Turkey’s transition after Erdoğan will not be a one-way street - analysts

Following the opposition’s victories in major Turkish provinces including Istanbul and Ankara in local polls this year, many analysts suggested that the results showed that Turkey’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could be reaching the end of his authoritarian rule of the country.

The optimism about a change in power in Turkey rapidly dispersed after the Turkish government announced plans to establish a safe zone in northern Syria, where it launched a military offensive against Kurdish forces last month. 

Erdoğan’s government also escalated the crackdown against the Kurdish politicians at home, removing 24 elected mayors of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) from predominantly Kurdish cities in the east and southeast of the country. 

Yet the gloomy atmosphere surrounding Turkey does not restrict debates on what Erdoğan’s legacy will be and what will happen in Turkey in a post-Erdoğan era, even though the next presidential elections are not scheduled until 2023.

The local elections showed the existence of a robust opposition in Turkey, said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish member of parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a podcast with Ahval on Tuesday.  

“Turkish democracy still has some light in it,” Erdemir said. “But it would be naive to ignore the damage Erdoğan’s one-man rule has done to Turkey’s institutions, the separation of powers, checks and balances as well as the rule of law and due process.” 

“Turkey’s transition in the post-Erdoğan era, no matter when that might come, will be a long and painful one.”

Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University and senior non-resident fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said he did not see Erdoğan losing his seat anytime soon, adding that Turkey was not a full-fledged liberal democracy before Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

“Municipal elections were clearly an indicator of the limitations of Erdoğan’s power and Turkey remains effectively a 50-50 country,” he said.

Erdoğan consolidated power in his own hands over 17 years leading the country, and established what analysts call a system of one-man rule after inaugurating an executive presidential system following national elections in 2018. 

Having sidelined critics in his party, the president now prefers to work with a closed group made up of loyalists. He has also created a new economic interest group composed of businesses enriched during Erdoğan’s rule through lucrative public tenders.

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“We should not fool ourselves that once Erdoğan is gone this will be a one-way street, because there will be enough vested interests among Erdoğan loyalists,” Erdemir said. 

Any attempts to return Turkey to the path of democracy may face resistance not only from those loyalists, but also from those who share his authoritarian vision, the analyst said. 

“The business interests that have surrounded Erdoğan have accumulated a tremendous amount of power,”  Eissenstat said, adding that those interests will do everything they can to maintain their wealth in a post-Erdoğan era. 

Erdemir said it was easier to dismantle institutions than to rebuild them. Eissenstat said he was not sure that Erdoğan had actually created a system or network that would easily survive him.

“Turkey’s tragedy is that the alliance of two factions has no exit strategy; the Erdoğan clan has no political exit strategy and the Erdoğan cronies have no economic exit strategy,” Erdemir said. 

The analysts also discussed whether Turkey’s current foreign policy will change in a post-Erdoğan era. Turkey has been accused of drifting away from the West and getting closer with Russia, while following an aggressive policy to expand its influence in the Middle East.

“If we are talking about Turkish foreign policy in the future, we have to distinguish between those things that are structural and those that are specific to Erdoğan’s governance,” Eissenstat said. The analyst said the European Union might step in to push for Turkey’s democratisation in a post-Erdoğan era as it had done in the late 1990s. 

Erdemir said Turkey had some closet pro-Western figures who at the moment avoided voicing their opinions for fear of criminalisation during a period of intense anti-Western sentiments.

“Turkey needs its brave trans-Atlanticists to come out of the closet to articulate a new set of foreign and security policy option,” the analyst said.