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.
Erdogan has been the dominant figure in Turkish politics for almost two decades. Can he and his party maintain political control through this moment?
As an American scholar, I began my engagement in Turkey in 1990, working with various government ministries, which allowed me to witness the linkages there between politics and policy.
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
Turkey at the end of the 20th century was a political, social and economic mess. The economy struggled throughout the period, most dramatically with a 50 percent fall in the Turkish lira’s value relative to the U.S. dollar one night in 2001.
In the dozen years before Erdogan was elected, Turkey had 12 separate governments under nine different prime ministers and three presidents. Government corruption was rampant.
The Turkish parliamentary elections of November 2002 sent a shock wave through the nation’s political and military establishment.
Since the founding of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923, a constitutional pillar of government in Turkey has been the separation of religion and state. This was interpreted by the military to be absolute and was part of the expressed rationale for the military interventions of the past.
But this separation was also a growing source of conflict, given the strong religious allegiance of many of Turkey’s citizens.
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
Over the years, Erdogan engaged in increasingly repressive acts, including blocking access to social media sites and exercising growing control of the country’s economic institutions, including Turkey’s central bank.
Since 2003, Erdogan has consolidated his power, including purging former political allies.
Erdogan proposed a far-reaching new constitution in 2017 that changed the previously ceremonial office of president to serve as the head of both government and state. It was approved overwhelmingly by voters.
Erdogan also supported increasing Islamicization in Turkey, proposing to raise a “pious generation” of children in an expansion of the country’s religious schools.
An abortive coup in 2016 aimed to oust Erdogan. In the aftermath, Erdogan imposed emergency rule, which meant that even those freedoms guaranteed by the Turkish Constitution could be abridged without recourse to the courts.
Thousands were jailed, many thousands more lost their posts in government, academia and the press for the mere appearance of opposing Erdogan.
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.
Erdo?an nevertheless collected 52.5 percent of the vote, 20 points beyond Ince’s total and far exceeding the other two major candidates.
However, Erdo?an’s party, the AKP, failed for the first time to gain a majority in Parliament.
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.
In the past, the military suppressed the vote by prohibiting some parties from participation in Turkish elections. But the elections of 2002-2018 were the most democratic in Turkey’s history, open to the participation of the entire electorate.
While Erdogan cleverly used democracy to gain absolute power, in the words of Ersin Senel, a noted Turkish political scientist, “It can’t last.”
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?