Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Turkey’s Politics Promise a More Hostile Erdogan

By Noah Ringler and Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a new political challenge at home as a new opposition party fractures his main political ally. Erdogan may ultimately strengthen his position against the divided opposition with tools of repression he has employed in his bid for greater power. Erdogan will grow more hostile toward the U.S. and the broader West as he competes for nationalists’ support ahead of Turkey’s 2019 presidential election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s key political ally, the main nationalist bloc, is fracturing. Turkey’s former Interior Minister Meral Aksener established a new Turkish opposition party named the Good Party (İYİ Parti) on October 25. She has opposed Erdogan for some time and campaigned against the constitutional reforms he achieved through his April 2017 referendum. The referendum amended Turkey’s constitution to shift from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, centralizing the Turkish Presidency’s power. Aksener seeks to siphon support from other opposition groups, including the Turkish Nationalist Movement (MHP) currently in a coalition with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Aksener quietly campaigned for support before announcing her party. Hundreds of MHP members resigned with the intent to join her in the months before she announced the formation of the Good Party. Aksener will likely attempt to run against Erdogan in Turkey’s upcoming presidential election in 2019. 

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism fuels the nationalist political fracture. Aksener broke from the MHP in early 2016 after a failed attempt to usurp the party’s leadership. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli deepened his political alliance with Erdogan after ejecting her and other dissidents from the party. Bahceli then supported Erdogan’s constitutional referendum, providing the votes necessary for Erdogan's narrow victory. Bahceli’s attempt to maintain power alienated nationalists opposed to Erdogan’s authoritarianism. The mass resignation of hundreds of MHP members since mid-2017 indicates Bahceli’s support for Erdogan has weakened his leadership of Turkey’s main nationalist party. Aksener seeks to supplant Bahceli’s leadership role and deny Erdogan the nationalist vote in 2019. 

The Good Party’s durability is unclear. Aksener is attempting to unify diverse opponents of Erdogan. Aksener’s anti-Erdogan stance may galvanize individuals frustrated with the failure of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to contest Erdogan. A leading CHP member defected to the Good Party on October 23, expanding Aksener’s reach beyond the MHP. Preliminary polling indicates Aksener’s party could win additional seats in parliament and may even contest the CHP as the largest opposition party in 2019. The nascent party currently lacks a network capable of sustaining a nationwide campaign, which could limit its ability to translate current public appeal to enduring support. It is unclear whether opposition to Erdogan is sufficient to overcome divisions between former MHP and CHP members over the long term. One of the party’s founding members resigned on November 16, highlighting the risk of fragmentation. The Good Party will likely struggle to capitalize on public appeal despite its success in siphoning political support from other parties. Aksener oversaw a broad and violent crackdown on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and civilians in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces during her tenure as Interior Minister in the mid-1990s. This legacy will likely limit her appeal to Kurdish voters as an “anti-Erdogan” candidate. That period also included rising political instability and economic stagnation, for which voters may hold her accountable. It is unclear whether her resistance to Erdogan will be sufficient to overcome her previous negative public perception. 

Aksener’s move may ultimately strengthen Erdogan. Erdogan retains the political advantage because he controls tools of repression. He has already taken steps to reinvigorate his AKP party after his narrow referendum victory in order to decrease his reliance on the MHP. He forced the resignation of several mayors in key electorates that failed to sufficiently support his referendum campaign, including Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas on September 22 and Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek on October 29. He will still compete for the nationalist vote to secure a wider margin of victory in 2019. Erdogan will continue to use aggressive media campaigns and legal inquiries to discredit opposition parties, including the Good Party. He will also continue his campaign of intimidating and arresting opposition lawmakers. He has already begun to undermine Aksener by arresting her lawyer and allegedly attempting to block the Good Party’s first party congress on October 25. He may once again manipulate the electoral processes itself, if necessary. 

Erdogan will become more aggressively anti-Western as he competes for nationalist support. Aksener’s anti-U.S. stance rivals that of Erdogan. She vehemently opposes Turkey’s membership in the U.S.-led Anti-Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Coalition. Her opposition to Erdogan’s presidency will drive him to even more aggressive policies against the U.S. in order to solicit nationalist support. He may revoke U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base, which supports anti-ISIS air operations in Syria. He will increase his support for ethnic Turkmen populations in Iraq and Syria, a key nationalist cause. He will also increase his support for a Sunni insurgency against the primary U.S. military partner force in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He will continue to demand the extradition of alleged putschist Fethullah Gulen from the United States. He may arrest additional U.S. citizens and employees of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Turkey. The U.S.-Turkish alliance will continue to deteriorate as Erdogan’s fear of losing his grip on power rises.