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TURKEY: Erdogan’s diversions amid flagging support

Table of Contents

  • President Tayyip Erdogan is more and more desperately trying to reverse the long-term decline in his public popularity.
  • A gradual easing of Covid-19 restrictions will start in early March while the inoculation program is facing an increasingly urgent shortage of vaccines.
  • On the economic front, the outlook for meaningful reforms remains negative.
  • No “reset” in Turkey-US ties, but no rupture either (barring developments around the S-400).

Domestic: Governing coalition on a declining path

Since the beginning of 2021, Erdogan has launched a succession of initiatives to try to boost his flagging support, with a new attempt appearing as soon as it became clear that its predecessor has failed. These initiatives have included: portraying the students and academics protesting the appointment of an AKP loyalist as head of Istanbul’s prestigious Bosphorus University as part of a foreign plot to overthrow him; calling for a new constitution; announcing plans to send a Turk to the moon before the end of 2023; a botched rescue attempt which resulted in the deaths of 13 Turks being held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); and the detention on 15 February of over 700 members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which its critics allege is linked to the PKK.

Erdogan’s 1 February call for a new constitution followed discussions with MHP Chair Devlet Bahceli. On 2 February, Bahceli declared the new constitution would strengthen the executive presidential system introduced in July 2018 and reaffirm the commitment in the current constitution to a unitary and explicitly Turkish state. The AKP-MHP alliance currently has 337 seats in Turkey’s 600-member parliament, short of both the two-thirds majority required to promulgate a new constitution and the three-fifths necessary to put one to a public referendum.

Erdogan and Bahceli appear to have calculated that the commitment to a unitary Turkish state would attract support from the Turkish nationalist Good Party (IP). But the IP – together with the other two largest parties in parliament, the HDP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – is committed to the reintroduction of a parliamentary system and immediately ruled out supporting the proposal. Without the support of the IP, CHP or HDP, the new constitution has no chance of even being put to a referendum. In recent months, Bahceli has repeatedly called for the HDP to be banned. The mass detentions of HDP members on 15 February appears to have been a sop to Bahceli and the MHP.

In short, the talk about a new constitution is similar to the pledges made in late 2020 about economic and judicial reform: the main goal is to divert public attention away from the tough economic situation while desperately seeking a formula to stop the declining popularity of the ruling parties and Erdogan.

Pandemic: Easing of restrictions next while vaccine supply could become an issue

On 20 February Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced details of a gradual easing of Covid-19 restrictions from March onwards. The easing is expected to start with the replacement of the full lockdown on weekends with the night-time curfews applied during the week and be followed by a limited reopening of cafes and restaurants. Koca said that the easing would be on a regional basis, with each of Turkey’s 81 provinces being assigned to one of four risk categories based on the local weekly number of new cases.

Although there are considerable regional variations, the daily number of new recorded cases nationwide has fallen from over 30,000 before the introduction of new restrictions on 1 December to just over 9,000. Although the official statistics need to be treated with caution, as the Turkish authorities knowingly provided misleading data through most of 2020, the excess mortality rates in municipal death registers are now broadly consistent with the government’s Covid-19 fatality figures of 75-100 per day.

However, Turkey’s inoculation program is facing an increasingly urgent shortage of vaccines. Although it has announced plans to have 118 million doses by the end of April, Turkey has so far received only 13 million doses, all from China’s Sinovac. As of 24 February, 6.3 million Turks had received a first dose of the Sinovac vaccine, of whom 1.2 million had also received a second dose. The government’s official target is for 29 million Turks to receive two doses by end-March and 50 million by end-June.

Economy: Still waiting for the pledged reforms

The new Treasury and Finance minister Lufti Elvan pledged a package of economic reforms in early November to help steady the lira and draw in foreign investment. Leaving aside a series of early meetings with business leaders, not much else has happened confirming that reforms are in the pipeline.

As for the Central Bank, it is far too early to say whether this time it will be “different” as recently suggested by the new Governor Naci Agbal. Loyalty to the regime (as recently highlighted by Elvan’s remarks about Berat Albayrak earlier this week) and the Central Bank’s lack of institutional autonomy mean that putting too much confidence on specific individuals is a risky move. The real test could come in the late Spring as inflation is expected to accelerate over the next three months, perhaps necessitating further rate hikes.

Meanwhile, locals remain skeptical about the government’s reform pledges and wary about the country’s economic prospects. Turks are also unconvinced due to a surge in food prices in recent months and lack of trust in official price data. Despite a strong performance by the Lira (TL) since the start of the year, locals are not switching their saving to TL. Last week, they increased their foreign currency and gold deposits by USD 2.7bn last week, according to central bank data. Reversing Turkey’s “goldollarization” will take much more than Erdogan’s reform talk.

Foreign policy: No “reset” with the US

Relations between US President Joe Biden’s administration and Turkey are off to a frosty start and fundamental differences exists between the two sides on what a “reset” in the relationship should look like. For the US, a reset would imply Ankara’s reversing the course of its ties with Moscow, and particularly abandoning the S-400 missile system, and come back to the Western fold. In contrast, for Erdogan a reset would mean the US acknowledging Turkey’s greater role in its neighborhood and respecting its “strategic autonomy”. Despite this vast gap, a more dramatic rupture in bilateral ties is unlikely as both sides are keen to stay in the current turbulent “holding pattern”.

At present, there is limited room for progress on all the contentious issues between the two sides and this is unlikely to change despite Ankara’s (clumsy) attempts to improve relations with the new US administration. The S-400 is expected to remain a major irritant, but additional US sanctions are unlikely unless Ankara decides to deploy the missile system and/or goes ahead with the planned acquisition of a second battery from Russia.

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TURKEY: Erdogan’s diversions amid flagging support

President Tayyip Erdogan is more and more desperately trying to reverse the long-term decline in his public popularity. A gradual easing of Covid-19 restrictions