Understanding Turkey: Volatile Politics, but No Crisis Ahead

Key takeaway – Over the next five years, AKP is likely to stay in power, and Prime Minister (PM) Erdoğan is likely to rule the country either as President or PM. Frictions with the opposition will persist: the weakening of democratic institutions is likely to unsettle the civil society and create political headwinds in the Parliament, constraining and delaying policy-making. Yet, a major political crisis is unlikely.

A. AKP to keep ruling amid political frictions and weakening institutions.

Erdoğan and AKP to rule over the next five years … In the March 2014 local elections, AKP won 43.5 percent of the votes, a decline from the 49 percent of the 2011 general elections – but an improvement if compared to the 38 percent secured in 2009, in the previous local elections. Well organized and structured, AKP is able to unite right-leaning, conservative, and Islamic voters across the country (Figure 1) and crystallize the aspirations of the underprivileged. Led by PM Erdoğan and in power over the past 12 years, AKP has steadily reached out to the silent low-income majority, offered an identity and political inclusion to the religious rural, and – by successfully managing the economy – contributed to the making of an increasingly sizable middle-class. The two main opposition parties are unable to provide viable alternatives. The center left, Western-leaning social-democratic CHP has reduced its platform to an “anti-Erdoğan” agenda, while the nationalist, conservative MHP is unable to attract AKP voters. The latest polls suggest that little has changed since the March elections: support for AKP is at around 44 percent, with CHP at 28 percent, MHP at 15 percent and the Kurdish party at around 6 percent.

Figure 1 – Over the past 12 years, AKP has consolidated right-leaning, Islamic voters (Turkey – Past eight elections, distribution of votes (%))

Source: Election Board, Authors’ calculations, 2014.

Note: Center-right partiesDP, DYP, ANAP, and GP. Left-leaning partiesCHP, DSP, and İP. Nationalist partiesMHP, BBP, and BTP. Islamic partiesSP. Kurdish PartiesBDP (formerly DTP) and HDP, arguably a leftist party as well.

… amidst political tensions. An acute political crisis is unlikely, but medium-term stability is not a given. In late May 2013, street protests against tree-cutting in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a shopping-mall turned into countrywide demonstrations against the AKP government and Erdoğan himself. At the end of 2013, a series of corruption cases against AKP officials and their relatives[1] triggered a disruptive rift between Erdoğan and Gülen – a Islamic clerk living in self-imposed exile in the US and thought to have authority over the Turkish judiciary and the police. The March 2014 local elections resolved the conflict in Erdoğan’s favor, and reduced Gülen’s influence. Even though political tensions have since declined, the country is highly polarized and minor events tend to create frictions between the ruling party and its opponents. Backed by the more educated liberal and secular élite, the opposition blames Erdoğan of authoritarianism, condemns his rising control over the media, the judiciary and the military – and fears a slide in democratic values. Erdoğan denies the allegations and highlights his status of “elected leader”.

B. Political risks: institutions’ weakening, first Presidential elections, standoff possible.

1. Power tends to transfer from an élite to another … During the past 100 years, Turkey has been ruled by élites. Under Atatürk, both ‘political power’ and the ‘control of wealth’ moved from the Ottoman sultans to the army; then, over time, they were transferred from the army to the bureaucracy and the judiciary, and from these onto prominent business families. In this process, the educated urban got the lion share; the rest of the population was hardly represented. Over the past 10 years, Erdoğan achieved more political inclusion than any of his predecessors. Today, for the first time in Turkey’s history, the rural majority feels represented. Yet, most analysts argue that power is not being transferred to poorer, less-educated citizens; rather, it is going to selected businessmen in Erdoğan’s circle.

… amidst weakening institutions. Institution building is still slow, and recent Government decisions have reversed progress made between 2003 and 2007. Freedom House, in its Freedom Index, ranks Turkey as “partly-free” and in May 2014 downgraded the media environment from “partly-free” to “not free”. In 2014, Turkey ranked 154th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without BordersFreedom of Press Index and 59th out of 99 countries in the World Bank’s Rule of Law Index.

2. The Presidential elections … The August Presidential elections are the first ever by popular vote. The deadline for announcing candidates is July 3, 2014. Under the current Constitution, the President holds:

1)      legislative functions – e.g.:, promulgate laws, return laws to Parliament, submit Constitutional amendments to referendum, or call new Parliamentary elections;

2)      executive functions – e.g.:, appoint the PM, chair the Council of Ministers, proclaim martial law or state of emergency, decide on the mobilization of the Armed Forces; and

3)      judiciary functions – e.g.:, appoint the members of the Constitutional Court.

… matter little: Erdoğan to rule … Given Erdoğan’s comfortable lead in the public opinion, the elections are likely to be a “non-event”. In other words, Erdoğan is likely to rule the country either from the Presidential Palace as President, or – were he to choose to maintain the status quo – from the Parliament as a PM. In this latter case, Erdoğan would choose a loyal AKP member as a Presidential candidate and rely on the fidelity of Ministers and the Parliament. The two main opposition parties, CHP and MHP, announced their joint candidate, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu: a religious, democratic intellectual, known for being an advocate of intercultural dialogue and former secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The pro-minority rights, Kurdish party HDP announced as candidate its co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş. Yet, Demirtaş is unlikely to win, as the Kurdish vote does not exceed 6-7 percent in any given elections.

… but political frictions are likely, and an impasse possible. In the political arena, tensions are likely to rise. Were Erdoğan to run, he would most probably win. If elected, he is expected to deviate from the largely ceremonial role played by his predecessors. Instead, he is likely take advantage of the current legislative, executive, and judiciary powers of the Presidency and interpret the role in a proactive way. Conversely, were Erdoğan to remain PM, policy-making might stall in the (unlikely) event where a non-AKP candidate were to win the elections and exercise Presidential powers.

3. Qualified technocrats are losing influence. When AKP first came to power in 2002, merit mattered more than proximity to Erdoğan. In the past five years the trend has reversed, and – after the rift with Gülen – Erdoğan has shown a clear preference for dependability over skills. Also, if AKP does not change its internal rules – which ban AKP members from getting re-elected after serving three terms – in 2015 qualified and experienced ministers like Ali Babacan (Deputy PM, de facto in charge of the economy) would not be involved in policy making. Were Erdoğan to replace him with trusted advisors like Yiğit Bulut, whose economic credentials are yet to be tested, the quality of policy-making would suffer.

In sum, given Erdoğan’s popularity, over the next five years AKP is likely to stay in power. However, the perception of rising authoritarianism is likely to create political frictions and spur a vocal opposition both from the Parliament and the civil society. Yet, a major political crisis is unlikely in the medium term.


[1] The corruption allegations involved the sons of three former cabinet ministers, a ruling AKP-affiliated mayor, and the CEOs of the state-controlled Halkbank and Emlak REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust).

One Response to "Understanding Turkey: Volatile Politics, but No Crisis Ahead"

  1. Jan_Asprey   July 8, 2014 at 3:31 am

    You are missing out the elephant in the room — which also the big potentially destabilizing factor at home and abroad: Islamization.

    Turkey is being rapidly Islamized. This affects everything from interest rates to foreign policy. It has embroiled Turkey in the Middle East quagmire and it is the reason why the educated middle class or a lot of it is in open revolt.

    This ought to be a major headache both for NATO and for international investors and markets. How come you don't even mention it?