• Carl Bengtsson

Erdoğan’s Last Waltz?

Photo credits: https://unsplash.com/photos/LqxJkdKDlLY

The seemingly invincible Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may face a defeat when Turkey goes to the ballot boxes next time. Although the next election is scheduled for 2023, the centenary of the nation's birth, the country’s precarious situation regarding both economy and foreign policy has made people call for an advance of the election. A foretaste of what is to expect has been given in the local elections in early 2019 when the ruling AKP lost both Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is considered more divided and polarized than ever and the electorate can easily be categorised as pro- or anti-Erdoğan. This contribution will look at the trajectory of Erdogan's term as Turkish president and its potential prospects for the next elections.

The rise and fall of Gülen

Erdoğan has held political power for almost two decades, which is longer than any other politician. His long reign can mainly be explained due to the fact that he was able to get support from the Gülen movement, which is a moderate Islamist movement that focuses on education and has its support mainly among the pious population in the countryside (Özdalga, 2002: 91, 95). Since the Gülen members have a somewhat higher level of education than the traditional social-conservative voters, the movement became an important tool for AKP in order to get loyalists into the state institutions such as the judiciary (Özdalga, 2016: 14). The collaboration was particularly useful in superannuating the Kemalist establishment, not the least the military generals and state officials, which was done by accusing them of planning military overtakes (Robins, 2016: 114). Most notable was the so-called Ergenekon affair in 2008, where plans for a coup d’etat among high-ranking generals were revealed (Barkey & Taspinar, 2011: 34). Today most analysts seem convinced that plans were fabricated by the government.

Nonetheless, the collaboration between AKP and Gülen started to deteriorate and eventually came to an end in 2013 after high-ranking state officials belonging to AKP as well as Erdoğan’s family members were accused of fraud and corruption by Gülen members. Erdoğan answered by claiming that the trials against military personnel in fact were part of a conspiracy against the military, staged by Gülen members in state institutions. Erdoğan further claimed that Gülen sought to establish a parallel structure within the state by infiltrating state institutions (Özdalga, 2016: 11, 13, 15). The coup attempt in the summer of 2016, which Erdoğan quickly claimed was staged by Gülen, gave him an opportunity to purge supposed Gülen supporters from important institutions, not the least the judiciary and thereby avoid judicial processes for the party’s leadership.

The end of an era?

Following the failed coup d’etat, the referendum in 2017, which changed Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, made Erdoğan not only the head of government but also the head of state, head of the ruling party, and head of the police. Contrary to the old parliamentary system, in the new presidential one, there is an additional election between the two most voted candidates if none of them reaches more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round. Accordingly, the challenger has the possibility to gather all voters who do not vote for Erdoğan for the second round. In the last election of 2018, AKP managed to escape from a second round, since its coalition with MHP got 52 percent of the votes in the first round (Cağaptay, 2022).

The support for AKP has decreased steadily in recent years, and polls give by hand that the support for AKP is as low as between 30 and 40 percent (Cağaptay, 2022). The opposition parties also share the idea of abandoning the presidential system and going back to the parliamentary one. According to polls the support for the actual presidential system is as low as 34 percent, while 57 percent would prefer a return to the previous system (Esen & Kirişci, 2021). That AKP’s heyday may be over was clearly shown in the local elections in 2019, where the secular Atatürkist Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate won in Istanbul. As it is said: “The one who rules Istanbul rules Turkey.” Until that date, AKP had won all elections held in the last ten years. Although the coalition of AKP and the ultra-nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) managed to get 51 percent of the votes (Esen & Kirişci, 2021) it is no exaggeration to say that the election is all about the bigger cities. A common perception is that “Istanbul is more than Turkey”.

Towards a governmental change

Ekrem Imamoğlu’s election victory in Istanbul became heavily overshadowed by accusations of fraud from the AKP. Although Erdoğan by his accusations managed to provoke a new election, his actions had a rather contra-productive effect; from being defeated by such a small margin as around 13’000 votes in the first election, the gap increased to around 800’000 votes in favour of CHP in the forced new election (Cağaptay, 2022). The loss of AKP is even more noteworthy taking into consideration that a widespread perception among analysts is that the election was rigged in favour of AKP. Additionally, Mansur Yavaş of CHP became the mayor of Ankara, the nation’s capital and the second most important city to govern.

Erdoğan and AKP could previously benefit from a divided opposition, which included such various and distinct factions as Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, secularists, and Islamists. The fact that they were incapable of creating a common force due to ideological differences granted electoral wins for AKP. The only thing the oppositional forces shared was their mutual dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s rule (Cağaptay, 2022). Similarly, the opposition parties have previously suffered internal conflicts as well as from being ruled from above, which has weakened their political force as power contenders (Özdalga, 2016).

Apart from CHP, the opposition does constitute Good Party (IYI), a nationalist centre-right party led and founded by the Iron Lady of Turkish politics, Meral Akşener, as well as the Islamist Felicity Party (SP). The opposition is additionally, at least tacitly, supported by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Seemingly, the opposition is full of contradictions even this time and do first and foremost collaborate because of their shared antipathy towards Erdoğan’s rule. Nonetheless, key figures such as Imamoğlu, Yavaş, and Akşener have made it clear that they will support the opposition’s candidate in an eventual second round (Cağaptay, 2022).


Erdoğan has managed to rule the country for two decades, which is longer than any other, Atatürk included. It is particularly noteworthy in a country whose political history is full of weak and short-lived coalition governments, as well as military take-overs. Erdoğan’s long reign may to large extent be explained by the fact that he managed to fill the state apparatus with his own loyalists, because of his alliance with the Gülen movement. Thanks to that he managed to neutralise strong Kemalist bastions such as the judiciary and the military. Erdoğan is apart from Atatürk the only president who has not been dependent on the armed forces’ consent. Atatürk was not since he himself was the head of them. Erdoğan has not been since he has been able to send the military back to the barracks by implementing new regulations curbing military influence in politics.

Turkish politics has a tradition of governments consisting of odd coalition partners, which usually have neither been effective nor long-lived. If Erdoğan falls in the election, a potential fragile and ineffective coalition government, based only on common hatred to Erdoğan may quickly be removed from office. At the same time, social conservative parties do always have a voting base, not the least among pious people in rural areas. Former allies of Erdoğan such as Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu have already established their own conservative parties. As history shows, those forces have time and again been serious power pretenders. Therefore, it should not be a surprise if any of these parties start to impact the elections in a not too distant future.

Erdoğan managed to create the most stable and long-lived government the country had ever experienced, initially based on Islam as cohesive glue. As a result, the country’s traditional anti-clerical elite was left out. The armed forces have historically been a bastion of Kemalism. This has, however, had a negative effect on political mobilization in the sense that Kemalists have tended to turn to the military to get undesired governments ousted. The fact that the CHP no longer can count on the military to remove undesired forces from office may in the end prove beneficial for democracy and political mobilization. The local elections in 2019 were further described as a big success for CHP in terms of political organization, which previously has been somewhat of an Achilles heel for the party.

Nonetheless, Erdoğan has time after time proven to be a leader of almost Machiavellian fashion by coming up with creative and unexpected solutions when being under pressure. This was not the case when he allied with MHP in 2015 in order to secure power in the re-election. Most recently the political situation in Turkey has mainly revolved around the economic situation, and Erdoğan’s unconventional and heavily criticised strategy to deal with it. Will this prove to be yet another great escape or is this the end of the epoch of Erdoğan and Islamism?

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