreign policy. Under these two figures, the A.K.P. in the 2000s deepened and popularized the country’s market-friendly and pro-Western orientation.

But a return to this approach is simply not possible in the 2020s. Economically, the global climate is far less favorable to the kind of free market economics, relying on foreign direct investment, high interest rates and trade liberalization, of the A.K.P.’s first decade in power. Geopolitically, the European Union’s stance on Turkey’s accession has changed — more or less ruling it out — and in the wider region, American military and diplomatic hegemony can no longer be counted on.

The government already knew as much. The shift away from Mr. Babacan’s market-friendly policies was effectively enforced by a contraction in world markets a decade ago. On the international relations front, a primary reason for Mr. Davutoglu’s resignation as prime minister in 2016 was that the governing party no longer found a pro-Western approach to be profitable. With Russian and Chinese influence in the region growing, the A.K.P. decided to hedge its bets, without abandoning its Western allies completely.

In recent years, the A.K.P. pragmatically resorted to a number of tools to manage the economy. It didn’t always go well. Yet despite the party’s blunders, what allowed the A.K.P. to hang on to power was a wide and sturdy popular base of support. That base was built through five decades of work that melded face-to-face interaction and informal ties — helping people organize community events, for example, or acting as mediators in neighborhood conflicts — with formal party and associational membership. In power, the shaky but real benefits of the A.K.P.’s ever-shifting mix and match of market-oriented and statist policies cemented these ties with the people.

One reason behind the A.K.P.’s persistent appeal is that — with the exception of the Kurdish movement and its small socialist allies — no political force in the country has tried to build such a widespread rapport with communities. Without a clear alternative to the status quo, many people will stick with the political leadership they know. The recent promises of redistribution made by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the presidential challenger to Mr. Erdogan and the leader of the Republican People’s Party, are hardly enough to break the A.K.P.’s stranglehold on society.

Instead, the mainstream parties are stuck with conventional wisdom. They count on resuscitating foreign direct investment, despite its global decline, and are highly critical of the A.K.P.’s huge state-led projects, such as the manufacturing of cars and ships. But if the opposition is going to scratch such “national economy” policies, what is it going to replace them with? The lack of a convincing answer to this question acts as a caution about what is to come.

Yet voting out Mr. Erdogan would still be a great relief. In over two decades at the helm, he has concentrated power in his own hands, imprisoning opponents and stifling the courts. In recent years, as the economy worsened, the A.K.P. under him has been ratcheting up its religious and ethnic agenda, opening its arms to anti-women and pro-violence fringe groups. Defeating this hard right turn, and striking a blow against authoritarianism, is crucial.

But electoral victory is never final. In the event of defeat, the A.K.P. and its allies would no doubt continue their hatemongering. In a deeply militarized region, the Turkish far right’s recourse to identity politics could have devastating repercussions, not least for Kurds, women, L.G.B.T.Q. communities and religious minorities. The best antidote to such a threat is a cohesive, imaginative program for governing — precisely what the opposition seems to lack. Turkey doesn’t need restoring. It needs to be set on a new path altogether.

Originally published in the New York Times: