Crackdown on dissidents exposes Erdoğan’s vulnerability - analyst

Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London, evaluated over how economic and political crises facing President Erdoğan's government might affect Turkey's internal stability and relations with the EU. Clarkson’s article titled as “Erdoğan Is Lashing Out Because He’s Vulnerable” was published on Wednesday by the World Politics Review.


After a failed coup in 2016, several military campaigns in northern Syria and a currency meltdown due to chaotic economic management, there seemed to be little that would surprise analysts watching Turkey’s politics. Yet the decision on April 25 by a Turkish court to sentence businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala to life imprisonment on charges of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government was a step that went beyond the expectations of even some of the most jaded observers.

Though many Turkey watchers expected Kavala to receive a guilty verdict from a court that was clearly influenced by the ruling AKP party, the harshness of the final sentence signaled how far President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is willing to go to pressure anyone challenging its position. Erdoğan had already used the strong likelihood of the involvement of members of the Gulen Movement, an authoritarian religious sect, in the attempted military coup of July 2016 as a pretext for a purge of the civil service and military that devastated the careers of thousands of innocent people. He similarly used sympathies for the Kurdish nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK—an insurgency considered to be a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington—to remove elected officials of the Peoples Democratic Party, or HDP by its Turkish acronym, from parliament and local mayoral offices in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Yet the lack of any effort to establish a plausible case against Kavala was a sign that many in the AKP and security services no longer even care about maintaining a façade of legitimacy in efforts to destroy their perceived opponents.

More recent moves by the government to threaten Canan Kaftancioglu, a senior figure in the opposition Republican Peoples Party, or CHP, with imprisonment over social media posts and hints at similar action to ban the CHP mayor of Istanbul and potential presidential candidate Ekrem Imamoglu from politics indicate that Erdoğan is willing to do everything to suppress potential rivals. Though the jailing of HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas in November 2016 already set a precedent, it nevertheless represented a more limited focus on a party associated with the political left and Kurdish nationalism. The current crackdown on the larger and more centrist CHP as well as the neo-nationalist Iyi Party would mark a broader assault against the last remnants of political pluralism in Turkey. 

Despite this escalation in Turkish politics, the extent to which Erdogan has become a backchannel to Moscowas well as a supplier of drones to Kyiv means that European Union and NATO governments did not express as firm criticism over such repression as they might have done before the Russo-Ukrainian War. The same applied to Turkey’s obstructive stance toward Swedish and Finnish plans to join NATO, despite the frustration it caused among many European policymakers. But Erdoğan’s use of the NATO accession process to extract concessions from Sweden and Finland over the presence and activities of Kurdish nationalist groups in both countries showed how much trouble he was willing to cause Turkey’s alliance partners to demonstrate strength to a domestic Turkish audience.

Erdoğan has also stoked ongoing rows with Greece and its supporters among fellow EU member states such as Germany and France over territorial disputes and gas drilling projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. His willingness to score domestic political points through confrontations with Turkey’s European neighbors is similarly on display in his aggressive rhetoric over tensions between Northern Cyprus—which since Turkey’s military intervention in 1974 has only been diplomatically recognized by Ankara—and the government of Cyprus that controls the other half of the island as an EU member state.

This strategy of mobilizing voters against supposed internal and external enemies is part of a broader effort to secure an electoral coalition between the AKP’s religious conservative voters and the radical nationalists loyal to Erdoğan’s coalition partner, the MHP. Strategic vulnerabilities in Syria as well as the need for a stable energy supply has forced the Turkish government to improve relations with Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which had been at a low ebb for years. But claims that the EU and U.S. are potential threats to the unity of the Turkish state have remained a core theme in Erdoğan’s rhetoric aimed at the AKP’s and MHP’s political bases.

At the heart of these cycles of escalation against real or imagined enemies are two core dynamics that are eroding the structures of power that have enabled Erdoğan to dominate Turkish politics for 20 years. The first is economic mismanagement by the AKP, which has subordinated all other priorities to sustaining a consumption-led growth model underpinned by ambitious state-backed construction projects. That has undermined productive business sectors and led to successive devaluations of the lira, Turkey’s currency. The second factor, linked to this spiral of economic decline, is the accelerating fragmentation of Erdoğan’s electoral coalition of Islamic-conservative and nationalist voters as the June 2023 presidential election approaches. With the emergence of Iyi as a viable challenger siphoning off voters from Erdoğan’s allies in the MHP, and declining interest among younger voter cohorts in the Islamic-conservative politics that sustained the AKP, the system Erdoğan has built looks decidedly shaky.

Yet it is often when they are at their most vulnerable that authoritarian leaders with a dangerous belief in their own destiny can be at their most dangerous. The CHP, Iyi and in its own way the HDP are beginning to develop electoral traction in every Turkish region that can unseat the AKP and destroy the MHP. And it is precisely because of that threat that Erdoğan and his loyalists in the administrative bureaucracy and the security services have entered into increasingly vicious cycles of repression against their opponents. Similarly, Erdoğan’s need to keep his nationalist and religious base together is what makes him willing to stoke crises with European and American partners to demonstrate that Turkey under his leadership has the power to force the EU, NATO and Washington to accept Ankara’s demands.

Yet the EU and U.S. should not simply sit back and assume that relations with Turkey will get back on track even if the Turkish opposition survives the onslaught it faces and emerges victorious after the 2023 elections. To win, the CHP and Iyi will need to gain traction among conservative and nationalist voters who tend to be suspicious of the U.S. and supportive of attempts to assert Turkish territorial claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, embodied in the Turkish navy’s Blue Homeland doctrine. The hostility among these key swing demographics toward the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey has also led to a bidding war between the AKP, CHP and Iyi over which party is more willing to push refugees toward the EU or deport them back to Syrian territory under Turkish military control. And for all their differences, the three parties’ leaders share a visceral hostility not just toward the PKK, but also toward proposals for granting limited autonomy to the Kurdish-dominated regions in Turkey’s southeast.

A potential scenario in which Iyi, under the skilled management of party leader Meral Aksener, manages to outflank both the AKP and the CHP should give EU leaders some pause in assuming that all will be well after Erdoğan falls. As a former MHP faction that broke away after disagreements with the party’s old guard in 2017, Iyi still maintains a commitment to many ideological assumptions shared by far-right Turkish nationalists. Turkey’s Customs Union with the EU is of fundamental importance to its economy, and its U.S. security guarantee through NATO membership is crucial to its strategic position. But any Turkish government involving Iyi risks drifting back to confrontational approaches to the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus and Kurdish nationalism that have been recurring aspects of Turkish foreign policy since the mid-1970s.

The continued attraction among parts of the Turkish military and civil service to a Eurasianist ideology that promotes partnership with Russia and China further demonstrates how a decline in the AKP’s Islamic conservatism will not automatically lead to a Turkish government that aligns more firmly with NATO and the EU. Without credible efforts by Brussels to reach out to Turkish society, there is no guarantee that Erdoğan’s successors will not fall back into recurring cycles of nationalist tensions with neighbors and internal repression against dissent.

The EU cannot decide Turkey’s future. But it can at least develop integration offers based on clear conditions for access that, even if short of full membership, would provide incentives for post-Erdoğan Turkish governments to focus on calm negotiation over difficult issues with neighbors and a more relaxed attitude toward cultural and political pluralism at home. When it comes to the EU’s neighborhood, sometimes a bit of strategic generosity can go a long way.

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