Is there an alternative to Erdogan?

The Turkish prime minister has one big and very effective weapon: the myth that he has no alternative

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

The Turkish prime minister, who is committing numerous crimes of hate speech and telling a series of lies during his public rallies, has one big and very effective weapon: the myth that he has no alternative.

This is the how Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cronies are justifying why his regime should maintain its rule, no matter how corrupt it is. But does he really have no alternative out of 77 million Turkish people?

Erdogan is an effective orator and a charismatic leader with a very strong voice. He can control masses in a way that his political foes could never even think of matching. Due to a lack of democratic culture, people love how he assaults his rivals and critics, giving a round of applause even when he insults and makes fun of people his supporters don’t like.

In the past, large conservative segments of society were victims of brutal state policies, but the advent of Erdogan, with the crucial backing of liberal democrats and the Gulen movement, has significantly changed the way Turkish politics is being run. Under Erdogan’s political umbrella, the judiciary has been successful in eradicating so called “deep state,” a web of bureaucrats and public figures who sustained the military regime, or tutelage, in this only Muslim NATO member country. Accession negotiations with the European Union in the early 2000s helped the government of Erdogan make sweeping reforms and the 2010 referendum on partial constitutional changes improved Turkish democracy and the rule of law.

Democratic progress reversed

This progress, however, is now being reversed as Erdogan is facing a corruption scandal - the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule. The referendum of 2010’s most important success – a law on Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) – has now changed, effectively ending the separation of powers and significantly damaging democracy as the law put the judiciary under the government’s tight control. The crippling law on the Internet, closure of prep schools, upcoming bills on the intelligence agency, Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State are ominous signs that Turkey is no longer a democracy. Erdogan even threatened to ban Facebook and YouTube following March 30 local polls.

The prime minister has now eroding public support despite his vociferous efforts at electoral campaigning since the Summer’s Gezi protests

Mahir Zeynalov

One would think that Erdogan won consecutive elections because he promised and delivered democracy in the past ten years and that the nation would vote him out if went astray. But it is not as simple as that.

There is still around 20 percent of Turkish society, mostly conservative and including many Islamists, who give necessary backing to Erdogan. Another 15 percent are swing voters, ready to change their votes if a better leader pops up. “Ok, he is stealing but who is the alternative?” is the most frequently asked question among them. For them, a country without Erdogan would be a return to nightmare days of 1990s, characterized by Italy-style short-lived coalition governments, a melting economy and rampant corruption. No matter how corrupt the Erdogan regime is, it provides necessary stability, jobs and a sense of security - something previous corrupt government could not.

Eroding public support

But the prime minister has now eroding public support despite his vociferous efforts at electoral campaigning since the Summer’s Gezi protests. Erdogan’s heavy-handed response to suppress the protesters, nearly 3.5 million people staging demonstrations in 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, his disastrous handling of the military coup in Egypt and his intention to shut down prep schools – Turkey’s most effective educational institutions – infuriated many of his supporters.
Although Erdogan has every kind of support ranging from Islamic communities to the media, he designated the Gulen movement as a scapegoat to blame all the country’s woes on. He is not refraining from the use of hate speech, insulting people - including his own critical deputies (calling them salt cellars, traitors) - and provoking one segment of society against another. For instance, he lied that he has footage of an incident where dozens of masked men, Gezi protesters, attacked a headscarved mother with her baby. It was later revealed that the incident never took place, but Erdogan kept repeating this fabricated story before large crowds of people, even saying that “she would not be attacked if she didn’t wear a headscarf.”

New political bloc in the making

There are reports that for nearly a year, social democrats, liberals, former AKP lawmakers and conservative people are preparing to launch a political bloc that would challenge Erdogan in the upcoming parliamentary elections next year. People will vote for their local administrators in March 30 municipal elections, but Erdogan and his supporters created a false image that the local polls would be an approval test of their rule, not a simple mayoral election.

It was widely believed that Erdogan would run for presidency and shift to a presidential system after his party gained the necessary seats in the 2015 elections to be able to amend the constitution. This week, however, he signaled that there might be a change in his party’s bylaw that prevents him from running for the fourth term and that incumbent presidents may run again for re-election.

No matter what kind of political calculations Erdogan makes, it is certain that he will face massive political opposition after the municipal elections due to the way he is ruling the country. Turks have never re-elected corrupt and anti-democratic governments and the AKP is no exception.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

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