by Zafar Bangash (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 52, No. 11, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1444)
When people are in power for a long period of time, they assume that they are indispensable for running the affairs of state. The indispensability bug seems to have infected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well in a big way. He cannot imagine Turkey running smoothly without him being in power.
For most Muslims outside Turkey, it is Ankara’s foreign policy that is of interest, and concern. As a major Muslim country, Turkey cannot be dismissed lightly. It is, however, Turkey’s domestic political conditions that will determine Erdogan’s political destiny.
His reputation and political career have taken a nosedive due to his duplicitous foreign policy that has taken many U-turns during his 20-year rule. The country’s internal economic difficulties have merely compounded Erdogan’s woes. He has lost touch with the internal realities of the Turkish domestic political scene.
It is now simply a matter of time before Turkey moves beyond the Erdogan era. What precisely that era will bring is difficult to predict but it will be quite different from what many people have been accustomed to in Turkey over the past 20 years.
By analyzing Turkey’s domestic scene, some of its key variables will be examined to determine how they are likely to change in the post-Erdogan era. He came to power riding on the wave of the desire of the Turkish people to revive the country’s Islamic identity and turn Islam into an economic, political, and social reference point.
Twenty years of Erdogan rule—some would even go so far as to describe it as ‘reign’ since he has been acting like a pasha—it is clear that this was not a strategic priority of the Turkish ruling elite. The post-Erdogan era will, therefore, bring some form of political crisis among key Islamic trends within Turkey. Many of them had trusted the AKP model and thrown their support almost unconditionally behind it.
Some of those trends will attempt to make a radical break from the AKP once it loses power; others are likely to attempt to reform the AKP from within. The latter grouping is likely to be used by the AKP elite as leverage against the new political order which will emerge after Erdogan.
While there are strong grassroots Islamic organizations in Turkey not tied to the current ruling caste, they have been significantly weakened during Erdogan’s rule. They will not be able to rescue the Islamic political trend in Turkey from an internal crisis. How exactly this will play out is yet to be seen, but movements similar to the Furkan Movement led by the currently imprisoned Alparslan Kuytul will increase in prominence.
Furkan had questioned AKP’s Islamic credentials quite early on. This gives his particular movement quite a lot of street credibility. The erratic policies pursued by Erdogan over the past several years have unmasked the AKP’s Islamic pretensions.
By conducting himself as a typical power-hungry politician and violating many principled positions, Erdogan willingly or unwittingly undermined the political message of Islamic socio-political organizations. It should be kept in mind that due to the repressive Kemalist system it was quite an achievement of the Muslim masses to sideline Kemalism and turn themselves into a political force in the Turkish political arena. While committed Muslims will continue to play an important role in post-Erdogan Turkey, they will experience a crisis not entirely of their own making. How rapidly they will be able to overcome this crisis will depend on the emergence of a charismatic leader accepted by the broader Islamic movement in Turkey.
In terms of political dynamics, established secular opposition parties in Turkey will likely attempt to strip the powers of the presidency that were passed during Erdogan’s rule. This is likely to happen not because of any virtue of the opposition parties, but due to deep divisions among secular political groups and entities. A weaker presidency would prevent one opposition party from sidelining the others.
Today, the main secular opposition parties in Turkey are united on only one point: their opposition to Erdogan’s rule. This is more coincidental rather than a unity of vision and principles. In political terms, after Erdogan’s political demise, the situation in Turkey will resemble what existed in the 1990s.
On the economic front, concepts, policies, and notions of conventional economics will gain ground in the post-Erdogan Turkey. The economic model of the discredited Washington Consensus—one solution fits all—will once again be treated as a reference point.
The reason is that Erdogan’s policy was supposedly modeled on alternative economic thinking rooted in Islamic understanding of economics. However, his gross micromanagement of the economy and increased corruption made the Washington Consensus economic principles which failed in numerous countries and ruined the Turkish economy in the 1990s, look somewhat appealing today.
On foreign policy, internal divisions are likely to make Turkey’s position less consistent and more prone to outside influences. Turkish foreign policy will likely be recalibrated in the post-Erdogan era to reflect the fractured domestic political landscape. Under Erdogan, Turkey kept changing its foreign policy and after 2011, it lacked consistency.
The positive aspect of post-Erdogan recalibration of Turkish foreign policy will be that Ankara will avoid polices driven by neo-Ottoman delusions and avoid picking unnecessary fights with neighbors. However, it will disqualify Turkey as a major independent regional player, and this will also leave a negative mark on the broader Muslim world.
The above contours of post-Erdogan Turkey can be drastically different if Erdogan were to put forward a credible successor accepted by the current ruling elite or calmly leaves power if he suffers an electoral setback. Both scenarios look highly unlikely at present.
Also, the fear of a return to the 1990s type situation can make the Turkish society to consolidate itself and throw its backing behind the best organized political force in the country. Currently, it is the AKP. However, because Erdogan solidified a persona-based system rather than one bonded by principled interests, it is difficult to envision a situation which would make it possible for the AKP to avoid factionalism once Erdogan departs from the political scene.