“Just two more sleeps,” Turkish parents, or the non-lobotomised among them at least, can reassure their children this weekend. “Just two more sleeps and it’s done with.”
Two decades of a curious brand of Islamofascism combined with breathtaking economic incompetence and cartoon villainy will reach an ignominious conclusion on Sunday night/Monday morning (May 14/15) when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is booted out of office. His grip on power, once iron, is now filipendulous. No truth and reconciliation commission will allow his crimes to go unpunished. All dictators project invincibility until their last five minutes and Turkey’s Sultan Redux will prove no different. The DNA of authoritarianism carries within it the gene for guaranteeing its own destruction. Erdogan’s inability (or refusal) to establish a credible successor within the AKP rendered him fatally susceptible to the humiliating electoral defeat his leadership inevitably produced.
I’ve rewritten this eve-of-election piece three times this week as each time I put the finishing touches to it, political developments invalidated what I typed. The frontlines of this presidential and parliamentary poll are dynamic. Turkey is a psephologist’s fever dream and the political landscape is more complex and variegated than any other I have encountered in three decades covering Emerging Markets. Its parties are divided by religion, nationalism, ethnicity, history, values, economic ideologies and, of course, personalities. Simply put, there are more inputs into Turkey’s ballot box equation.
“Knife-edge” and “neck-and-neck” have been the clichés du jour to describe how the election is poised but, in the finishing straight, it now appears that Kemal Kilicdaroglu has built up unstoppable momentum. This may carry him to a first-round victory this Sunday. The culmination of Muharrem Ince’s campaign, oscillating narrowly between the comical and the chaotic, was, at the margin, beneficial for Kilicdaroglu.
For 20 years Erdogan’s political genius for manipulating idiots has sustained him in power but the aggregation of voter dissatisfactions has generated a faecal tide too high for him to stem. The succession of last-minute vote-buying lollipops offered to the electorate will sway too few voters for him to overcome accumulated resentments. Expect ballot box manipulation and vote-counting shenanigans on behalf of the AKP, all part of the autocrat’s playbook, but these were not enough to change the result of the Istanbul mayoral elections in their favour in 2019.
Cheating will take place and opinion is divided as to whether Erdogan accepts defeat or not. Enough Turks insist, though, the democratic traditions are strong enough to withstand another inevitable assault from the man who has driven wedges into Turkey’s fissiparous society and polarised it successfully for his own benefit. Not many believe Erdogan could coerce the army into facilitating autogolpe.
For the Table of Six opposition bloc, winning the election on Sunday (or in a second round on May 28) may prove easier than winning the peace afterwards. The challenge of rebuilding Turkey’s economy and re-establishing institutions cowed into submission by Erdogan would challenge the most ideologically unified and disciplined party, let alone a coalition that can only agree on one thing: removing Erdogan from office. The hedgehog focused on one big thing must shapeshift damned fast into the fox knowing many small things. Kilicdaroglu’s painstakingly assembled alliance are lovers sharing the same bed for one night only but with very different dreams.
Table of Six share banquet of consequences
What lies ahead?
Once the moment of victorious exultation has passed for Turkey’s opposition and Erdogan has made his midnight flit to Qatar, Kilicdaroglu will be confronted by the enormity of the task before him. A period of national oblivescence may be desirable but it’s not available. The Table of Six might have agreed a two year economic rehabilitation programme and the appointment of Ali Babacan as Finance Minister will reassure markets, but restoring public finances will take many years and maintaining unity will be almost impossible. While Kilicdaroglu is Erdogan’s sworn enemy, he’s a populist at heart and agreed to match many of Erdogan’s spending commitments including Pensioner Bonus (TRY 200bn ($10.2bn)) and early retirement (TRY 250bn).
The epithet most commonly attached to Erdogan’s economic and monetary policies is “unorthodox” when what is meant is “crap”. The artificial repression of interest rates will clearly change but does Babacan have the stomach and the backing to raise them to the mid-forties to match ‘official’ inflation? Banks have huge portfolios of low-yielding government paper that will take big hits when marked to market and this poses systemic risks. Persuading investors to hold lira assets will require an acknowledgement that real inflation is most likely ~100% and a monetary policy addressing that somehow.
A new government will also inherit the terrifying liability of the $104bn of FX-protected lira deposits. Any sudden currency shock will blow that liability out and since Erdogan’s central bankers have been propping up and overvaluing the lira, a sudden cessation of currency manipulation should prompt an immediate 15% drop in USDTRY. The central bank reserves are majorly negative and they simply cannot support a greater dollarisation of the economy. All these assumptions also presuppose that what Erdogan’s ministries and bankers claim about public finances is true. Since they lie like they breathe, I suspect there’s a roomy wardrobe somewhere containing a whole legion of skeletons.
The worry is, naturally, the execution risk on delivering economic recovery for Turkey where longstanding imbalances persist, the current account runs at $5bn a month and constraints on the new administration threaten to asphyxiate it at birth. The economic medicine may be so bitter to swallow that Table of Six unity crumbles under pressure. The nightmare scenario is one in which the AKP performs well in local elections in early 2024, then, having been flushed down the U-bend of history, Erdogan somehow reappears bobbing up and down in the toilet bowl again.
What the choice boils down to
Mesdames et messieurs, faites vos jeux, place your bets. Many observers, your correspondent included, did not much fancy Kilicdaroglu’s chances of beating Erdogan a few months back but he looks as though he may prove us wrong. He brought up the price of onions on the hustings this week. Erdogan launched a warship in response. What use is the latter if you can’t afford the former?
The sun sets on Erdo
On Sunday evening then, the sun will set on Mount Ararat, the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, the Bay of Izmir, the shores of the Bosphorus, the palace of Aksaray and, God willing as he would say, Erdogan’s brutal, incompetent regime.
Gule Gule, Tayo.