It was only three weeks ago that people across Türkiye marked the spring equinox with traditional rites of passage. Yet, many Turks talk of the “real spring “that they hope will start on May 14 when 65 million Turkish voters go to the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections.
The hoped-for spring is supposed to mark the political end of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has captained Türkiye’s wayward ship for longer than any leader since the end of the Caliphate almost a century ago.
Spring is the key word in the electoral slogan chosen by Kemal Kilicdaroglu the leader of the once Social-Democratic outfit known as People’s Republican Party (CHP) and Erdogan’s chief rival next month: I promise you that Spring will return!
Although both Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan, not to mention two other medium weight candidates, Muharrem Ince and Sinan Ogan have put out lofty electoral manifestos, it is clear that May 14 is a referendum on Erdogan’s 25-year long political figure. The extreme personalization of the contest makes guessing the outcome extremely difficult.
For Erdogan’s long career could be divided in three phase. In the first phase he appears as a courageous leader determined to pursue the reforms started by Turgut Ozal and lead Türkiye into modernity. After a stint as Mayor of Istanbul, a forlorn former imperial city that he helped turn into a bustling megapolis, Erdogan as prime minister led a sequence of reforms that put the Turkish economy en route to sustained growth for over a decade. He even scored high in defusing the Kurdish time-bomb that had ticked for over half a century. Erdogan’s foreign policy aimed at “having zero enemies” was also a remarkable success in a region where leaders build their personality cult by making enemies.
In the third phase of his career, however, Erdogan appears as an increasingly isolated leader gripped by irrational suspicions, insatiable greed and indecent megalomania.
If Turkish voters judge Erdogan in his third version, there is little doubt that they would dump him in the proverbial dustbin of history. Right now, Türkiye presents a grim image. Sustained economic growth has been replaced by what looks like a slow dance macabre. Inflation is over 55 percent per annum by official measures and may be over 100 by other modes of analysis. Once a roaring river, foreign direct investment is down to a trickle.
Erdogan as the 3rd man is also remembered for his brutal repression of real or imagined political enemies, notably the followers of his former Islamic guru Fethullah Gulen, the remnants of leftist groups and, finally, part of his former Kurdish electoral base. His quixotic attempt at inventing a new national identity for Turks, as descendants of ancient Hittites, Trojans, Seljuk nomads and Ottomans ended in confusion and doubt in large segments of the nation.
The man who faces the electorate on May 14 could be seen as one who has made more enemies for Türkiye than anyone since the siege of Vienna. He has upset NATO allies by flirting with Putin and blocking Sweden’s membership of the alliance. Once regarded as a national goal, joining the European Union is now as likely as a snowflake’s chance in hell. Erdogan has also antagonized Israel, one a valued friend in the hope of pleasing the mullahs of Tehran. Yet he has also angered the same mullahs by helping the former Soviet Azerbaijan Republic in its war with Armenia which is backed by Iran. Erdogan’s saber-rattling against Greece has put a stop to investment needed to tap energy resource in the Aegean Sea, a potential pot of gold for half a dozen states in the region.
By getting Türkiye involved in the Syrian quagmire, Erdogan has helped to block moves towards rescuing the war-torn nation from its current status as ungoverned territory.
That, in turn, means maintaining Türkiye’s current position as the world’s largest refugee camp.
Erdogan has also led Türkiye into shady deals involving sanctions-busting operations to help the Islamic Republic in Iran and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Erdogan that faces the electorate on May 14 would also have to answer questions about the recent earthquake disaster that has affected almost three million people and cost Türkiye over $120 billion. Did shady deals, illegal construction permits, failure to maintain essential infrastructure and lazy decision-making enlarged the scope of the natural tragedy?
The fact that Erdogan has been abandoned by some of his oldest associates, including former Economy Minister Ali Babacan and former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu shows that he has lost a good chunk of his constituency that covered technocrats and businessmen with Islamic sentiments, a group that has helped turn almost all major cities against Erdogan’s 3rd epiphany. Allied to ultra-nationalist and pan-Turkist groups, including the Grey Wolves, Erdogan now presides over a government that tops the list of nations with the largest number of political prisoners, including journalists.
Well, then, could we expect Erdogan to head for the exit next month?
I am not sure. In any election between 30 and 40 percent of the electorate vote for the status quo on the basis of the devil we know.
Then there is the fact that Kilicdaroglu, though a decent man, is far from a charismatic figure in an election geared to personality rather than policy. More importantly, I wouldn’t put it past Erdogan to try to fix the election in his own favor. A man who believes he has a divine mission to rule wouldn’t shy away from a little bit of election-rigging.
Worse still, Erdogan may win the presidency but lose his majority in the Grand National Assembly, Türkiye’s unicameral parliament. That could plunge Türkiye in uncharted waters and make the already complicated Middle East even more complicated than General De Gaulle imagined.
Spring may or may not come to Türkiye as Erdogan’s opponents wish and pray for. But if it does it wold be great news for all those who see Türkiye as a major regional power and one that could assume a leadership position in helping to end the multiple crises that affect the Middle East, North Africa, Transcaucasia, and large chunks of Europe.