Countdown to the Turkish election

Erdogan beats the nationalist drum

Elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged not blame Turkeyʹs problems on "outside powers, outside forces, or foreigners". Years later, with the weight of the presidency and a struggling currency upon him, that pledge is long gone. By Tom Stevenson

On 5 June, at a campaign rally in Sakarya, to the east of Istanbul, Erdogan ascribed the rapid deterioration of the Turkish Lira to an attack on the Turkish economy by "outside forces", a phrase he now uses regularly. The lira has depreciated almost 20 percent since the beginning of the year, falling to record lows. The Turkish president promised supporters he would "settle the score" with these unspecified foreign powers after elections slated for 24 June.

The snap parliamentary and presidential elections were called in April by Erdogan himself, but he has already faced a tougher campaign than he appears to have expected. In April, Turkeyʹs opposition parties looked to be in disarray. However the opposition has over performed expectations. Opposition parties have formed an alliance of convenience aimed at forcing a second-round run off in the presidential poll between Erdogan and the Republican Peopleʹs Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince, who has energetically presented himself as an everyman candidate.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaign has sometimes looked lacklustre. In an attempt to present the partyʹs record as cool economic managers ahead of the election, Erdogan stressed the rise in refrigerator ownership since the party came to power in the early 2000s. But the liraʹs depreciation has drawn concern and complaints from across the society threatening the AKPʹs electoral prospects, which until recently appeared bulletproof. Inflation is rising too; the latest data show prices rising 12 percent over the past year.

A man counts his Turkish liras as he leaves a currency shop in central Istanbul (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Giannakouris)
Conspiracy theory rhetoric: on 7 June, the central bank hiked interest rates by 125 basis points in an attempt to stop the liraʹs slide. But Erdoganʹs eccentric theories about 'evil foreign powers' and his dominance in policy-making have resulted in the authorities being slow to act in the face of clear indicators that rate rises were needed. "Aside from his hostile attitude towards not-so-clear enemies, Erdoganʹs bizarre ideas on economics have been problematic," says Oguz Erkol, a Turkish markets analyst

Passing the economic buck

The economy tops the list of Turkish voter concerns and according to Oguz Erkol, a Turkish markets analyst, nationalist rhetoric about the liraʹs fall will only increase as the elections approach. "Erdoganʹs rhetoric that claims ʹforeign evil powersʹ are behind the recent sell-off in Turkish markets is essentially employed for influencing the electorate," Erkol said.

The Turkish president has expressed highly unusual views on the relationship between interest rates and inflation which do little to inspire confidence in Turkeyʹs creditors, particularly as he has shown a willingness to override the nominal independence of the Turkish central bank.

On 7 June, the central bank hiked interest rates by 125 basis points in an attempt to stop the liraʹs slide. But Erdoganʹs eccentric theories and his dominance in policy-making have resulted in the authorities being slow to act in the face of clear indicators that rate rises were needed. "Aside from his hostile attitude towards not-so-clear enemies, Erdoganʹs bizarre ideas on economics have been problematic," Erkol said.

Turkish corporations hold large amounts of foreign exchange debt – a liability for the economy as monetary tightening takes hold in the United States and Europe and investor sentiment towards emerging markets turns sour. Rising inflation and signs of deterioration in Turkeyʹs national finances make the central bankʹs lack of independence all the more concerning. Talk of manipulating outsiders appears to play to the need for a scapegoat, but wonʹt go towards solving the underlying problems.

Defending Turkish sovereignty

Just as there have been appeals to xenophobic nationalism on economic matters, Erdogan has been attempting to play the same card in foreign policy. On 4 June, the government announced new military operations against Kurdistan Workersʹ Party (PKK) bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq on Turkeyʹs south-eastern border.

Pro-government commentators, such as Ibrahim Karagul in the fiercely pro-AKP Yeni Safak newspaper, have described the operations as a defence of Turkish sovereignty and linked them directly to the elections.

Free Syrian Army members patrol as Turkish Armed Forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) liberate 16 more villages and a strategic mountain within the "Operation Olive Branch" and deployed forces only 1.5 kilometres away from the town of Afrin in Syria on 12 March 2018 (photo: picture-alliance /AA/H. Al Homsi)
Fighting the Kurds on all fronts: as part of Erdoganʹs "Operation Olive Branch", Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces had ʹliberatedʹ 189 locations, including five town centres, 151 villages and 33 strategic areas in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region from the PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG by mid-March 2018. On 4 June Erdogan announced a new offensive against the PKK in the Qandil mountains along the border with Iraq. "An operation in Qandil could provide the AKP with agenda-setting power before the elections that might steer the national discussion away from economics," says Yusuf Safarti

"We do not expect terrorism to turn up on our doors; we are going to the source of terrorism before it comes to us," Erdogan said at a rally in the north-western town of Zonguldak the day after the military campaign was announced.

According to Yusuf Safarti, associate professor at the Illinois State University, government officials are using the military operation in Qandil as part of the election campaign. "Electorally the AKP can only benefit from keeping this issue on the national agenda or engaging in some sort of military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq and framing it as ʹentering Qandilʹ," Safarti said.

The Turkish army has been fighting the PKK for decades and is unlikely to make any major strategic gains any time soon, but the campaign plays to widespread nationalist sentiments, which are common not only in the AKPʹs base but also among supporters of the opposition parties.

The power of military distraction

In the past the AKP has successfully mobilised the army to boost its domestic support. In the aftermath of the June 2015 elections, Erdogan deliberately escalated the conflict with the PKK leading to greater AKP success in a November 2015 rerun of the poll. The ensuing conflict cost thousands of lives.

"The Turkish military operation to Afrin in northern Syria was also politicised by the AKP and the pro-government media," Professor Safarti said. "And polls showed that support for Erdogan increased considerably at that time, so an operation in Qandil could provide the AKP with agenda-setting power before the elections that might steer the national discussion away from economics."

The agenda for the elections has already been narrowed. Little is said about the vote being held under a state of emergency, or about restrictions on political opposition. Allegations that the government may have wire-tapped the largest opposition party, the CHP, are also off the agenda.

It is still unclear whether the AKP strategy will prove successful. The environment in which the vote is being held and the integral relationship between Erdoganʹs supporters and Turkeyʹs security forces should not be underestimated, said Burak Bilgehan Ozpek, assistant professor of International Relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara: "At the end of the day, the political activism of opposition groups has been suspended by the state security apparatus."

Tom Stevenson

© Qantara.de 2018

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