Viewed one way, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks unassailable.
He weathered last year’s coup attempt, jailed more than 50,000 opponents, fired more than 100,000 civil servants, beheaded the once powerful Turkish military, eviscerated much of his parliamentary opposition, dismissed almost half of the county’s elected officials, and rammed through a constitutional referendum that will make him an all-powerful executive following the 2019 election. In the meantime, a seemingly never-ending state of emergency allows him to rule by decree.
So why is the man running scared?
Because the very tools that Erdogan has used to make himself into a sort of modern day Ottoman sultan are backfiring.
The state of emergency is scaring off foreign investment, which is central to the way the Turkish economy functions. The loss of experienced government workers has put an enormous strain on the functioning of the bureaucracy. And the promises he made to the electorate in order to get his referendum passed are coming due with very little in the till to fulfill them.
“No Neighbors Without Problems”
Part of the problem is Erdogan himself. In that sense he’s a bit like U.S. President Donald Trump, who’s also alienated allies with a combination of bombast and cluelessness. The Turkish president is in a war with Washington over a corruption trial, at loggerheads with Germany (and most of the European Union) over his growing authoritarianism, and — with the exception of Russia, China, Qatar, and Iran — seems to be quarreling with everyone these days.
It’s certainly a far cry from a decade ago when the foreign policy of Ankara was “zero problems with the neighbors.” As one Turkish commentator put it, it’s now “no neighbors without problems.”
What’s thrown a scare into Erdogan, however, isn’t so much the country’s growing diplomatic isolation, but the economy — and how that might affect the outcome of presidential elections in 2019.
Hot Money, Cold Corruption
In the run up to the constitutional referendum last year, the government handed out loans and goodies to the average Turk. Growth accelerated, unemployment fell, and the poverty rate was reduced.
But the cost of priming that pump has come due at the very moment that international energy prices are on the rise. Turkey imports virtually all of its energy, but when the price of oil was down to a little more than $30 a barrel, the budget could handle it.
The price of oil in December, however, was close to $60 a barrel, and a recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Russia to curb production will drive that price even higher in the future. Rate hikes for gasoline and heating will be up sharply in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Turkish unemployment is over 13 percent, inflation is close to 12 percent, and the Turkish lira has fallen 12 percent against the dollar. With energy costs rising and currency value declining, Turkey is struggling through an economic double whammy.
Economist Timur Kuran of Duke University says the Turkish economy is in serious trouble. “The AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) is doing massive long-term damage to the Turkish economy. Corruption is up, the quality of education has fallen, the courts are massively politicized, and the people are afraid to speak honestly.”
Kuran argues that any growth is based on short-term investments, so-called “hot money,” drawn in by high interest rates. “This is not a sustainable strategy. It makes Turkey highly vulnerable to a shock that might cause an outflow of resources.”
Under Erdogan, corruption does seem to be increasing. In 2013, Transparency International ranked Turkey 53rd out of 175 countries on its Corruption Perception Index. By 2016, the country had risen to 75th out of 176 countries.
Turkey’s economy is highly dependent on foreign money, but the continuing state of emergency and rule by decree is scaring off investors. Figures by the country’s central bank show that Turkey is losing $1 billion a week in foreign investments. The United Kingdom, a major investor in Turkey, has reduced its investments by 20 percent since the declaration of the state of emergency.
The uncertainly has spread as well to Turkish citizens, who are putting their money into foreign investments in order to preserve their savings. From the end of 2016 to this November, Turks moved $17.2 billion to foreign firms.
Erdogan is blaming Turkish banks — in particular the central bank — for rising interest rates and the downturn in the economy. But Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the centrist and secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), argues: “The real reason why foreign investments other than real estate purchases are decreasing is that [foreign investors] feel insecure in a country where law, justice, and press freedom are non-existent.”
Outflanked at Home
The state of emergency allows the government to suppress trade union strikes, but it has been less successful in damping down what was once a AKP strong suit: rural farmers.
One of Erdogan’s economic “reforms” was to open Turkish markets to foreign competition, which has resulted in losses for the country’s livestock farmers and agricultural growers. Meat producers are up in arms over an agreement with Serbia to import 5,000 tons of red meat, and tea, grape, tobacco, and apricot growers have been hard hit by falling prices and foreign competition. Hazelnut growers were so incensed at the government’s base price for their produce that they organized a large march under the banner of “Justice for Hazelnuts.”
A study found that foreign imports had reduced the number of families involved in growing tobacco from 405,882 families in 2002 to 56,000 in 2015.
It’s not so much the marches that worry Erdogan, but the fact that some 20 million rural Turks are up in arms against the government, anger that might translate into votes in 2019. In the April 2017 referendum, rural votes solidly supported the AKP, while urban centers — particularly their youth — voted no. Losing cities like Ankara and Istanbul — the city where Erdogan began his political career — was a shock for the AKP, but losses in rural areas would be a political train wreck.
While Erdogan strains to keep the economic lid on long enough to get through 2019, there are fissures opening within his own party. A wing of the AKP is not happy with Erdogan’s foreign policy disputes and the impact that they’re having on the economy.
On his right, former interior minister Meral Aksener has formed the Iyi Parti — or “Good Party” — and says she plans to challenge Erdogan for the presidency. Aksener appeals to the more nationalist currents in the AKP and hopes to attract support from the extreme right wing National Action Party (MHP). She is currently polling around 16 percent.
Polls indicate that the “Good Party” is cutting into the AKP’s support, which has dropped to 38 percent. Erdogan needs at least 51 percent, the figure that he claims he got in the referendum (outside observers called the election deeply flawed, however). Aksener could split Erdogan’s support within the AKP and the MHP, thus denying him a majority.
Nor has the CHP thrown in the towel. Besides organizing marches by angry rural residents, CHP leader Kilicdaroglu pulled off a 25-day, 280-mile “Justice March” last summer that may have involved as many as a million people.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s leftist party closely tied to its Kurdish population, has been decimated by arrests and seizure of its assets, but it is still the third largest party in parliament. “It may appear that injustice has won, but this will not last,” HDP parliament member Meral Danis Bestas told Al-Monitor. “Turkey’s future truly lies in democracy, rights and freedom.”
Erdogan has enormous power and has out muscled and out maneuvered his opponents for the past 20 years. But Turks are growing weary of his rule and, if the economy stumbles, he may be vulnerable.
That’s why he is running scared.