Erdoğan’s concerns for 2019
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is worried about 2019, the year that is expected to transform Turkey politically as a result of three crucial elections. First there will be municipal elections in March of that year, to be followed toward the end of the year, in November, by presidential and parliamentary elections.
According to the constitutional changes adopted earlier this year, Erdoğan will officially become Turkey’s executive president in 2019 if he wins the elections, which he is likely to.
Erdoğan’s problem is that he needs a strong mandate on all three levels: The municipal, the parliamentary and the presidential in order to have the comfortable “reign” after 2019 and achieve his political ambitions.
The prospect of winning the presidential elections with a slight majority is not enough for him. Erdoğan does not want the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to win the general elections with a simple majority either, because this will still leave him facing a boisterous opposition in parliament.
Erdoğan is therefore acting preemptively to do away with the “metal fatigue” he says his AKP has fallen into. He believes that the current mayors of Turkey’s main cities, starting with Ankara and Istanbul, could produce a weak majority or even lose the next local elections, and has therefore called for their resignations.
Kadir Topbaş, the mayor of Istanbul, has already fallen on his sword and removed himself from the scene. Melih Gökçek, the mayor of Ankara, together with some other mayors Erdoğan wants to see gone, is resisting. Gökçek’s thinking is undoubtedly that he came with elections, and therefore should only go if the ballot box tells him to.
That is irrelevant for Erdoğan, who sees himself not just as the head of a party, but also the leader of a historic political/religious movement whose directives must be obeyed. This is, after all, a one-man party, so Gökçek knows he will have to quit too, whether he likes it or not.
The municipal elections in 2019 will be an acid test for Erdoğan. To have the “metal fatigued” incumbents perform poorly, or even lose, in these elections - especially in Ankara and Istanbul - would be a political disaster for him.
Erdoğan is worried because the referendum in April, which introduced the constitutional changes converting Turkey’s system into an executive presidency, was not won by the significant majority he wanted. According to international and local observers, that voting was also marked by irregularities and undemocratic practices.
There is a good chance that Erdoğan will not rest by firing incumbent AKP mayors, but will also start weeding out the “metal fatigued” elements within the government and also the party. He does not have much time to configure the political scene the way he wants if he is to win in 2019.
Turkey’s domestic problems and headaches abroad are increasing though. Another problem for Erdoğan is that he has increased the number of people who have strong feelings about him, to put it mildly.
The main division in Turkey is no longer simply between the secular elite and Islamic conservatives. Enmities have also started emerging among conservatives of different shades, and this is clear to see in the wake of last year’s failed coup attempt.
Erdoğan has proved himself to be more of a divisive figure than a unifying one, even though he still holds sway over a large portion of the electorate. But many developments over these past few years, culminating in last year’s failed coup attempt, were not expected by him. This ensures that the lead-up to the elections in 2019 could produce many more unexpected developments, making his political ambitions harder to pursue.
One way or another, it is certain that the next two years will remain crucial for Erdoğan and the AKP, and also for Turkey’s future.