President under pressure – Erdogan's popularity nosedive
In 2023 – if things go according to Erdogan's plan – Turks will not only celebrate the centenary of their republic with great pomp, but at the same time provide him with a mandate for yet another term in office, amid an atmosphere of national euphoria.
Erdogan has been in power for 18 years without interruption, first as prime minister and later – endowed with additional powers – as president. Currently, things are not going well politically for the politician who has been spoilt by success. High inflation and tumbling lira exchange rates, plus a growing army of unemployed, have destroyed the nimbus of the successful state leader.
Now a political earthquake is shaking the country on the Bosphorus. At the centre of the political affair, which has the potential to escalate into a national crisis, is a fugitive mafia boss. From his exile in Dubai, he has been publishing explosive accusations against the ruling party via YouTube, with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu being the main target so far. Among other things, it is about drug smuggling, corruption and unsolved murders. Even though Sedat Peker, the name of the ex-gangster who has become something of a media star in Turkey overnight, has failed to provide evidence for his sometimes outrageous accusations, the case is fuelling the widespread theory about the decay of law and order – and the secret cooperation of those in power with the underworld.
All this bad news, coupled with far-from-convincing management of the COVID crisis, is having a negative impact on government popular support. If Erdogan does not want to hold early elections, it is primarily because the opinion polls largely agree that he and his party would lose.
Most popular statesman in the Arab world
Amid all the doom and gloom, there is however some consolation: demoscopic comfort for the president, who has taken a battering in recent opinion polls, is coming from a part of the world particularly close to Erdogan's heart: the latest "Arab Barometer" survey shows the Turkish president to be the most popular "regional leader". In Morocco, Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia, the Turk is well ahead of Iranian revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. According to Arab Barometer, the only places Erdogan scores less favourably are Libya and Lebanon.
Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, who was in charge of the survey, attributes Erdogan's good ratings to his strong democratic legitimacy compared to his competitors: "Erdogan enjoys considerable legitimacy through elections. Erdogan has repeatedly won elections that were by and large fair. Neither Bin Salman nor Khamenei enjoy this legitimacy." The current Arab Barometer survey focuses primarily on foreign policy.
While Turkey's foreign policy under President Erdogan has come under fire in the West – and especially in Europe – for its aggressive nature and is a key reason for the breakdown in relations with the EU, Ankara's tough stance has been far better received in the Arab world, according to the survey: "Public opinion in the Arab world seems to admire Erdogan's growing penchant for tough policies and for challenging Israel and the United States," writes David Garner in the Financial Times.
Abdul-Wahab Kayyali explains why Erdogan's approval ratings in this area are higher than those of his regional rivals from Iran and Saudi Arabia by morbidly relativising their respective military policies: "Although all three leaders pursue foreign policies that can clearly be described as imperial, Turkey's ethnic cleansing in parts of northern Syria pales in comparison to Saudi Arabia's genocidal war in Yemen and Iran's intervention in Syria, which also bears traits of genocide."