“A Sultan in Autumn” is the title of a newly released book in the U.S. “Erdoğan Faces Turkey’s Uncontainable Forces” reads the subheading. Soner Çağaptay, the author, is a historian, researcher, and has been managing the Turkey program of The Washington Institute, a rooted and leading think tank in the U.S. In his book, Çağaptay argues that despite Erdoğan’s efforts to keep everything under control, he is now losing control of the country’s administration, and this is thanks to the democratic resistance that cannot be destroyed even though efforts to make it step back.
It is noteworthy that Çağaptay is more optimistic in his new book than his previous “The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey”, which was published in 2017, in the wake of the military coup attempt on 15 July, 2016. One of the most important reasons for this, perhaps the leading one, was the 2019 local election results. Until then, the belief that President Tayyip Erdoğan would “not enter an election that he would lose” was widespread both inside and outside the country. In fact, this discourse was fed by the perception that Erdoğan would do his best not only during the voting process but also voting counting to come out of the ballot box.
In addition, no one outside Turkey would think that the opposition in the country could form an alliance and, moreover, defeat the government, since there is no tradition in Turkish politics. But they did. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and IYI Party leader Meral Akşener defeated Erdoğan’s alliance with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli. The mayor seats of country-sized cities such as Istanbul and Ankara have passed from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the CHP.
2019: A milestone
The losses in the 2019 local elections had traumatic effects especially on the electoral base of the AKP. The trauma was not limited to the damage Erdoğan’s “invincibility” image. When the support provided by AKP municipalities to the pressure groups, including political Islamist communities and associations and foundations of religious cults, was cut off, these groups started blackmailing Erdoğan for votes. At the same time, economic growth began to slow down in Turkey as public foreign exchange reserves melted due to wrong policies and the Covid-19 pandemic spread.
In other words, while the economic cake was shrinking, those who wanted a share increased. But the new oligarchic structure created by the AKP “elites“, the new “happy minority” based on nepotism, refused smaller shares, while others were trying to be “managed” with ideological maneuvers. The satisfaction caused by ideological steps such as reopening Hagia Sophia as a mosque and withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention against violence against women was soon replaced by discomfort due to economic difficulties.
The essence of Erdoğan’s economic policy was to turn the land into gold, that is, to artificially increase the value of the real estate, and therefore to boost the construction sector. The fact that Turkish contracting companies –five of them– took the lead among the top ten companies in the world that are granted state construction tenders was yet another indicator of the oligarchic structuring in the country. The latest link in the chain that came to Erdogan’s mind was the Kanal Istanbul project, in the process of borrowing more pay debt and financing large projects with even larger ones. Kanal Istanbul is the Erdoğan project to connect the Black Sea with the inner Marmara Sea to create an alternative to the Bosphorus with an artificial water canal). In this way, Erdoğan thought he would leave behind an immortal work that will always be remembered by his name. Looking back, it can be seen that Kanal Istanbul was projected to be undertaken mainly by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, depending on the wrong presumption that the AKP would win the local election. The defeat in the 2019 local elections, which dealt a blow to the AKP government in terms of political psychology, damaged not only Kanal Istanbul but also Erdogan’s economic-political line. Therefore, 2019 was a milestone.
As of 2019, the initiative to lead the daily agenda, including issues ranging from the minimum wage to the price of agricultural products, from the Central Bank reserves to bonuses for the pensioners moved to the opposition from an AKP in a defensive position.
Erdoğan’s political hurry
For some time, Erdoğan has been hosting young people at the presidential library in the presidential palace. In the most recent of these meetings on July 2, he said:
• “Kanal Istanbul is an 11-year-old project. [It was promised before the June 2011 elections.] Its first step was taken during my tenure as the Istanbul mayor. [His Istanbul mayorship ended in 1998.] We have to take steps regarding Kanal Istanbul. Why? Because the Bosphorus is always a threat of environmental destruction.”
Erdoğan is a leader known for his environmentalist attitude in the world. Turkey is one of the seven countries that have not ratified the Paris Environmental Agreement, although it is a signatory. The sea snot (mucilage) problem caused by environmental pollution has turned the Marmara Sea into hell. The date of the Romanian oil tanker accident, which Erdoğan recalled while talking to young citizens, is 1979. After the Independenta accident and oil spill, an advanced radar system was built in the Bosphorus. Erdoğan projects that 78.000 ships will pass through the Bosphorus in 2050, up from the current 45,000 ships annually. However, he fails to recall that a 2021 NATO document, which he signed too, aims to reduce oil and natural gas consumption to zero as of 2050, so fewer tankers will use the Bosphorus. Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, warns Erdoğan that Kanal Istanbul should not violate the 1936 Montreux agreement that regulates international sea traffic through the Boshporus.
But in an increasing hurry, he wants to launch Kanal Istanbul as soon as possible. The opposition has threatened foreign countries, banks and companies that it would not pay the debts if they lend cash to Turkey for this project. Erdoğan then threatened the opposition and, in fact, the voters with foreign borrowing, saying that foreign banks and companies that provide finances for Kanal Istanbul would “take this money” from those who would come after him. Deutsche Bank was mentioned among banks to lend for the project but the German lender announced that it did not apply for Kanal Istanbul financing and that it did not receive any application from the Turkish government either. The opposition accuses Erdoğan of allowing the land that Kanal Istanbul will pass through to be sold in advance not just to the AKP but to investors from Qatar and other Arab Gulf states. Ali Babacan, who was a deputy prime minister responsible for the economy in the Erdoğan government during the 2011 elections, and now the leader of the DEVA Party, says that Kanal Istanbul is a “land rent project.”
Why does Erdoğan want to start Kanal Istanbul as soon as possible? To convert the temporary employment and income opportunities raised by the construction to votes in the next election? Or is it because of the concern that the pro-government contractors who will be deprived of the opportunity to pay their debts with larger projects will go bankrupt, and will turn their backs on him as they did with Turgut Özal, Süleyman Demirel, Tansu Çiller and Mesut Yılmaz governments in the past? Is it because he was worried that he would thus lose control over the political economy that had kept him in power for 19 years? Could it really be because of the promises he made to some domestic and foreign capital circles? Or can all of these work together?
The only thing certain is that Erdoğan is in a growing political hurry because of Kanal Istanbul.
‘The most senior leader’
Erdoğan also said the following in his “talk with the youth”:
• “NATO summit was very meaningful for us. I don’t like to say ‘me,’ but among the leaders in this summit, I was the most senior leader. It’s been 18 years, and every year many leaders either leave politics or cannot re-enter [the governments]. Thanks to the trust of my people, we continue on our way.”
This is right. Since Erdoğan came to power, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Japan, in short, in the democratic world saw many leaders. Even in China, where there is no multi-party democracy, even in Russia, and even in Iran, which is ruled by an Islamic theocracy, leaders have changed. Is Erdoğan thinking of staying in power forever?
But since the 2019 elections, both its democratically ruled allies and others see Turkey differently. Is it a coincidence that Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş are counted among Erdoğan’s most likely opponents?
For the previous U.S. president, Donald Trump, Turkey meant Erdogan. This orientalist, stereotyped view was also valid for the European allies, except for Germany, which was the first to understand the issue. Instead of state-to-state institutional relations with Turkey, Trump was discussing his interests with Erdoğan personally.
Joe Biden distanced himself from Erdoğan, who says he doesn’t like to say “me”, but focused on maintaining institutional relations with Turkey. This is one of the issues that bother Erdoğan the most. Perhaps this is why the president, who once emphasized his youth and dynamism, now emphasizes being the “most senior” leader as something to be proud of.