Mr. Bekdil, a Turkish columnist for the Ankara-based Hurriyet Daily News and critic of Prime Minister Erdoğan's authoritarian rule, served a suspended prison sentence in 2001 for satirizing corruption in the judiciary. His articles have appeared in The Economist, National Review Online, The Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, Le Figaro, BBC, and The Washington Times. Mr. Bekdil briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on March 7, 2014.
Having consolidated his power base, tamed the military, suppressed the media, and placated the restive Kurdish minority, Prime Minister Erdoğan moved to advance his Islamist agenda and raise a generation of devout Muslims at the expense of Turkey's constitutional freedoms. In doing so, however, he underestimated the extent of public resentment of his increasingly autocratic rule. Last spring's Gezi Park anti-government protests and the current, ongoing probe of his administration have confronted Erdoğan with the most formidable challenge since 2002 and forced him to rethink his grand political design.
According to this design, the ruling AK party's victory in the March 30, 2014 mayoral elections would force President Gül to step down in a "Putin-Medvedev drop-swap" and be replaced by Erdoğan. A subsequent win in the 2015 parliamentary elections would then enable the party to amend the constitution so as to concentrate absolute power in the hands of the new president.
Erdoğan underestimated an additional challenge posed by Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric and former ally. According to Gülen's Hizmet movement, Erdoğan's confrontational policy toward other nations and faiths undermined the movement's global interfaith approach. The Gülenists have pledged their support to Erdoğan's AK party rivals and are certain to keep up the corruption probe's pressure on the beleaguered prime minister. Against this backdrop, the looming mayoral elections will be a referendum on the popularity of Erdoğan and his allies.
Depending on the outcome of the mayoral elections, one can discern three possible scenarios in the run up to the 2015 parliamentary elections:
- AK party wins 45-50% of the mayoral elections vote, encouraging Erdoğan to seek a constitutional majority to pave the way for his presidential ambitions.
- AK party wins 40-45% of the vote, driving Erdoğan to scrap his party's recently self-imposed three-term limit rule. President Gül would then be reelected this summer and Erdoğan would continue as prime minister, hoping for a 50% win in 2015.
- AK vote drops to 35-40%, resulting in political opportunists abandoning a failing party. A new moderate, center-right, pluralistic and liberal conservative party could then emerge to challenge Erdoğan.
The third scenario would yield two options for presidential elections: (1) President Gül is re-elected because the AK party is still the most popular; or (2) the opposition, including the new center-right party, reaches a compromise to find a single presidential candidate to defeat Gül.
The public opinion poll in early 2013 showed the AK party had 50-56% support and the opposition party, CHP, with 24-25% of the national vote. As a result of the political upheaval, the AK party's popularity has dropped to 35%, a trend that could be the beginning of the end for Erdoğan. The 2015 election could result in the CHP emerging as the first party with 30% of the vote while the AK party falls to 28-29%. The new center-right party could win 20% of the vote while the nationalistic MHP vote remains flat at its present level of 15%.
In Mr. Bekdil's view, the best outcome of the 2015 national elections would be a grand coalition between Turkish neo-conservatives and social democrats - a scenario that looks more realistic today than a year ago and which could end the ideological polarization that is making Turkey unmanageable and economically vulnerable.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Associate Fellow with the Middle East Forum.