Erdogan lined up for victory in presidential polls

Frontline Club – 25 July 2014

Turkey’s prime minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan will win next month’s presidential elections and become the country’s first directly elected president, according to a panel of experts assembled at the Frontline Club on 22 July 2014.

The Frontline Club event was chaired by Murat Nisancioglu, the head of Turkish Service at BBC Global News and brought together Alexander Christie-Miller, an Istanbul-based freelance journalist and Turkey correspondent for Newsweek, The Times and Christian Science Monitor; Fadi Hakura, associate fellow at Chatham House; Sir David Reddaway, British ambassador to Turkey between 2009 and January 2014; and Karabekir Akkoyunlu, who recently completed a PhD about political change in Iran and Turkey at LSE.

The consensus of the panel was that Erdogan would win a convincing victory at the coming polls.

“The elections are taking place at a critical time for Turkey, at a time of heightened socio-political tensions, and yet despite this fact it’s almost a dull election,” said Akkoyunlu.

“There’s very little excitement even compared to the local elections [earlier this year]. Perhaps it’s because the main opposition candidate hasn’t excited an opposition base. But probably the main reason is that Erdogan will prevail – the question is whether he wins in the first or the second round.”

According to Reddaway, Erdogan and the party machine of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) made him a likely winner in the first round.

“Whether you like them or not they’re an extremely effective organisation and Erdogan is a formidable leader,” he said.

Erdogan continues to dominate Turkish politics even after the crackdown on protestors demonstrating against the closure of Gezi Park in late May and early June 2013, resulted in up to 8,000 casualties and at least eight deaths and tarnished the reputation of his government irrevocably.

His reputation has even survived his spectacular mishandling of the Soma mining disaster in May.

“You couldn’t conceive of a government handling a crisis worse in PR terms,” said Christie-Miller. “It’s a measure of how Erdogan and his government is effectively bullet-proof.”

Erdogan has given a voice to a segment of Turkish society that had felt unrepresented, said Christie-Miller, and he has also delivered economic advances.

“The government is still perceived to be doing a very good job on the economy,” he said. “Compared to 10 or 11 years ago, Turks are much better off.”

But although Erdogan’s electoral success is assured, there may be tougher times ahead for Turkey, according to the panel.

Damaged brand

Erdogan’s domestic failings, coupled with the turn of external events, have already had an impact on Turkey’s standing overseas.

In 2011, the government was championing a policy of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbours, and Turkey was being held up as a possible model for regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt. But Egypt’s counter-revolution, the Gezi Park protests and Turkey’s powerlessness to influence the Syria crisis has meant that this is little more than a memory.

“It was an admirable aspiration, but you couldn’t pick a more difficult neighbourhood to have zero problems with,” said Reddaway. “The Turkish brand has taken a huge knock because of Gezi, and not being Arabs is a huge impediment. To be an active leader of the region was never going to work for a non-Arab country.”

“Each time Turkey has been held up as role model it has failed,” said Akkoyunlu. “There was popular support for Erdogan in the region, but with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the turning of the tide in Syria that has pretty much lost its tinge.

“Since 2011 with the Arab Spring and [events] in Turkey, something changed. I would call it hubris. There was a feeling that its rise was unstoppable, but events really pulled the rug away and brought us to where we are now.”

Deteriorating media freedom

Media freedom is also being eroded, said Christie-Miller.

“It’s going to get worse. In recent months the government has passed several laws curtailing internet freedom and which indirectly affect media freedom,” he said. “The Turkish government doesn’t mind having a media criticising it, it just doesn’t want a media criticising it on certain issues.

“It is able to maintain the impression that it has a free press, but the freedom to carry out independent reporting is dramatically decreasing.”

Party political representation in the media in the run-up to elections has also been heavily biased towards the government.

“In the run-up to the local and general elections the amount of space and time dedicated to the ruling party was 89% in the local elections, with 11% for the other three parties,” said Akkoyunlu. “This time just two minutes [of air time] has been given to the main opposition party and no time at all for the pro-Kurdish opposition.”

Economy crucial

Reddaway warned that the economy will remain crucial to Erdogan’s success.

“The economy is the key to the AKP’s success,” he said. “It has to be careful not to alienate foreign investors and drive Turkish investment out of the country.”

But the economy may not be plain sailing in the coming years.

“Turkey has had growth of 5.2% a year which is relatively easy because it has moved from a low income to a middle income country,” said. Hakura. “But to go from middle income to high income is a whole different dimension. In the past 30 years only five countries [have done this] and they are all from Southeast Asia.

“Turkey has entered a long period of economic stagnation with 2–4% growth, which is quite slow for the current phase of Turkey’s development.”

Erdogan’s legacy

Asked how he would advise the government of Turkey, Reddaway warned that the dominance of Erdogan and the AKP, which is expected to continue in the general elections in 2015, is itself something that the president apparent must guard against.

“One of the problems of successful politicians is that if you’ve won a series of elections it becomes harder and harder for people to give you advice you don’t want to hear.

“I would appeal to his sense of history. As we go towards 2023 [the 100-year anniversary of Turkey's independence], I would want Erdogan to install a model that means that the baby doesn’t get chucked out with the bathwater when the AKP runs out of steam as it eventually will.”

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.