Erdoğan’s greatest strategic mistake

Translated by: Gizem Ünsalan /
Orjinal Metin (tr-7/24/2020)

Hello, good day. The Hagia Sophia has been reopened for worship and the first Friday prayer was held after 86 years. President Erdoğan read the Quran, the Director of Religious Affairs Ali Erbaş followed the tradition of delivering the khutbah with a sword, and the salah was performed. We will delve deeper into the Hagia Sophia issue in “A Look at the Week” with Kemal Can at 16:00, so I don’t want to focus on it too much right now. Yet the Hagia Sophia will be the main topic—and the most current one—in my assessment. 

What is Erdoğan’s greatest strategic mistake? Perhaps the answer lies in another question, namely, “What is Erdoğan’s greatest strategic success?” Current generations wouldn’t really know this, but it’s helpful to read the situation within the context of a historical process. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is someone who has taken part in the National Vision movement since his middle school years. As a young man, he later served in the Welfare Party (WP), which was established after the National Salvation Party (NSP) was shut down following the September 12 coup d'état. He even became the party’s Istanbul Provincial Head at a considerably young age. 

A follower of the NSP’s and Erbakan’s tradition, Erdoğan is also a graduate of the İmam Hatip schools. It would be apt to say that he continued the National Vision movement he experienced within the WP and the NSP. Yet after a certain level, Erdoğan shifted his orientation, not by himself, but with certain figures who were the same age as him—we could call them the “young generation” within the party. Some of the Islamists and National Visionists were self-employed or working as engineers, lawyers, and doctors, and there were also literate people such as writers and artists who lent a new perspective to the WP. Istanbul became the center for this. Indeed, a similar trend occurred within Islamist movements in different parts of the world.

With the increased active participation of well-educated middle-class groups, Islamist movements across the globe were experiencing change. In Turkey, it was the WP that took the lead, and within the WP, it was the Istanbul provincial branch. This was called “innovativeness,” and standing across from them were the “traditionalists.” We could define the overall approach of the traditionalists—meaning Erbakan and the elderly members—as “doing politics that are limited to the mosque congregation.” They wanted to get the votes of people who considered themselves religious, to draw in votes from other right-wing parties, and they largely thought this was enough for them. But the WP and the innovators thought this would not suffice on its own; they needed to open up to a larger audience, and so they employed a brand-new strategy.

This was actually Erdoğan’s greatest strategic success: reaching out to segments that were not similar to him, getting his message across and claiming that he could solve their problems. People who previously did not get a knock on their doors during the NSP era because “they wouldn’t vote for us anyway; they’re scared of us, they’re intimidated by us” were now having people knock on their door thanks to this new approach started by the Istanbul provincial branch of the WP.

I remember it very well; back when I was single and living in Cihangir, in Istanbul, a friend and I shared a house. One day, there was a knock on the door—this must have been the local elections of 1989, and a young man and woman were campaigning on behalf of the Welfare Party. The candidate for the Beyoğlu Mayor was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and they were handing out some brochures for propaganda. The woman was not wearing a headscarf; the man wasn’t dressed in what could be called overtly Islamist fashion. These people could have easily come on behalf of the Republican People’s Party—or the Motherland Party or the True Path Party, which were active at the time. It was inevitably surprising.
Step by step, this became more prevalent, and we saw much more extreme versions of the experience I had: They went into entertainment venues, taverns, even brothels to ask for votes. This approach allowed the WP to come out of its shell and reach the masses. The individual failures of the other parties, particularly those in the center—whether they were center-right or center-left—further fueled this approach. In other words, voters who were angry with the center saw the innovators of the WP as an alternative, and there was a gradual shift in votes. The first striking example of this was the 1994 local elections, when the WP won in both Istanbul and Ankara. Of course, votes weren’t in the 40-50 percent range, but they took advantage of the divide amongst other centrist parties to achieve vote percentages that the MSP couldn’t even dream of under normal circumstances.

This story continued turbulently within the Welfare Party, yet after the Justice and Development Party was founded, this approach was placed before everything else—the approach of reaching out to those who were different. At the time of its founding, the Justice and Development Party had already wanted to incorporate certain figures from the National Vision movement into the party. Some joined, while others backed out at the last minute—and one of those people who backed out at the last minute was Meral Akşener. There were those who came from the center right, or people who had not entered into politics until that point—people who had more of a technocratic leaning. Later, when the party came into power on its own after all the other parties unexpectedly collapsed, this trend of reaching out to others continued.

This trend continued through different means: One way was to incorporate other figures into the party, so there were people coming in who had roots in the Republican People's Party, people coming in from the left, various Alevi figures as well as those who chose not to hide but embrace their Kurdish identities. Perhaps there weren’t that many of them, but these were the figures who were showcased. And then, of course, there were certain initiatives aimed at segments of society who were different, who were presumed to fear the party: like the Kurdish initiative, the Alevi initiative, the Romani initiative… As you know, none of these could be completed. All of them were abandoned. But these initiatives, along with, of course, the EU’s integration process, relations with the U.S., all of these—even the great relations with Israel in the early years—the basic strategy here was to assume that the Justice and Development Party’s traditional voter base was already devoted to the party; therefore, the party needed to reach out to different segments, to convince them, to promise them certain things, to give them certain things, and to receive certain things from them—essentially, they chose to follow a path that should be a part of democracies.

Certain personnel were mobilized for the cause, which was met with quite serious resistance from those who formerly possessed the old system. And, of course, the party thought its own voter base would not be enough to combat the old owners of the system, so it worked to incorporate people who were different from them as much as possible.

Some considered this mobilization to be genuine and lent their support, while others didn’t find it to be genuine yet still supported it as “the lesser evil.” Others still lent support thinking that it would help them take over the Justice and Development Party. This did happen, and here, the most basic strategy was to rally around a specific theme—what Tanıl Bora calls the “ideological backbone”—to maintain this ideological backbone while building a mass political party on top. 

And in order to build this mass party, the chosen discourse and program was one of a party that was eligible to receive everyone’s vote. Of course, in order for this to happen, they needed to ensure that things didn’t go wrong with the economy. They largely adhered to the economic program inherited from Kemal Derviş, and since there was no conflict with the West, this was another mitigating factor. 

Of course, another aspect is foreign policy, which was once largely successful and summarized as “zero problem with neighbors.” In other words, it was a foreign policy approach that highlighted diplomacy. For a long time, Turkey’s relations with all its neighbors—including Armenia—weren’t bad at all; they were rather calm. There were very few, if any, military interventions or military threats at the time. In a sense, the perspective was one of “Peace at home, peace in the world.” 

Whether you find it genuine or not, the Justice and Development Party reached out to the segment that was different from them, people who feared or were skeptical of the party—not with an approach of “I’ll do whatever I want, regardless of what they think” but by caring about these skepticisms and working to overcome them. This was the secret to their success, to their consecutive wins in elections. Of course, the Fetullahists also contributed to the neutralization of the system’s former representatives. Although that alliance played a crucial role, the other powers who were neither Fethullahists nor Justice and Development Party supporters were still a determining factor at that time.
But this is no longer the case, and the images of the Hagia Sophia from today indicate that. After more than 30 years, Erdoğan is returning to his starting point, both gravitating towards and settling for his own voter base. Instead of drawing support from his own base to convince the opposition, he has been threatening and intimidating them. And he has, of course, reached this point by using the government’s means as well as judiciary means to the full extent, by thoroughly limiting the range of freedoms for those who are unlike him, by overtaking the media, by exercising vast authority over social media, and by amplifying these efforts through new laws and draft bills. In other words, his approach has been one of disregarding and alienating the other, of having problems with the opposition…

Erdoğan has always said, “We don’t have a problem with anyone’s lifestyle.” He still says this, but we see that he does have a problem. We most recently saw this with the Istanbul Convention issue—all the while, the Convention, which is grounded in the protection of women, is something that draws support from his traditional voter base, particularly amongst women who know about it. 

This is actually an indication of how this approach gives rise to new approaches of its own. I would specifically like to highlight that, as a party that rose to power thanks to its own voter base, the more the Justice and Development Party was able to reach different segments and draw their support, the more close-knit its traditional voter base and supporters became. In other words, the more the Justice and Development Party grew through new members and channels of support, the more the party’s presumably traditional voter base embraced Erdoğan and the party’s leaders.

As you know, the word “consolidation” is frequently mentioned, particularly in the context of polarization. It is the idea of attacking the opposition to strengthen your own voter base. This is a rather popular formula, but based on my observations, I think it’s wrong. The better Erdoğan is able to form a dialogue with those who are dissimilar to him, the more he is able to get them to listen to him, the more his own voter base protects him and consolidates around him. However, when Erdoğan is fighting with the opposition and constantly embroiled in provocation, when he is constantly ranting and raving about the discourse on the survival of the state, this polarizing policy doesn’t really result in his own voter base consolidating around him or embracing him more.

I don’t believe this is a rather viable formula. Because at least the dynamic segments of his voter base—and of course there are extremely pure and uncompromising Islamists amongst that base, people who don’t care about others in any way—but I believe that a significant segment within the voter base has the perspective of living together. I also believe that, the more pluralistic the perspective adopted by their own party or the politician they admire and support, the more appreciative this segment is, and the more influence they have.

So, it’s certain that a segment of the voter base is excited by topics such as the Istanbul Convention and the Hagia Sophia, but these issues also force another segment to do some serious questioning because these are the people who believe in and champion the idea that Turkey’s fate is to live together in peace. There are already very serious issues externally, certain problems with just about every neighboring country. Greece most recently joined the list. Internally, it’s been a long time since we abandoned policies and initiatives aimed at pluralism, problem-solving, as well as protecting the rights and looking after the demands of minorities who are experiencing problems. Whether it’s the Kurds, the Alevis, the Romanis, etc., it’s been a long time. What’s more, there are plans in the works geared towards women, steps that would roll back the progress women have made. Here, we see certain committees being formed—and I believe these committees are comprised of recognizable figures in Turkey who are out of touch with the era, whom the Justice and Development Party’s voter base no longer really cares about—and the reports published by these committees are aimed at taking away women’s rights, etc.

Yes, Erdoğan’s biggest mistake was in abandoning his strategy—whether genuine or not—of reaching out to segments that were different from his in an effort to win them over. And I think it’s been quite a long while since that happened—the Gezi Protests might have been a milestone, or the June 2015 elections; there could be differing views on the particular date of inception. By abandoning this strategy, he made a grave error, and he is busy paying the price for this mistake—yet, at the same time, he is busy having all of Turkey pay the price for this mistake. Similarly, I think this mistake is quite seriously corroding his own voter base as well as the pack of party insiders surrounding him. You see, certain extraneous people were sent invitations for the opening of the Hagia Sophia today. Yet there are rumors that figures such as Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan did not receive invitations—and we’re talking about the Hagia Sophia and Ahmet Davutoğlu… If those arguments had not happened, Ahmet Davutoğlu would perhaps be the person to pray next to Erdoğan and even read an excerpt from the Quran. So, that’s the situation. Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan abandoning the party was not an individual split; it happened alongside a mass split, and is one that is susceptible to continue. As long as Erdoğan keeps up this policy of disregarding and demonizing the other, as long as he insists on this strategic mistake—and it looks as though there’s no turning back—it appears that it will lead to quite a significant abandonment by people from his own voter base.

Yes, that is all I have to say. Have a good day.

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