The presidential election in Turkey is scheduled for May 14. Speculations are rife about whether President Erdogan will be able to retain his ‘dictatorship.’
The reason is that the election is coming on the heels of a massive earthquake in the Turkey-Syria border region, which claimed about 50,000 lives and left millions displaced, besides 156,000 buildings and structures razed to the ground.
The tragedy has been compounded by the corruption, incompetence, and vindictiveness of officialdom openly expressed by the earthquake survivors. Following the massive natural calamity, the government imposed an ‘earthquake tax’ on the plea for safe construction. But most of the money raised from this tax went to private pockets, and there appears to be no wrinkle on the forehead of the authorities.
An incisive article by Henry J Barkey of the Council on Foreign Relations on the current scenario in Turkey (now called Turkiye) draws a lackluster and bleak picture of the political system of Turkey.
Barkey is apprehensive that Erdogan and his AK party might cheat in the May parliamentary/presidential elections because Erdogan must remain in power to promote kleptocracy on a full scale.
If he loses power, the dark and obnoxious deeds of his two-decade-old kleptocracy will be exposed, and he will get lynched by his people. This, plus the ground realities of the earthquake and its aftermath, is little known to the public.
However, the more critical aspects of Erdogan’s two-decade-long authoritative and controversial rule must be brought under the radar. These are the subjects like regional and geostrategic repercussions of the internal troubles of the country.
The one aspect in Erdogan’s favor is that the opposition is unwilling to present its case forcefully. It has recently survived a divisive crisis. The two parties have, somehow, reunited and would be giving Erdogan a united front.
How far this unity will sustain is a serious question because Erdogan is a skillful politician who proved his ability to divide his opponents earlier. Erdogan could forge a blizzard of pseudo-scandals against them and tarnish their public profile when electoral campaigning begins.
However, the opposition thinks that the nation may not stomach government manipulation at a time when the mishandling of the relief and rehabilitation work in the aftermath of the earthquake is still fresh in their memories. Pro-government attempts at politicizing the salvage process ignited fury on the ground.
“Blocking relief from foreign groups, trying to monopolize the aid deliveries, blaming opposition municipalities – all got instant pushback. Meanwhile, the President’s favorite internal bogeys, the countries he likes to blame for all ills – US, Israel, Greece, Europe, Sweden (for supposedly harboring Kurdish ‘terrorists’), and the like, all sent hardworking relief teams and supplies before Ankara could get its act together. No more weaponizing xenophobia to distract from his failures,” wrote Melik Kaylan in Forbes Business on March 13.
How will Erdogan react to this situation? In other words, what options are there for him to depend on? He may seek to redirect public anger by sacrificing a few oligarchs. If that does not help to contain the crisis, he may try to rally the public around him as the only hope to deliver them from the political and social turmoil.
The Saudis have deposited $5 billion in Turkey’s Central Bank, with which Erdogan may flood the devastated areas. He may make a mess of voting infrastructure and ballot counts, as he has often done in Kurdish regions by reducing the number of election centers and making them hard to access, particularly in areas where the opposition is entrenched.
The areas adversely affected by the earthquake were those hitherto largely pro-AKP. He may not mind bidding them farewell for regaining his dominance in other voting segments. There are apprehensions that Erdogan’s victory may not have general acceptance in the background of such a complicated and almost treacherous situation.
His winning would not carry real significance. The only option to avoid massive civil strife is “to continue ruling through some form of ultra-powerful shadowy back-seat diving role.”
It is believed that in a ‘managed democracy’ like Turkey, cronyism works like a web where the parts depend on each other to function. The police arrest famous opposition leaders, the judiciary charges them, and the media dutifully smears them. Everyone is implicated in each other’s crime.
All bosses depend on Erdogan’s patronage. Crony oligarchs amassing billions depend on the leader’s stability and favor. They help fund him to remain in power to employ officials, judges, broadcasters, university chancellors, banks, hospitals, etc. The entire civil service is packed with loyalists, as we saw during the UPI and II in India.
If Erdogan is replaced, the new government must purge many officials and dispossess kleptocrat managers, starting from the top down. We must see whether the incoming government will have the strength and maneuverability to rise to the task before them.
There would not have been any need to make all this speculation about May 14 parliamentary election in if people were convinced that this would not be a ‘managed democracy’ like in earlier days.
- KN Pandita (Padma Shri) is the former Director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. Views expressed here are of the author’s.
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