Erdogan faces mounting discontent amid economic turmoil in Turkey
22 Dec 2021|

By a range of measures, democracy is under pressure around the globe. Not only is democracy failing to make inroads in states long dominated by authoritarian regimes, but it is in retreat in some places where it was thought to be established or consolidating.

Turkey offers a salient example of the latter. In the early 2000s, Turkish politics appeared to come of age. Under the direction of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won power in 2002, Turkey entered a period of political and economic reform.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appointed prime minister in 2003, moulded a new political environment, pushing for EU membership, negotiating with Kurdish militants and overseeing stellar economic growth. The AKP and Erdogan were lauded as demonstrating a model combining Islamic observance with democratic legitimacy and reformist intent that—theoretically—could be replicated across the Middle East.

Appraisals of Erdogan are less effusive these days. The figurehead of the AKP, in power for almost 20 years, he has come to dominate politics in Turkey unlike any personality other than founding president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Since a constitutional referendum in 2017, Erdogan has been ensconced as president in a system of his own design. With the role of prime minister abolished, he enjoys virtually untrammelled power. This presidency alla Turca is often referred to as a tek adam (one-man) system. Yet, as Erdogan has cemented himself in the presidential palace, Turks have experienced an alarming decline in political freedoms.

From this perspective, Turkey displays the trappings of ‘new authoritarianism’: a political system where the ruling party, and its leader, pay lip service to democracy but hollow out the very institutions that allow them to claim the mantle of democracy.

‘New authoritarians’ hold regular elections and permit opponents to operate but they skew the political arena to their own advantage. The media, the judiciary and the bureaucracy are co-opted into the incumbent’s corner. Claiming popular legitimacy won through purportedly free elections, such regimes stifle civil society and ensure oppositions have little room to move. This model is associated with Vladmir Putin’s Russia, but it has proliferated elsewhere in recent years.

Erdogan may have spent years accumulating power, but not everything is going his way these days. Turkey is enduring an economic crisis. Inflation is rising and the Turkish lira is crashing. This year alone, the lira has lost half of its value against the US dollar; last week it reached a new low of 15.5 to the dollar. Turks are seeing the value of their savings plummet; for many, previously attainable goods are unreachable.

Crucially, the crisis is largely of Erdogan’s making. He has repeatedly leaned on the central bank to lower interest rates in order to combat persistent inflation. This approach defies economic orthodoxy, which holds that raising interest rates slows inflation. As all-powerful president, Erdogan can impose his will on the central bank, but that doesn’t mean his ‘Erdoganonomics’ have the impact on markets that he envisions. The result is bread lines in Istanbul.

Erdogan argues a declining lira will attract foreign investment, while also claiming this is part of a long-term economic plan. His political ally, Nationalist Action Party leader Devlet Bahceli, using another ploy common to new authoritarians, blames external forces—so-called ‘foreign currency sabotage’—for the crisis.

Most Turks are not falling for it. A November poll saw Erdogan’s approval rating fall to an all-time low of 39%. Another poll shows only 34% of Turks support his executive presidential model. Meanwhile, some have taken to the streets in Istanbul demanding that the government resign.

This is uncharted territory for Erdogan, who has long enjoyed popular approval or at least been able to manipulate the landscape to his advantage. One Turkish academic notes that the AKP came to power during the political crises of the early 2000s and suggests that the current economic crisis may lead to its demise. Sensing political opportunity, Turkey’s famously fractious opposition is coming together to present a united front, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the largest opposition party, is calling for elections, scheduled for 2023, to be brought forward.

These developments echo those elsewhere, such as recent elections in the Czech Republic, where opposition figures devised new strategies to unseat the illiberal-populist regime of Andrej Babis. Still, it’s too early to write off Erdogan and the AKP. Erdogan is nothing if not a survivor. He has proven willing to throw his weight around when things don’t go his way. When the AKP candidate narrowly lost the 2019 Istanbul municipal election, he pressured the electoral council to annul the result and call a follow-up election. But in an ominous development for the AKP, the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, convincingly won the re-run.

An opposition victory in Turkey’s next general election appears increasingly likely. If that happens, the consequences are difficult to predict. At the very least it will test the resilience of Turkey’s democratic institutions and traditions. It may also provide another case study on how to circumvent the ‘new authoritarianism’.