Turkish centre-right: soon over-crowded?

Turkish politics seems to be preparing for yet another transformation period. For the first time in the last two decades President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his socio-political hegemony are likely to face challenges through newly rising actors. These circling actors are primarily eyeing the centre-right vacated by Erdoğan’s discursive and political radicalization. Perhaps the future of the country will largely be determined by those who dominate Turkey’s centre-right.

Erdoğan’s managerial genius has allowed him to survive several political crises that would uproot most governments. In each crisis, he strengthened and personalized his grip on power. Creating political scenarios reminiscent of Agamben’s state of exception, he targeted the group at the centre of any crisis, turning them public enemies by dehumanizing them in the eyes of his electorate. For the Gezi protests, he blamed secular-leftist groups for organizing a revolt against the elected government, working with – several – foreign governments to this end. For the corruption scandal that followed the Gezi protests, he blamed the Gülenists, his former ally, whom he then subjected to radical recriminations and effectively annihilated. For the resurgence of the decades-old Kurdish issue, he threw the pro-Kurdish and liberal-leftist HDP, a legal political entity in the Turkish Parliament, into the fire. He took on several western governments and portrayed them as global powers with sinister plans on Turkey. In order to exercise political influence he has also instrumentalised some transnational state apparatuses, such as the Diyanet, in many countries.

All in all, Erdoğan survived in power but with the cost of sacrificing major elements of moderate politics and almost all of his former allies. Infusing Islamist and ethno-nationalist elements with his ever-green populism, he skilfully re-positioned himself further on the right and carried – or rather dragged – most of his electorate with him. Yet, Erdoğan has to sustain a huge effort to keep his electoral base in their new position. To consolidate this, he has used illusions of an augmented grandeur and its enemies (including domestic collaborators).

It’s the economy stupid!

For quite some time, the AKP has disowned reformism even at the discursive level. In the recent elections it had no more to offer than stability through Erdoğan’s charisma as the so-called leader of the nation and ummah. Yet, as the Turkish economy is performing far more poorly than expected, his leadership has been wearing thin. The boat seems to be taking on water. In the last local elections the AKP lost the three largest metropols including Istanbul (twice), which alone constitutes one third of the Turkish economy.

Controlling the resources of the country for almost two decades and distributing them in politically appropriate ways, the AKP has provided a range of benefits to its electorate from the business elite to its minimum wagers. The problem leader and party now face is twofold. The economic downturn of the last few years means less resources to distribute for political gain. Moreover, further shrinkage in resources is caused by losing the three largest cities in the local elections which roughly produce half of the country’s GDP. Voters may not care much about the authoritarian policies that the opposition has been complaining about. Or about the country’s isolation from the – western – world. But the AKP is losing largely because of its economic failures. This overall performance of the AKP and Erdoğan creates a significant opportunity space for its competitors, who in turn seem to be well aware of it.

Vultures circle over the AKP

Four potential rivals can be anticipated in forthcoming general elections. Two of them are the established opposition to the AKP, while the other two are from an internal opposition. Let’s start with the latter. As President Erdoğan elevated himself to the status of undisputed leader, he side-lined old comrades but kept them on a leash for quite some time. Yet, not all of them have been terminally silenced. A former president and one of the founding trio of the AKP, Abdullah Gül, together with the former minister of economy, Ali Babacan, having maintained their credibility both in the eyes of the voters and business circles at home and abroad, are on the cusp of forming a political party. Recently Babacan resigned from the party of which he was a founding member, and publicly declared that party policies in recent years were in clear contradiction with the principles to which he had subscribed. Babacan’s resignation is likely to prompt others to follow, yet it is difficult to know how many. The problem for Erdoğan is that Babacan has been at the steering wheel of the Turkish economy during the successful years of the AKP. If the economy is now Erdoğan’s Achilles’ heel, the Babacan-Gül duo will be shooting right at it.

It is not easy to picture Babacan, coldblooded economics guru, exciting the masses like Erdoğan does, but a figure like him will emerge as a potential saviour should the economic situation deteriorate further. Rumour has it that Gül will be the leader of any prospective party, and Babacan his biggest selling point. For a sizeable chunk of the Turkish electorate, Gül represents a long-forgotten moderation (despite his reluctant subordination to Erdoğan’s will) while Babacan promises economic stability and growth. Again, rumour has it that the duo has put forward a simple foundational value for party membership; meritocracy and democracy, the complete anti-thesis to the AKP as it is today. While it is difficult to be specific about the likely success of such a party, it is not very difficult to guess that it will rip off a significant amount of voters from the AKP as well as the opposition parties, specifically from the CHP and İyi Party, but not excluding the pro-Kurdish HDP.

Another opposition figure from within Erdoğan’s AKP is Ahmet Davutoğlu, who has been in labour pains for a long time, a little too long some say. Compared to the Gül-Babacan duo, Davutoğlu is more conservative and his credibility eroded due to Turkey’s failures in foreign policy during and after his term in the ministry of foreign affairs. Furthermore, he seems to oppose the personalization of power in the hands of Erdoğan and to promote a fluid concept of justice (that some say is archaic). But he has never been known to stand up for basic rights and freedoms. He is proposing some sort of renewal within the AKP, which may be little more than investing in a worn-out brand. Critics also say that he is too little too late. The Gül-Babacan duo will move first and attract his potential voters. What further undermines his chances is that he doesn’t speak the language of the masses. Nor has he the leader’s resolve favoured by Turkish society.

What makes the Turkish centre-right overcrowded is neither group of former AKP politicians. There is a disruptive contender coming from outside traditional centre-right politics: Ekrem İmamoğlu. When he was nominated by the opposition coalition as Istanbul metropolitan mayor, not many people really knew him. Throughout the election process in early 2019, İmamoğlu pushed the boundaries of the secularist main opposition CHP where he politically belongs and marched to the centre through a reconciliatory populism. When the results of the first elections at the end of March were annulled by the High Election Board, giving into AKP pressure, he simply won by a much bigger margin the second time around in late June. The reconciliatory yet resolute persona that he presents, it seems, is fully backed by the CHP and İyi Parti, who nominated him as a joint candidate. This support of the opposition alliance indicate that they are also eyeing the centre-right and İmamoğlu is already being talked about as a joint candidate for the presidency in the 2023 elections. Yet, he might beat Erdoğan without consolidating the other figures of this centre-right, by getting his support from the pro-Kurdish and leftist HDP.

Given the conditions, it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to foresee fierce competition for the Turkish centre-right. It will be difficult to win this largest piece of the pie that makes for an easy majority. Erdoğan will have to put up a fight with all these contenders, and this time he may lose. Politics abhors a vacuum, yes, but who will fill it is as yet a total enigma in Turkey.

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