Turkey’s President Doesn’t Fear a Political Challenge from the Left – He Fears the War to the South

The extraordinary success of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a politician is rooted at least in part in his ability to surprise his opponents. For months, ever since a referendum last year agreed a transition from a prime ministerial system to a presidential one, his opponents have expected him to spring an early election on them. And yet when he finally did so last month, he still managed to take them by surprise.

In explaining his decision, Erdogan said big choices on the economy and the war in Syria needed to be taken and the elections next year would get in their way. Many have interpreted that as concern that a deteriorating economy would offer the secular opposition a chance to make political gains. But the usual response to a deteriorating economy from politicians is to wait it out, delaying the election so that the economy has time to rally – and the original date of the election, at the end of 2019, would certainly have offered sufficient time.

In fact, Erdogan is seeking to stop a challenge developing not on the political left, but on the political right.

Given two trends in Turkish society – the secularist movement of the country’s founder Ataturk and the religious democrats that Erdogan leads – it is natural that his opponents would seek to attack him from the left flank, trying to drag politics back to a secular center. But in the 15 years that Erdogan has been in power, this strategy has barely worked. What few in the mainstream parties have been able to recognize is that the real challenge to Erdogan is from the right, from the nationalist wing, both a fire he has stoked and a wave he has ridden. It is from there that the true danger lies, and it is to halt that nascent challenge before it is even born that Erdogan has called this election.

The fracturing of a small political party succinctly demonstrates both aspects. In February, Erdogan’s party entered into an alliance with a minority party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to contest the next election. The MHP is small, barely 12 percent of the Turkish parliament, and on the face of it, the alliance makes little sense. Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party or AKP, completely dominates parliament, with 316 of the 550 seats. The MHP has only 36.

But Erdogan knows that the threat to him is from the right. The MHP is ultra-nationalist, opposed to greater Kurdish rights and in favor of Turkey expanding its footprint beyond its borders. Historically, Erdogan has made some pragmatic offers on the Kurdish question, such as extending language rights for the minority, and, although he has engaged in extensive military adventures abroad, must realize that Turkey’s economy cannot sustain endless battles in Syria or in Iraq. Any suggestion of further rights for Kurds or a limit to adventures abroad would be met with resistance from the MHP, but would be welcomed with open arms by the main Kemalist opposition. Thus, the tactical thing to do is neutralize the MHP opposition, which is why the alliance was formed.

The next 18 months, after all, will be pivotal months for the war in Syria. There are significant dangers. Turkey’s attempts to stop Kurdish groups carving out a semi-autonomous region on its border could lead to attacks inside Turkey. The war could drag on, sapping national resources and national morale. The millions of Syrians inside Turkey are already facing friction, and even calls for them to return and for Turkish workers to be put first.

Any of these could offer a challenger from the right ample opportunity to attack. The nationalist wave that Erdogan has ridden is also his danger zone.

Extraordinarily, however, the response from his opponents has been to double down on his left-wing flank.

Last autumn, after the MHP first agreed to an alliance with the AKP, one of their prominent members, a former interior minister named Meral Aksener, broke with the party and announced she was forming her own party, called Iyi, or “good.” When the election date was announced last month, she only had five parliamentarians, which would have made the party ineligible to run. In response, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition and the secular party of Ataturk, agreed to allow 15 of its members to join Iyi, making the party eligible.

Yet it also exposes a weakness. Until then, Aksener had tried to face both ways, pledging to treat Western allies with more respect than Erdogan – thus winning over liberals – while also allowing her rallies to use the language and imagery of ultra-nationalism. But now, with three quarters of her parliamentarians from the main secular opposition, she will be pulled in that direction. And while Aksener is a charismatic politician – and charisma counts for a great deal in a presidential contest – it is unclear how Iyi might draw votes from Erdogan when the CHP, with its multiple parliamentarians, vast financial resources and the legacy of Ataturk, has not been able to do so.

Therein lies the luck of Erdogan, that he understands the political threats to him better than his own opponents. In a long political career, he has been able to surprise them multiple times. It is a tragedy for Turkey’s democracy that they have not yet been able to surprise him.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.