2014: Turkey’s year of destiny

2014: Turkey’s year of destiny

It is no secret that Turkey is entering a new year with heavy problems inherited from 2013.

It is also no secret that there will be at least two, maybe three, elections in Turkey in 2014.

The first will be the local elections on March 30. This time, it’s about a bit more than just electing mayors. The overall performances of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will provide an important bellwether for the next two elections; the two-round presidential one in August of this year and the general elections, which are planned for June 2015 but might take place earlier, that is, in 2014, depending on the political and economic circumstances.

The AK Parti and CHP will be in a competition for big cities like Istanbul and Ankara (held by the AK Parti) and İzmir (held by the CHP). The competition in the predominantly Kurdish southeast will be between the AK Parti and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is focused on the Kurdish problem. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) will try to take back its votes from the AK Parti in Central Anatolia, the inner Aegean and Black Sea regions. None of them are easy tasks.

This is because Turkey is passing through truly unusual political circumstances, even by Turkish standards.

A corruption probe which started two weeks ago on Dec. 17 started a chain reaction of debates between the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan government and the opposition; between the government and its closest erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamist scholar who resides in the United States, and his Hizmet (Service) Movement; between the judiciary and the police; and between different wings of the judiciary, which turned everything into a mess and brought the bureaucracy almost to a halt. This might be temporary, but given the fact that the government has started a cleansing operation within the bureaucracy, from the Police Department to the Finance Ministry against those believed to have sympathy for Gülen and prosecutors of different affiliations have started to open probes against civil servants of opposite affiliation, expecting a civil servant to sign a document, any document, will be more risky and difficult than before.

Güler Sabancı, a leading industrialist and the most powerful woman in Turkey, as well as one who has always tried to stay away from daily developments and politics, said in a written New Year’s message to her employees that she was concerned by the bribery and corruption claims and their possible negative effects on the economy. The Turkish Lira has lost 5.5 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar since the probe was started. Muharrem Yılmaz, the head of Turkey’s top investors’ club, TÜSİAD, had earlier warned that the debate might have consequences on the economy.

Dr. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, a professor of social sciences at Sabancı University in Istanbul, told HDN that the conservative voters on which Erdoğan’s AK Parti relies on were “indifferent” to corruption cases as long as the general state of the economy was OK and their wallets were fat. What will happen if ordinary AK Parti voters’ wallets start getting thinner? That is not an easy question to answer since Erdoğan managed to convince his voters, at least a majority of them, that their faith in Islam was more important than economic conditions, while letting them benefit from the outcomes of the economic system he established.

The fight within the government trenches has caused Erdoğan and Gülen supporters to reveal some hidden information about each other and that enabled the CHP and MHP oppositions to start dealing stronger blows at the government. (The BDP does not want to join the game, with concerns that weakening the AK Parti could damage the government dialogue with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with whom they share the same grassroots.) And under competitive political circumstances, wallets might have a say as well as faith.

If the AK Parti votes in the local elections drop from the 50 percent level (the 2011 general elections) even a few points, that could threaten Erdoğan’s chances of being elected as the next president of the country, replacing his long-time fellow Abdullah Gül. On the other hand, Gül has the constitutional right to be a candidate for a second term. If there is a drop in AK Parti votes by just a few percent, that could increase Gül’s chances of getting elected again, since Gül (because of his rather moderate stance) has the personal sympathy of people other than AK Parti supporters as well.

So, depending on the local election results and changing economic and political conditions, Erdoğan, using his parliamentary majority, might want to go to early elections right after the presidential elections, perhaps in October-November, or even before that in May-June of 2014, in order to secure four more years for his government, before conditions get worse. The only thing he has to do for that is to lift a party rule banning an MP from sitting for more than three consecutive times.

Could there be more surprises? Definitely. This is a year of destiny for Turkey, or rather, Erdoğan’s near future and everything is possible in this make-or-break game.