The end of 2019 was marked in Turkey by an event during which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled the prototype of a domestically produced electric car, his long-time dream. Despite the fact that there’s no solid business plan in sight for its production and sale, and not even some far-fetched idea that it could compete with international brands, the presentation has gotten Erdoğan supporters excited. They see it as an indication of a stronger Turkey. Their leader, once again, did it!
In a controversial move, Erdoğan’s latest rival, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of İstanbul from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), applauded the car project, saying he would support anything scientifically sound and profitable for the country. His supporters, however, had mixed opinions. Some believe the project is just another hoax, whereas others sided with İmamoğlu in an effort to appreciate good policies of the ruling party while opposing its wrongdoings.
The latter was the main theme of İmamoğlu’s campaign in March’s local elections, a strategy portraying him as posing no threat to Erdoğan supporters, as opposed to the Turkish president’s relentless labeling of the opposition candidates. Some observers believe the strategy worked perfectly in the local elections, in which the CHP managed to win both İstanbul and Ankara, the country’s largest cities, and that if İmamoğlu is to stand a chance against Erdoğan in the next presidential election in 2023, he needs to keep acting accordingly.
Another crazy project
Nevertheless, the İstanbul mayor is challenging some of Erdoğan’s projects, such as Kanal İstanbul, a giant waterway on the western side of İstanbul to connect the Marmara and Black seas. A second but man-made Bosporus in İstanbul, experts say, is harmful to the environment and water supply and presents the threat of even greater urbanization. Already the most heavily populated city in Turkey, İstanbul cannot not bear another population influx, with some prospective projects promising new construction, and hence new residents.
Turkey has no oil reserves, and the construction sector has become the major driving force of the economy under Erdoğan’s rule. Therefore, the Turkish president needed to build a gigantic airport among İstanbul’s northern forests and construct a third bridge connecting Asia Minor to the European continent. There are also ongoing construction projects throughout the Black Sea region, drawing the attention of Gulf money. The government has been offering Turkish passports to investors who spend at least $250,000 on a residence and own it for three years.
2019 was the year of recovery from the previous year’s currency crisis during which the Turkish lira lost some 30 percent of its value against the US dollar. As a result, the former administration of Turkey’s central bank decided to hike interest rates to support the national currency, a move that was not welcomed by President Erdoğan, who later fired bank governor Murat Çetinkaya and appointed a new one, who as expected lowered rates. The president was right; cutting interest rates indeed allowed banks to generate more mortgage funds, amounting to an end of stagnation in the construction sector. But it hasn’t yet solved the problems of inflation and unemployment, which eventually caused low confidence in the Turkish economy, also generating vulnerability.
New parties challenging Erdoğan
İmamoğlu and his colleague Mansur Yavaş, elected mayor of Ankara in March and thus putting an end to the 25-year Islamist rule in the city, are not the only problems President Erdoğan has. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan separately decided to establish political parties, criticizing the administration of their former party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Davutoğlu has already launched his Future Party (GP), but Babacan has left it to the early weeks of 2020.
There are two distinct sentiments surrounding their initiatives: first, the Turkish opposition is pleased that former allies of Erdoğan have stepped up to undermine his grip on the conservative grass roots; and second, they were with Erdoğan in his transition from a “good populist” to an “authoritarian populist” between 2013 and 2016, so they cannot be trusted. Both sentiments are valid; however, Davutoğlu and Babacan are much more eager to divide Erdoğan’s right-wing conservative supporters rather than appeal to the left-wing, secular opposition. That’s why their political ventures will be interesting to watch in 2020. The former prime minister has already lost a battle against Erdoğan, whose government has seized the Davutoğlu-affiliated İstanbul Şehir University.
Meanwhile, according to some reports in the Turkish media, the AKP’s current ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), is not happy with the alliance, from which, party management believes, only Erdoğan benefits.
Libya and Idlib conundrums
Overwhelmed by the betrayal of former allies, Erdoğan has extended his ambitions towards the eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is competing against Cyprus, Egypt and Greece for promising natural gas reserves. Signing a military accord with the UN-backed Tripoli government to secure its share of the reserves has left Ankara all alone. Even Russia, a good partner of the Turkish government, has explicitly opposed the Libya move, in addition to the United States and European Union. Erdoğan’s unexpected visit to Tunisia to set up an alliance against Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, backed by Moscow, failed to yield any results.
The conundrum in Syria’s Idlib region is not much different. Russia expects Turkey to separate moderate rebels from terrorists, but it is unclear whether Ankara has such authority over Idlib’s highly complex rebel networks. Turkey, on the other hand, has been trying to halt the Russia-backed Syrian regime attacks that have led to thousands of civilians congregating near the Turkish border. Here, Erdoğan’s plans are clear: create a safe zone in northern Syria, where millions of Syrian refugees will resettle. It is a proposal that European countries could in desperation support, but neither Russia nor the al-Assad government has yet given a green light to it.
On the Western front, the EU has no leverage over Turkey since the latter hosts more than 4 million refugees and the Turkish president has a loyal friend at the White House. Considering that President Donald Trump will be busy with his reelection campaign throughout the year, angry US senators will be able to decide the future of relations between Washington and Ankara. The latest package of sanctions was a sign, and yet the jury is still out because China and Russia are eager to fill every possible power vacuum near European borders.
Fighting till the end
Turkey’s strongman and his party were defeated in March’s local elections as well as in an İstanbul election re-run in June due to poor economic performance and growing anti-migration anger among Turks. In 2020 these issues will continue to haunt him, while ex-AKP figures will be raising their voices. Dazzled by the prospect of a clear win, the Turkish opposition has already been cheering for a snap presidential election. But they need to keep in mind that Erdoğan is a fighter, and he’ll fight till the end before leaving office, if he ever does.