Turkey: Has Erdogan Overreached Himself?

Recent days have seen substantial public protests in Turkey against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power for more than 10 years. What began as a protest against Erdogan’s plans to redevelop a park in Istanbul seems to have ballooned into wider demonstrations against the perceived drift towards authoritarianism under the prime minister. Erdogan has long faced opposition from secularist voters to his Islamist agenda. He has also attracted criticism for his alleged marginalisation of dissenting voices, and his plans to amend the constitution to create an executive presidency, which he would presumably fill, if he is elected next year. Such a move could theoretically allow him to retain power for another decade.

The latest developments tie in with one of the scenarios outlined in our long-term political forecast for Turkey. We previously wrote in our online service:

“AKP Overreaches Itself, Leading To Serious Tensions: The possibility exists that Erdogan and the AKP [party] overreach themselves in seeking to restructure the Turkish polity. This could take the form of excessive Islamisation of the legal and education system, efforts to constrain the media and/or an increasingly autocratic style of governance by the executive. The overall result could be a shift towards greater authoritarian rule, with more power concentrated in the hands of Erdogan himself, possibly under a presidential system. Under such circumstances, Turkey could become more polarised, resulting in street protests aimed at disrupting governance and business. Rumours of military coups could become more frequent, undermining investor confidence.”

Turkey’s stock market and currency have suffered sharp falls following the violence.

For now, this doesn’t quite look like the Arab Spring. Turkey is much more democratic than Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria were in 2011, and Erdogan’s government still retains around 50% support, according to a recent poll, meaning that it is more popular than the alternatives. Erdogan himself has sounded unbowed, having described the protestors as ‘extremist forces’. However, on Tuesday, 4 June, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc struck a more conciliatory tone, apologising for the heavy-handed nature of the government’s crackdown on protestors. Already, two people have been killed in the violence.

Going forward, it is evident that Turkey will remain highly polarised for the foreseeable future, despite the generally robust economic growth of the past decade. This would imply that even if Erdogan becomes president with executive powers, he can expect a bumpier ride than he has been accustomed to thus far.