A post-Erdogan Turkey: much ado about nothing

It’s no mystery that the radical changes Turkey has undergone since 2002 can be attributed to prime minister-cum-president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP), or Justice and Development Party.

Once a shining star in the region and international arena for its economic and political acumen, Turkey now finds itself a bête noire to former allies and regional powers alike.

Turkey is in the middle of an economic crisis and is politically polarised. Ankara is regionally and internationally isolated given its continued bellicosity towards NATO allies and assertive foreign policy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

There has been a slow and steady slide towards an authoritarian consolidation of power by Erdogan and the AKP since 2011. The 2016 coup attempt and subsequent purging of the bureaucracy, university sector, military and police have increased the speed of the country’s transition away from democracy.

These critical state institutions are now filled with loyalists, and Turkey’s once vibrant economy is run through patrimonial networks similar to those in other authoritarian regimes. There’s limited space these days for civil society groups, and while the opposition finds avenues for areas of protest and contention against Erdogan’s government, the scales of Turkey’s political system are now heavily tipped against them.

A common argument among Turkey analysts is that if Erdogan and his executive presidential system, à la Turka, were replaced, Turkey’s ills would also disappear. But unravelling Erdogan’s influence is unlikely to be that simple. Would his departure mean that Turkey would go back to being a stalwart ally, polarisation would decrease and democracy would return? The answer is yes, and no.

According to recent polling, the AKP’s support oscillates around 35%. This suggests that the polarising, nationalist rhetoric that Erdogan employs is part of a bigger cultural shift that has been happening for decades.

With the 1980 coup, the military junta ushered in an ideological and cultural movement that sought to merge nationalist and Islamic elements of Turkish culture and politics. Its current manifestation, Turkish Islamic nationalism, is a reimagining of this original synthesis and is promoted by ultranationalist elements in Turkish society and, more recently, by the AKP and Erdogan.

Through AKP-controlled media, education and political discourse, Turkish Islamic nationalism has had a transformative effect on Turkish civil society. It manifests in a populist, nationalist and nativist understanding of Turkish culture and politics.

There are already individuals who are being groomed as potential leaders of the AKP after Erdogan goes. Possible contenders for leadership in a post-Erdogan Turkey include two key names, Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak and Minister for the Interior Suleyman Soylu, who represent two different sides of the same coin of this populist and nativist form of politics.

In a post-Erdogan Turkey with an AKP or opposition successor, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any immediate change in its foreign policy. Turkey has shown itself to be an independent actor in the region, inclined to use force to bring its interests to the table. It is no longer anchored to an East or West orientation and views itself able to move multidimensionally in its neighbourhood and beyond.

The alliances that once were important, such as NATO and the tenuous partnership with the US, will remain. But they will be more varied as Turkey continues to engage in an increasingly multipolar international order.

It’s also unlikely that Turkey post-Erdogan will engage constructively with the EU, given the reluctance from both sides for future membership.

Issues surrounding Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party were points of contention long before the AKP came to power and will continue long after. And the Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) doctrine in the Mediterranean is one example of a strategy that will outlast Erdogan and will continue to shape Turkish foreign policy for some time.

But all is not lost for the country’s supporters of democracy. The Turkish opposition has upped its game recently and presents an antidote to the many failures of Erdogan’s populist politics. The opposition has grown in popularity and is personified by caring and responsible political leaders such as Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas.

The return of a popular opposition challenges the final consolidation of authoritarianism by the AKP and its cronies. The regime is looking tired, unable to muster the will to address the economic ills the country faces. Its foreign policy adventurism and aggressive posturing make it look less like a ruling regime on the rise and more like a strategically directionless elite, employing desperate measures to regain domestic popularity.

But despite the AKP’s many missteps, a transition back to democracy won’t be easy. The polarisation of Turkish society and deterioration of both the formal and informal norms of democracy will take time to heal.

On the economic front, Turkey will need to break away from populist economic policies that favour regime loyalists. If it doesn’t, the combination of economic cronyism and an increasingly pugilistic foreign policy is likely to continue to scare away the vital foreign investment from Europe and the US that underwrites Turkey’s economy. This will only accelerate the downward trend of the economy, further destabilising the regime.

Another complicating factor is the Kurdish issue. Until a viable solution is brokered, the conflict will continue to feed the country’s authoritarian dynamics.

A push towards a more democratic and pluralist Turkey is highly likely after Erdogan, but the ability of democratic forces to undo the ideological and structural damage of AKP’s long rule is less certain.