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Erdogan’s strongman rule is beginning to fray

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

U-turn on university appointee adds to sense that Turkey’s president is no longer invulnerable.

A woman poses for a selfie photograph in front of a portrait of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to mark the Democracy and National Unity Day in Istanbul on July 15

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s all-powerful president, was last week forced into a U-turn that revealed both bad judgment and political vulnerability.

He fired Melih Bulu, a party hack he imposed as rector of Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici (Bosphorus) University in January. Erdogan’s backpedal followed six months of protests at the university’s campus, echoed across the country in the most sustained mass movement since the civic uprising that swept urban and coastal Turkey in mid-2013.

Since then, Erdogan has moved decisively towards one-man rule, replacing Turkey’s parliamentary system with a Russia-style presidency and packing institutions such as the judiciary, the academy and the media with placemen. Since the attempted coup five years ago, moreover, he has used emergency powers to fire more than 100,000 people and detain almost at will.

Yet he has still not managed to crush that half of the Turkish population opposed to his intrusion into their personal and political space and to the national-populist amalgam of his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies.

The appointment of Bulu was taken as a particular affront by academics and alumni of Bogazici, Turkey’s top and resolutely secular university, which was founded by American protestant missionaries in the 19th century.

Erdogan has broadened access to higher education, tripling the number of universities in two decades, but providing quantity not quality. Used to selecting its own rectors, Bogazici simply refused to accept an academic mediocrity, accused of plagiarism and unable even to win selection for an AKP seat in 2015.

The movement against Bulu and for academic freedom refused to give up, even as its supporters were vilified as “terrorists” and “LGBT deviants” by Suleiman Soylu, Erdogan’s powerful interior minister.

It is too soon to declare this volte-face a victory. There was much opposition crowing, for instance, when Erdogan dumped Berat Albayrak, his cosseted son-in-law, as finance minister last November. But he has since jettisoned more orthodox and competent managers of Turkey’s wilting economy.

Dumping Bulu, who even Erdogan saw was inadequate, may be no more than a tactical retreat, likely to make the president vengeful on other fronts. When a political street-fighter like Erdogan has to duck and weave it is as well to watch out for the counterpunch.

Yet this very public instance of poor judgment is part of a wider vulnerability. The AKP, one of the most successful ruling parties of modern times, which has triumphed in more than a dozen electoral contests, has been hollowed out. Erdogan has purged his former comrades and co-founders, preferring a neo-sultan’s court of sycophants telling him what he wants to hear.

In local elections in 2019, he lost Istanbul — where he began as mayor and which has always been at the heart of his mystique — as well as the capital Ankara and most of Turkey’s great cities. These intimations of political mortality have recently been amplified by the AKP plummeting in the polls.

The party has been abandoned by core constituencies more drawn by widening prosperity than narrowing ideology. Erdogan’s growth model, based on cheap credit, consumption and construction, unraveled before the pandemic — or indeed Albayrak’s failure to defend the lira despite burning through more than $100bn in reserves.

That vainglorious waste has turned into a useful jingle for a fragmented opposition still undecided on its order of political battle for elections due in 2023. So too are the startling allegations and revelations being drip-fed to the nation by fugitive gangster Sedat Peker, a former AKP fellow-traveler chipping away lethally at the idea Erdogan stands for anything except transactionalism.

Moreover, many Turkish women, across ideological and cultural lines, are outraged by Erdogan’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention to prevent violence against women, which Turkey was the first country to sign.

His autocratic whims have been massing forces against him. Not just the secular Republican People’s party (CHP) of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic, which he had easily seen off. He has strewn his path to power with discarded allies such as former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, former president Abdullah Gul and former vice-president and economy tsar Ali Babacan. They have founded rival parties to the AKP that cannot win but can subtract votes and add them to any coalition against Erdogan.

The victorious mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, from the CHP but with a profile a bit like Erdogan’s, successfully built a broad coalition against the AKP, demonstrating the juggernaut could be stopped.

Erdogan is countering with a judicial campaign to close down and eviscerate the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish left-wing coalition that is Turkey’s third largest party. He has already jailed many of its leaders, MPs, mayors and activists, calling it a front for the armed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) that has waged war against Ankara for over three decades. By treating the HDP as terrorist wolves in sheep’s clothing, the AKP hopes to peel off conservative Kurdish voters that supported it in the past.

Erdogan’s opportunism has often been opportune. But many in Turkey sense his undoubted talent is ebbing and his luck may be running out.

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