Not often emphasised is the fact that in 2013, President Erdoğan and his AKP, which he had reduced to a submissive instrument, became unable to govern Turkey. We can trace the subsequent and much discussed yet recognized authoritarianism back to those days. The fraying economy and the spoiled interest-based partnership established with the Gülen Movement propelled Erdoğan to grow combative, become further Islamicised state identity and, finally, fuse these with ethno-nationalism. In short, the structure today deemed the “New Turkey”, named for Erdoğan, his family, the nationalist MHP and the Eurasianists and dominated by segments proximate to them, assumed form in those days. But the June 2018 presidential election in which Erdoğan struggled to win 50% of the vote, the summer’s ferocious and persistent economic doldrums and technical consecutive losses in the 2019 local elections have indicated that the Erdoğan-oriented patrimonial and repressive regime could collapse. And novel, serious candidates began to emerge for the first time in this context.
The relatively sudden and rapidly materialising possibility of change in this administration which has maintained itself for years lent itself to discussions of an early election over candidates and parties that may start to form. Most of the analysis emphasises a fatigued Erdoğan and his government and their inability to respond to Turkey’s needs while arguing what share of the vote new political actors could break off from the People’s Alliance, comprising the AKP and MHP. Moreover, some strategy institutions and analysts have even started debating how, through what means and under whose leadership the post-Erdoğan Turkey will take shape. But in my opinion, these either neglect a crucial point, or are somehow avoiding its discussion: Is the creation of a Brand-New Turkey possible over the ruins of the New Turkey? If so, what aspects of the Brand-New Turkey merit prioritisation? Finally, are the candidates who claim to compete with Erdogan right now truly promising a brand-new Turkey?
Potential candidates and the shackles on their feet
Although three dominant parties—the CHP, Good Party and HDP—stand in opposition, it appears as if three actors in addition to party leaders will compete with Erdogan: The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipal Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu from the CHP, Ali Babacan, who has the support of former AKP staff, and former Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoğlu.
From this trio emerges, no doubt, Imamoğlu in the advantageous position as the most popular and novel candidate. Imamoğlu is young, industrious and open to innovation, and his greatest advantage is that he serves in Turkey’s largest city, where he can assert himself through tangible actions. He has established relations with various social factions—not the least of which being the Kurds and Alevis—and has attained meaningful popularity through the effective use of social media. Despite this, two major thorns remain buried in Imamoğlu’s side. First is the CHP party organization, which is rather ungainly despite the Istanbul organization and which spent the past 20 years in the throes of intra-party battles for power and rent. This structure, inquiring how to seize control rather than how to establish a brand-new Turkey, is Imamoğlu’s greatest disadvantage. The other is his lack of an ideological and societal vision apart from battling corruption and irregularity. The extent to which he can successfully create a brand-new Turkey thus becomes enigmatic. This no doubt originates from the banalisation of Turkish politics at the hands of Erdoğan’s populism.
Apart from Imamoğlu, the name groups closest to the centre and the right await with optimism and curiosity is Babacan. Expected to form a party before 2020, he finds his greatest advantages in his possibility of correcting the economy and successful past as Erdoğan’s “sole” successful economy minister. Babacan may be the first stop for structures perturbed by Erdoğan can and planning to sever ties, and he could break of a serious bloc of votes from the AKP. However, his first and only interview shows that he too has scant claims to a brand-new Turkey. As he explained, a party expected to evoke Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party and the first years of the AKP, he explicitly vowed that they were the core of the team that built the most beautiful days of the new Turkey and that they would implement this again. Yet he made no new promises on vital issues such as the Kurdish issue proving unceasingly difficult to solve, societal polarisation, the education system, youth unemployment, femicide and foreign policies but exhibited as a target the return to the golden days of the AKP.
And the final possibility is Davutoğlu, a feeble candidate compared to Imamoğlu and Babacan but whom most experts have raised the interpretation of “Whatever he wrestles away from Erdogan is our gain.” Davutoğlu here has adopted an Islamist and self-centric language and has the potential to aggregate Islamist groups that may fragment from Erdoğan’s bloc. He does, however, have two liabilities. The first is himself, and the other is the freshness of a prolonged period as a minister and prime minister not remembered well, mostly due to issues with Syria, on everyone’s minds. But Davutoglu, who always emphasises “me” and for a while could not warm up to the games of real politics, does not appear capable of defeating Erdoğan alone. Even if this is not the case, he too has no relevant vision for the future of a Brand-New Turkey. His key issue is to establish his own party within the power hierarchy that the AKP loses and to harm Erdoğan, who had snatched away all his political clout, as much as possible.
Perhaps now is the perfect time to aim for a Brand-New Turkey
Although Erdoğan’s potential rivals may be blind to their potential to destroy Erdoğan’s authority both actively and ideologically without aiming for a Brand-New Turkey or even working toward that goal, the conditions of the current Turkey and the rest of the world are ripe for change. Offering a new contract to segments of the public weary from polarisation and presenting solutions on issues such as the Kurdish question, women’s and children’s rights and corruption—all of which are in a worse state than before—will lay the building blocks for a Brand-New Turkey. But none of these can suffice on its own. The key that will unlock this future of Turkey is the construction of a fresh “state identity” consistent with a society as dynamic and diverse as Turkey. The fundamental reason for this is that everybody is distressed by the present operation and state identity but that nobody is willing to budge. Whoever can rush to the aid of everyone’s maladies and suggest a Brand-New Turkey might have a chance at possessing and shaping not only Erdoğan’s seat but also the future of Turkey and rest of the world. If existing alternatives do not bear this claim, they either will not topple Erdoğan or, if they do, will not be permanent.