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Chronicle of a victory foretold

Turkish republicanism is posing an incoherent challenge to Erdoğan’s mix of nationalism and Sunni internationalism.

On Sunday, June 24, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won both the presidential and the parliamentary elections. The elections were conducted in extraordinary circumstances. Hundreds of journalists are in prison, as are thousands of political opponents — including the leader of one of the main Opposition parties, Selahattin Demirtaş. The state-run media did not care to be neutral. Most state institutions, including the electoral commission, put themselves forward as the champions for Mr. Erdoğan’s re-election. But while Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP certainly won the vote — including the presidential election by the first round — he will have a hard time winning legitimacy for this victory.

The state-run news outlet, Anadolu Agency, first announced that Mr. Erdoğan had won 70% of the votes in the presidential contest. Then, they adjusted the percentage downwards to 59% and eventually to 52%. The initial number was crucial. It created the sense of overwhelming triumph for Mr. Erdoğan. His margin of victory was slim, and even slimmer if we acknowledge that 11% of his party alliance’s overall support of 53% in the Parliament came from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Without the MHP behind him in the presidential contest, Mr. Erdoğan may have been forced into a run-off against the standard bearer of the old national guard, Muharrem İnce of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

But the fact of the matter is that in the end Mr. Erdoğan took more than half the vote. He was able to win votes in both his rural strongholds and in the urban areas. The way he positions himself is crucial — as a Turkish nationalist, including a protector of Turkish business interests, and as a Sunni internationalist. He remains able to mop up the votes of the Anatolian business communities of different sizes and of the pious electorate. It helped that he was in alliance with the MHP, the near-fascist bloc although it is startling to realise that in this election the Turkish people supported another right-wing party, the İYİ or Good Party. The Good Party is led by Meral Akşener, a former Minister of the Interior with a controversial background in the deep state. It was even more remarkably in alliance with the CHP.

None of this mattered to Mr. Erdoğan’s steamroller effect. He swept up his core votes and managed to go past the margin with the help of his own tethered far right-wing allies.

Before the crisis hits

Mr. Erdoğan had called for elections a year before they were due. This was a clever political move. Undercurrents suggest that the Turkish economy will implode before the year is over. It would have been perilous for him to go to the people in the midst of a full-blown crisis. Careful monetary policy has put off the crisis. It is what gave him the opportunity to establish his political authority before he tackles the economic weakness of Turkey.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, new money was created to break the unavailability of credit. Turkey, like other middle-income countries (Argentina and Mexico), joined the larger economies in a low-interest regime to stimulate economic growth. When the U.S. Federal Reserve began to reduce money supply and to raise interest rates, capital withdrew from places such as Turkey and Mexico, which made their currencies lose value.

Mr. Erdoğan’s financial managers prevented the Turkish central bank from raising interest rates to deal with this capital outflow. The Turkish lira dropped in value against the U.S. dollar from 3.75TL in early 2018 to 4.92TL by May. What this policy suggests is not that Mr. Erdoğan wished to stem the capital flight but that he wanted to protect his allies amongst the mid-level Anatolian business communities and the small artisans. They would have been wiped out without this assistance. Twice the central bank rushed in to support these sections of the population, and yet the bank remains under pressure to do more to prevent the lira’s free fall.

These new manoeuvres of international finance capital added substantial fragility to Turkey’s economy, which already accumulated substantial external debt of around $500 billion (mostly private sector debt). By the end of the year, Turkey will have to pay down almost half of this debt. To do so, Mr. Erdoğan may be compelled to enact policies that favour the business communities and disadvantage the working class and the peasantry. Higher rates of unemployment can be expected, as can inflation in essential goods.

Mr. Erdoğan will likely deal with this situation in the way he has tackled it in the past — by finding scapegoats in Turkey’s Kurdish population or in unnamed ‘outsiders’. He effectively uses a seam of Turkish anxiety about being targeted by outsiders, a symptom of having not properly come to terms with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and of the European Union’s (EU’s) awkward arm’s-length relationship with Turkey.

Opposition’s agenda?

In his press conference on Monday, Mr. İnce implied that his party had failed in its mission. Turkish republicanism poses an incoherent challenge to Mr. Erdoğan’s combination of Turkish nationalism and Sunni internationalism. It is wedded to the EU project, including Turkish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and is unable to grasp the concerns and expectations of the pious sections of the lower middle class and the working class. Without a clear economic policy that would capture the imagination of the people, the CHP and its allies simply appear as an anti-Erdoğan force, one that makes his personality the core around which it has constructed its opposition. What the CHP stands against — Mr. Erdoğan — is clear. What the CHP stands for, however, is unclear.

The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a combination of the mainstream left and Kurdish nationalist groups, went into the election at the greatest disadvantage. Its standard bearer, Mr. Demirtaş, had to run from prison. In his press conference, Mr. İnce said that he had hoped for a better result from the İYİ Party and the HDP. But, in fact, the HDP crossed the 10% threshold in the parliamentary elections and will once more have its parliamentarians seated. The HDP’s gains, however, came largely from western Turkey, where the Kurdish population voted to ensure that it would get it parliament. Faith that it can move an agenda against Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP is not high.

Between two worlds

At the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Mr. Erdoğan was confident that Turkey would re-emerge as a major player in the region. A foreign policy outlook named neo-Ottomanism commanded Turkey’s ambitions. A failed attempt to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the defeat of Turkey’s preferred Muslim Brotherhood from Tunisia to Egypt led to the desiccation of Mr. Erdoğan’s hopes for the expansion of Turkish influence. Tension with the West and the failure in the Arab world have driven Turkey back towards relations with Russia, China and Iran.

Mr. Erdoğan’s re-election will mean only that Turkey will continue to stumble between its obligations to NATO and the West as well as its need for close links to Russia, China and Iran. Long known as the hinge between Asia and Europe, Turkey is now more than ever caught in that position. Mr. Erdoğan will not be able to move an agenda out of this trap. He, like Turkey, is caught between two worlds, unable to choose, riding a tiger that he will not be able to control.

E. Ahmet Tonak and Vijay Prashad work at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. Tonak, an economist, recently contributed to ‘Authoritarianism and Resistance in Turkey’. Prashad, Chief Editor of LeftWord Books, most recently edited ‘Strongmen: Putin-Trump-Modi-Erdogan-Duterte’

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 2:29:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/chronicle-of-a-victory-foretold/article24264883.ece

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