After a decade of stability, Turkey is experiencing serious unrest. Two political conflicts are brewing—one popular, one elite. At the center of both, stands the increasingly authoritarian, and Twitter-banning, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Voters will weigh in on March 30, in local elections that launch an 18 month-long electoral season. No resolution is likely, rather continued turmoil, with domestic and international consequences.
Turkish politics used to pit secular nationalists against Islamic conservatives. But by 2010, Erdoğan had decisively defeated the secularist order. Aided by the Gülen movement—a large, Islamic social movement wielding significant influence within the police and judiciary—he jailed hundreds of secularist military officers, journalists and intellectuals along with thousands of Kurds and other critics.
But the new political order Erdoğan ushered in was not the liberal democracy he promised. Instead, he pursued one-man rule, targeting anyone with the power to stop him, including his allies in toppling the old order—President Abdullah Gül and the Gülen movement.
Not content to be pushed aside, Erdoğan’s former partners fought back—creating a conflict within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gülenists supported, and probably orchestrated, a recent corruption probe targeting Erdoğan’s associates and family. He has only cracked down harder on opponents, firing police and prosecutors and reining in the judiciary.
Such authoritarianism brought tens of thousands of Turks to the streets last summer in protest against Erdoğan. His response was forceful. The recent death of a teenager injured by brutal police tactics during last year’s protests has sparked new demonstrations.
These new patterns of conflict, both popular and elite, will define Turkey’s upcoming electoral season–with local elections on March 30, followed by presidential elections in August and parliamentary elections in 2015. But this first contest, which will select municipal leaders, is unlikely to determine the outcome of the current political turmoil.
The AKP is expected to garner roughly 40 percent of the total vote and keep at least one of the two most important mayorships, Istanbul or Ankara. If the results vary significantly, they could impact Erdoğan’s future. A strong showing might buoy his prospects; a poor one might accelerate his departure.
More likely, however, is that Turkey will remain on its current downward trajectory. Neither Erdoğan nor the Gülenists are actually on the ballot, thus this contest cannot hand either side a real victory. Nor has the popular opposition to Erdoğan rallied behind an established opposition party or organized their own.
Thus, whatever the result, Erdoğan is unlikely to lower his ambitions or temper his tactics. Banning Twitter—a move designed to both stop the spread of damaging recordings and frustrate political organization online—is just the beginning. Erdoğan will likely scrap his party’s three-term limit and seek a fourth premiership in the next parliamentary elections.
The harder Erdoğan grasps power, the more opposition, both elite and popular, he will engender. The longer these two political conflicts remain distinct, the longer they will continue. Erdoğan’s opponents within the Islamic conservative movement have insufficient votes to unseat him on their own. Protestors lack the organization to channel their dissent into a political voice.
The conflict within the Islamic movement will be waged between two competing centers of power—the prime minister’s office and the entrenched Gülenist bureaucracy. Already Erdoğan is making common cause with former enemies, releasing officers he had helped incarcerate unjustly, including former Chief of Staff General Ilker Başbuğ, who are returning to politics. He will also likely launch major purges, with military support, of Gülenists from state institutions. In response, further allegations of Erdoğan’s corruption, abuse of power, and media manipulation will likely surface. Public trust and rule of law will be collateral damage in this battle.
Meanwhile, dissent and demonstration—in public and online—are becoming the new mode of Turkish political activity. Erdoğan will attempt to suppress them, violently dispersing new protests and blocking more social media. Worse bloodshed is possible; more dangerous for Turkey’s democracy is the rise of a new disenfranchised generation, taught that it can only be heard by acting outside the political process.
Turkey, thus, is entering a period of major upheavals. Such instability will weaken both the institutions and legitimacy of the Turkish state. It will also have economic and international repercussions.
It is no coincidence that during the last nine months, Turkey’s currency and stock market have tumbled at least 25 percent. Further losses are likely as foreign investors flee uncertainty and Erdoğan’s caprice.
Similarly, on its current trajectory, Turkey cannot remain a reliable U.S. partner. Its domestic crisis detracts from its ability to carry out a competent foreign policy while its authoritarianism undermines the shared values that underpins our alliance. Once an ally in a troubled region, Turkey is no trouble itself.
Eventually, power will slip from Erdoğan’s grasp. The only question is how much damage Turkey—and its alliances—suffers in the meanwhile.
Svante Cornell is the director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative. Blaise Misztal is the acting director of the center’s Foreign Policy Project.
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