Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is presiding over the damaging loss of value of the Turkish currency, the lira, against foreign currencies. It’s the most severe economic crisis the country has faced since he assumed power.
My work in Turkey depended on finding clarity in the confusion of Turkish politics. For example, it used to be that party identification in Turkey would provide everything one needed to know about a person’s level of education, social class, religiosity and financial destiny.
But the predictable political verities have been shattered over the past 16 years, largely through the emergence of Erdogan and his political party, known as the AKP, or the Justice and Development Party. And a crisis that today looks like an economic challenge is, in fact, a symptom of a much larger problem for Erdogan and Turkey.
Erdogan at the polls
In 2002 Erdogan’s party, the AKP, was a coalition of sorts, centered on the former Islamist Welfare Party. Opponents accused the AKP of having a radical Islamist agenda, which its members denied. Parliamentary candidates from the established center-right parties joined AKP to help it appear less religious and more mainstream, though much of the party’s appeal was to a conservative electorate that felt its religiosity had long been denied by the fervently secular Turkish government.
Erdogan’s heavy hand
So even after the Turkish electorate had voted to give Erdogan an unprecedented degree of power, these anti-democratic actions – many of which were highly unpopular – had the potential of causing Erdogan’s downfall.
Challenging Erdogan and democracy
Turkey’s June presidential election represented both a threat to Erdogan’s power over the electorate as well as a test of the viability of Turkey’s democratic institutions.
Coalitions were formed among political parties, diminishing the number of possible candidates. This provided a clearer voter choice between those embracing Erdogan’s “New Turkey” – a more religious and conservative Turkey – and the more secular, liberal voters actively resisting Erdogan’s rule.
During the election campaign, Erdogan used every means to temporarily stabilize the lira, maintaining pressure on the Central Bank to keep interest rates artificially low and use foreign reserves to prevent the lira’s devaluation.
That caused the lira to weaken further and faster after the election, provoking a serious threat of rampant inflation now. Despite a recent small rally, the financial crisis is not over. The Turkish lira stands to lose potentially 70 percent of its buying power since the beginning of the year.
Can democracy cure authoritarian rule?
The lira crisis is not the problem, it is a symptom of what’s wrong in Turkey. It was brought about by Erdogan’s iron grip on the country’s institutions and his desire to goose the economy to cement his rule.
Behind the financial crisis is the undemocratic concentration of power in Turkey’s presidency and Erdogan’s unchecked mismanagement.
But if Erdogan’s goal has been autocratic rule, his use of democratic means to achieve it may well be his undoing.
That is the central irony of the past 16 years.
The financial crisis provoked by the lira’s fall masks the true drama in Turkey today: The democratic means exist to defeat Erdogan. What will Turkey’s voters – with their economy and livelihoods hurt by Erdogan’s mismanagement – do with their power now?