A triumphant Erdogan should be careful what he wishes for

Dr. John C. Hulsman
Dr. John C. Hulsman
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Regular readers of this column know that I have never questioned the political skills of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. What he lacks in scruples at times, he tends to make up for in sheer guile and political ability. Erdogan’s cynical, high-risk campaign strategy was rewarded in Turkey’s November 1 parliamentary elections, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a surprising absolute majority.

Though many missed it, Erdogan’s political game plan was there for all to see; in fact, as early as mid-September 2015, I wrote at length about it in this column. The plan was first to ensure that no government was formed that reflected the earlier inconclusive parliamentary results of June 7. Second, Erdogan played up external Kurdish threats to Turkey, particularly in northern Syria. Finally, the president whipped up domestic anti-Kurdish feeling in Turkey itself by restarting the war with the armed Kurdish separatist party, the PKK.

By skill, guile, and unscrupulousness, the Turkish President has defied the odds and won another mandate.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

It all worked to perfection, as Erdogan ran rings around his less able opponents. The AKP secured 49% of the vote on November 1, up from 41% in the recent, inconclusive June elections. In terms of seats, this left the party with a comfortable majority, holding 317 of 550 seats. However, the result left the AKP just short of possessing the political power to amend the constitution on its own, allowing Erdogan to fashion a new Turkish political system with a strong presidency (with himself at the helm) at its core, as he so desperately wishes to do. But this ultimate political goal is now certainly within sight.

What brought about such a dramatic sea of change in the Turkish public? First, the PKK played directly into Erdogan’s hands, when they resumed a campaign of violence against the Turkish state. This, along with atrocities by ISIS, led to an overall sense that Turkish security was waning. Second, the dramatic decline of the Turkish economy, particularly in terms of a relative increase in the value of the American dollar at the expense of the Turkish lira, seemed to call into question the economic successes of the past 13 years of AKP rule.

Sea of change

While it is certainly possible to blame both of these ills on recent AKP rule, the Turkish people instead accepted the party’s argument that they were the result of the lack of a strong Turkish government since the June parliamentary elections, and that only continued unfettered AKP rule could restore the greatly cherished stability of the past decade.

Second, Erdogan’s strident political strategy allowed him to outflank the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) on the right. The biggest loser in the November election, the MHP saw its support go from 16 to 12%, while the number of seats it holds in parliament was halved from 80 seats in June to a mere 40 in November. Erdogan, who set himself as the security guarantor of the nation, leaving the MHP with little to talk about, poached almost all of these lost votes. The AKP’s recent tough stance regarding the Kurdish question won over traditional MHP hearts and minds.

Third, due to the new war with the PKK, Erdogan managed to place the recently popular pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in an impossible political situation, being either viewed as betrayers of the Kurdish cause, or as traitors to the Turkish Republic. In June the HDP won 13% of the vote and 80 seats; in November it won only 11% and 60 seats. On first glance, by ruthlessly vanquishing all his enemies, Erdogan’s grip on power appears unchallengeable until at least 2019.

But for all his high-stakes gambles and political ruthlessness, Erdogan’s victory could ultimately amount to far less than meets the eye. That is because he, and he alone, will now be judged by how well the Turkish economy does, even as it is about to enter the storm of living in a world of U.S. Federal Reserve monetary tightening.

Turkey has long been identified as one of the most vulnerable of the Emerging Markets, characterized by slowing growth, a large current account deficit, and very high levels of corporate dollar-denominated debt. Given this debt, the Turkish economy is highly vulnerable to the coming Fed interest rate rise. Nor is growing its way out of such difficulties on the immediate cards. Turkey’s GDP is expected to grow by only an anaemic 3% in 2015, quite low for an emerging economy. Unemployment, marooned at around 10%, remains high. In short, Turkey is classically ensnared in the Middle Income trap, from which it can only escape by further, often painful, structural economic reforms, something Erdogan has been maddeningly uninterested in for years.

By skill, guile, and unscrupulousness, the Turkish President has defied the odds and won another mandate. However, given the economic storm clouds on Turkey’s immediate horizon, Erdogan may come to regret acquiring the absolute power he has so obviously yearned for.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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