The corruption scandal which broke in December 2013 has rocked Turkish politics and weakened the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Upcoming elections will be a test of Erdoğan’s continued political strength, which has also been shaken by an increasingly vocal opposition and mounting economic challenges.

Carnegie Europe’s Sinan Ülgen analyzed potential scenarios moving forward and the role of external actors in the ongoing political drama. He touched on a variety of aspects of the crisis, including domestic politics, foreign policy, and economic concerns. Carnegie’s Thomas de Waal provided additional insight, and Carnegie’s Cornelius Adebahr moderated the event.

Domestic Politics

  • Impact of Scandal: The recent corruption scandal has undermined one of the key selling points of the ruling party, which initially came to power by campaigning against Turkey’s history of nepotism, explained Ülgen. However, due to a lack of reliable polling data, it is impossible to draw meaningful conclusions on the scandal’s short-term effects. 
  • Upcoming Elections: The upcoming local elections, to be held on March 30, will be an important test of the damage done to the ruling party by the scandal. The share of the vote AKP-aligned candidates receive will be viewed as a barometer for national AKP support, and Erdoğan hopes to be vindicated by a robust popular vote, Ülgen explained. The difficulty–for insiders as well as outsiders–will be to decide which share of the votes would signal such a vindication: the roughly 50 percent the AKP won in the last parliamentary election or the 39 percent they took in the previous local elections? Losing either of the two major cities, Ankara or Istanbul, would also be considered a severe blow to Erdoğan’s AKP, Ülgen concluded. 
  • Erdoğan’s Political Future: The outcome of the March 30 vote will also determine Erdoğan’s upcoming political moves, Ülgen said. Prior to the scandal, he was considering a run for the presidency, but that plan has now been thrown into doubt. Still, he remains–for the moment–the most powerful politician in Turkey, with no serious contender in sight. 
  • Opposition Prospects: Turkish society’s center-right orientation limits the potential for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to win big in national elections, Ülgen said. Nevertheless, the margin between the AKP and the opposition has been decreasing since the onset of the scandal. 

External Relations

  • Lack of Emphasis: Prime Minister Erdoğan remains primarily focused on domestic politics at the expense of foreign policy, Ülgen argued. Erdoğan is a strong believer in the supremacy of the “national will” as determined by elections, which he believes should not be encumbered by excessive checks and balances (e.g. a “too” independent judiciary). 
  • Blaming External Forces: Erdoğan has increasingly relied on rhetoric blaming the United States and the West for internal political challenges—a chief government strategy during the Gezi Park protests last June. This rhetoric comes at a political cost, however, as it does damage to the international image of Erdoğan’s government, Ülgen said.
  • U.S. Response: The U.S. reaction to recent events has not satisfied the expectations of Turkish society, Ülgen stated. It is critical that the United States adopt a clear public position with respect to ongoing events and long-term strategic interests in Turkey. A navel-gazing Turkey, one shunning the EU or even one clashing with its neighbors, clearly is not in American interests, Ülgen added. 

Economic Perfect Storm

A combination of external pressures, poor policy choices, and decreasing confidence has contributed to the buildup of a “perfect storm” that threatens to halt Turkish economic progress, warned Ülgen.

  • External Pressures: The U.S. Federal Reserve’s decision to taper its quantitative easing strategy could undermine the recent Turkish growth model, which has been predicated on the availability of cheap global capital.
  • Policy Failures: Decreasing economic confidence has been compounded by Erdoğan’s strong opposition to interest rate increases and questions about his government’s commitment to the rule of law and fighting corruption.

The next several months will be a critical juncture for the future of Turkish politics as Erdoğan and the AKP seek to mitigate the damage done by the corruption scandal, panelists concluded. Erdoğan must be careful, however, to ensure that his political maneuvering does not continue to jeopardize what has until recently been viewed as a successful tenure on the international and economic fronts.