Selin Yaşar

Ali Bayramoglu: Erdogan’s future is uncertain, even if he wins

Centre for Turkish Studies, Westminster Debates, June 6 2018.
Ali Bayramoglu (A.B) is a well-known Turkish columnist and academic.

On the countdown to the Turkish elections on June 24, there are very few who dare predict anything but a victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Still, after 40 years in journalism, Ali Bayramoglu dares to hope that something will be different the day after, irrespectively of whether President Erdogan wins or loses. He is not optimistic, but he wants to be.

After initially supporting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Bayramoglu is now an opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In an interview with European Interest (E.I), he offers his analysis of the upcoming presidential and general elections to be held on 24 June.

E.I: What sort of policy program should we expect if Recep Tayyip Erdogan is re-elected president?

Ali Bayramoglu: Turkey is currently on a very authoritarian and arbitrary path with Erdogan and, of course, if he wins, we fear he might take this as a sign of legitimation for his politics and the concentration of power around his person. The new constitution will enhance his power.

Secondly, the coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is anti-Kurdish and it will mobilise resources to fight a perceived threat coming from the Kurds and foreign forces supporting them.

The third thing we can expect is a discourse of a ‘strong state,’ and the idea of rebuilding the country after the attempted coup in 2016.

However, there might be challenges to these policies.

The significance of the Kurdish issue is not merely political but has broader social and international implications.

If the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) enters the parliament {Turkey has a 10% electoral threshold}, which I think it will, the Kurdish people will be strongly represented. We could expect them to win at least 70 seats in parliament gaining strong momentum as local elections will follow 10 months later. This result should benefit political pluralism and democracy, although it could lead to conflict and trigger a new authoritarian backlash.

All of the Kurdish HDP mayors have been removed by the state and some of the HDP’s members have been imprisoned. Could we see this happening again?

Don’t forget that this happened under the state of emergency {following the 2016 coup attempt} and we’re not sure how long that will continue. Even if Erdogan wins the presidential election, he could lose the general elections. It would then be difficult for him to get parliament’s approval to extend the stage of emergency. This is another case where the Kurds’ return to parliament will come into play.

Another challenge for Erdogan – and this is somehow linked to the Kurdish issue – is Syria. It is obvious that Kurdish groups in Syria are collaborating with the West. The West sees in the Kurdish movement a local player that can help with the rising threat coming from Iran. Because of that, Turkey will find itself in a difficult position trying to convince the United-States and others to stop supporting the Kurds. Therefore, if Turkey wants to resolve the conflict with the Kurds, Ankara must negotiate rather than wage war.

Is the AKP’s coalition with the {ultra nationalist} MHP sustainable?

It is hard to answer this question because it depends on a number of factors. The AKP and the MHP need each other: the MHP needs the AKP to cross the 10% threshold and win seats in parliament; the AKP needs MHP for the presidential vote.

Once Erdogan is elected he won’t need the MHP anymore; but, if he doesn’t have a majority in parliament, then the coalition will continue. At the moment, they share similar views on the Kurdish issue, but if Erdogan decides to enter into dialogue with the Kurds, MHP will not be pleased.

What are the most important topics during the campaign for the Turkish people?

Which Turks are we talking about? There are great cleavages {in Turkish politics}.

The first is between religious and secular people.

The second is of an ethnic nature, between the Turkish state and the Kurds. The majority of Kurds will vote against Erdogan, but not all of them. Within the Kurdish minority there are two traditions, one is religious and votes for the AKP; the other, much bigger, is rather nationalist and secular and will vote for the HDP.

Finally, we have a division between Sunnis and Alevis. While Sunnis tend to vote in different ways, barely any Alevis will vote the AKP. This is due to their historic lack of trust in Sunni politics.

But, in each group, there are social class cleavages.

Among the conservatives there are rich and poor people, rural and urban people. This could also influence the vote. We see that more and more wealthy conservatives are unhappy with Erdogan’s politics because he has a stranglehold on the Islamist movement, on the economy and because of the personality cult. There’s also a new entrepreneurial social class emerging among Kurds in cities such as Diyarbakir or Van. They became wealthy thanks to business activities and are very different from the previous Kurdish upper classes which supported the PKK.

There is a great amount of social and political mobility in Turkey. It’s hard to predict how groups that are unhappy with the current politics will vote. Dissatisfied upper class conservatives may not vote for Erdogan in the first round of the election, but if they feel that he could lose, they might vote for him in the second round; that will not be a positive vote for him, but a vote seeking to maintain a conservative republic, regimenting their business interests.

If Erdogan is elected, what will happen to Turkey’s relationship with the European Union?

The relationship has changed a lot. When Erdogan was implementing reforms in the early 2000s, full membership was being discussed. Now that he has deviated, it is more about a strategic relationship. Neither want a complete rupture and the relationship is based on mutual benefits.

Turkey is a buffer between Arab countries and the European Union, and also helps with the refugee crisis, for example. But Erdogan will never accept having to follow the European Union’s directives. If he wins, the relationship will be transactional, about security and financial gain. I think both sides are happy this way: Erdogan doesn’t want EU membership any more than Europe does.

You were attacked for expressing your views against the referendum last year, and more generally against the government. What is your opinion on the situation for journalists at the moment?

What is happening regarding the freedom of speech is unacceptable. I am 62 and started when I was 20. I have never seen this, apart from periods of military coups. It is really oppressive and the AKP have not only taken away journalists’ freedom to do their job, they have also changed the media landscape. One third of media outlets belong to Erdogan and the rest have been made to toe the line. A purge has taken place among journalists and real journalists have left the country or have stopped working.

Isn’t access to information even more important during an electoral campaign?

It is, but one should not forget that Turkey has never been fully democratic. That’s why this vote is so crucial for democracy, Turks have the ability to overthrow the government. That’s the only moment when we enjoy such liberty.

Are you optimistic regarding Turkey’s future?

I am not, but I want to be. I don’t think Erdogan will lose these elections but I believe in our society. I know that Erdogan won’t last too long because the country is too divided. My optimism isn’t about these elections and whether Erdogan will lose or win. I’m optimistic because I see a new energy in the opposition, despite the current situation. Even though you could end up in jail for a Tweet, the opposition is fired up, which gives me hope for the future.

Selin Yaşar is a London-based freelance Journalist

Explore more