For many years, the headscarf was banned in the civil service, parliament, and, for a while, universities. Women who covered their heads had a hard time finding jobs. The AKP became popular in part because it managed to overturn the ban on headscarves and allowed the pious part of the population for the first time in the Republic to become wealthy and powerful.
However, these days Erdogan is losing popularity. The new generations know nothing of the previous neglect and see only the pressure from above to be loyal to the AKP or else, to be Muslim in one way only. The youth only remember the AKP’s oppression. They are tired of the government using Islam to support its policies and actions, which people can see very clearly are corrupt and enriching only the people close to Erdogan. Young people cannot find jobs unless they are in the AKP circles.
Polls show a trend that is still small but that worries the government that young people are rejecting Islam altogether in favor of deism, that is, they believe in God, but are not interested in any organized religion. Almost two thirds of Turkey’s young people want to move abroad, including many young people who support the AKP. Islam cannot solve Turkey’s stark economic decline, unemployment and ecological destruction. Turkey has a very young population and if they choose to vote, that will likely move the dial away from the AKP.
The burning question is whether Erdogan will leave power if he loses the next presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023 or if he will try to fix the election, as he has before. And if that doesn’t succeed and he is voted out as president, it’s not clear what he or his supporters will do. It’s possible that he will call his supporters to the streets, as he did after the failed 2016 coup attempt, arm them, and set them loose to fight his vaguely defined “enemies.” A civil war is not beyond imagining. Erdogan commented once that he believes the “real” Turkey consists of 50 million people and the other 30 million are the “enemy within” (reference in Selim Koru 2020, “Erdogan’s Turkey and the Problem of the 30 Million,” June 4, Spyer).
The rift in Turkish society has less to do with Islam (after all, the biggest rift is between the Sunni AKP and the Sunni Gulen movement) and more to do with the unwillingness of any actor to share power. Elections are a zero-sum game. Traditionally, whoever wins oppresses those who didn’t vote for them.
Current polls show that Erdogan will likely lose the vote for the presidency, but his AKP party will still dominate parliament. In that case (and assuming that Erdogan actually vacates the presidency), parliament will try to block every move by an opposition president. It will close the Kurdish HDP, repress the main opposition CHP and manipulate election laws regarding thresholds and alliance regulations to secure its parliamentary majority. It will do everything it can to undermine the unity of the opposition.
The opposition likely will be blocked from implementing any plans for reform. Political relations are based on loyalty and vengeance. People are afraid that if Erdogan goes, someone will do to them what was done under his watch. Even if he wins the 2023 election, Erdogan will not be able to keep power without further repression.
If the opposition wins the presidency and/or parliament, it’s an open question as to whether anything major will change, at least not within the coming year. The opposition consists of a coalition of six parties who will pool their votes for the presidential election. One of these parties, IYI, is an ultranationalist party whose leader just a couple of days ago referred to Syrian refugees in Turkey as human trash and promised to remove them. She also said that her party would not sit at the same table with the HDP (Kurdish party).
The main opposition CHP is slightly more moderate, but also nationalist, and nationalist positions are always guaranteed to please the populace and draw their attention away from a failing economy. So it’s unlikely that there will be any major changes in foreign policy or lessening of internal polarization. The opposition parties, like the AKP, are suspicious of the West, belligerent towards Greece, and want the Syrians gone. Where there might be a change is in economic policy since some of the participants in the opposition coalition are economists and might actually know what they are doing, unlike Erdogan’s voodoo economics. However, the economy is now so broken that it’s unlikely there will be any major improvement in the coming year.
Will there even be an election? If the AKP government finds itself in a hot conflict, say with Greece and its ally, France, in the Aegean, or with Russia and/or the US in Syria, this might be grounds for canceling the election and declaring a state of emergency. In that case, the current conditions will continue, but on steroids: enormous economic distress and repression of rights for most of the population, corruption and wealth for those aligned with the AKP, and, to keep people’s minds off their problems, continued warmongering and posturing on the international stage as anti-West strongman defending Turkey against the enemy.
Jenny White, Stockholm University, Institute for Turkish Studies, expert in political Islam and Turkey.
* This opinion piece is part of an in-depth look by 10 analysts, journalists and experts into Turkey ahead of the June 2023 elections: Where will Turkey be a year from now?