Writing in Foreign Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook provides some excellent analysis about why, despite all the headlines and all the outrage on the streets of Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has little to fear. As Cook explains:
Even though Erdogan has resorted to intimidation and other authoritarian tactics, he keeps racking up impressive electoral victories. In June 2011, voters returned the prime minister and his party to power with 49.95 percent of the vote. Even today, as the tear gas continues to fly, there is no question that Erdogan would win an election. It is hard to see how the moribund opposition can capitalize on Erdogan’s missteps, and although AKP [Justice and Development Party] supporters may be watching developments with consternation, they are not ditching their membership cards.
Cook is also correct that Erdoğan has benefited from a disorganized and ineffective opposition. Still, if Erdoğan is smart, he will recognize that he is not invincible. Even if everything Cook says is true — and, again, I largely agree with him — there are other points to consider:
- First, while Erdoğan is in the driver’s seat now, not everyone who votes for the AKP is ideologically wedded to Erdoğan. Some vote for the AKP as a protest vote against other parties, and some vote because the AKP has delivered economically. If Erdoğan’s vengeful and paranoid rants begin to undercut the economy, the AKP may find itself hemorrhaging its middle class and more liberal supporters.
- Second, the AKP is not monolithic. There are three main factions: those close to Erdoğan, those close to President Abdullah Gül, and those whose loyalty lies more with Islamic cult leader Fethullah Gülen, whose own political support waivers back and forth. Should the situation continue to worsen, internal AKP conflicts might undermine Erdoğan. Indeed, if the current protests have one lasting consequence, it is that Turks see cracks in the wall both of fear and the perception of Erdoğan’s strength. The question is not whether someone will jump ship from the AKP to form their own rival party, but when they will. The first defection may be difficult, but after that barrier is passed, there could come a deluge. True, that’s unlikely, but it’s possible. Regardless, parties led by charismatic strongmen tend not to last in Turkey: just as Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party and Adnan Menderes’ Democratic Party.
- Third, Cook knows Egypt well and knows too that arrogance and a tin ear toward constituents can be akin to throwing fuel on the fire. When Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square, they sought the resignation of the interior minister, not President Hosni Mubarak himself, that was until Mubarak’s detachment and the death of protestors exacerbated the volatile situation.
Even if Erdoğan remains in control — and, like Cook, I suspect he will — it will be interesting to see whether Erdoğan recognizes he must compromise and build coalitions or if he remains prisoner to his worst instincts. Unfortunately for the Turks, Erdoğan is a very stubborn man.