Turkey's Erdogan faces political threat at home

Feb 18, 2016, 9:53 AM EST
President Erdogan and his wife on a state visit to Peru, 2016
Source: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores(Peru)/flickr

What with an air campaign against Syrian Kurds, launched Thursday following a bombing in the Turkish capital Ankara, and an intensifying spat with Russia, President Recep Erdogan is busy. Yet even as international tensions rise, the Turkish leader can’t avoid political developments at home, where a long-hoped for constitutional project looks to be derailing.

On Tuesday, two opposition parties withdrew from a commission designed to draft a new constitution that would, Erdogan hopes, expand the powers of the presidential office. The project has been years in the making, gathering steam in 2011 as Erdogan, who served as Turkey’s prime minister for eleven years, saw the end of his premiership approaching. With no way to modify term limits, in 2014 Erdogan engineered a smooth transition to president (a largely ceremonial office) with Ahmet Davutoglu in his former post. Note that it’s Erdogan who largely remains in the driver seat – and the front pages -- not his prime ministerial successor.

Now, he is looking to cement his unofficial, and largely uncontested, authority in Ankara via a constitutional overhaul. Blouin News reported on this ambition back in 2014, noting that Kurdish support would be key to pushing any reforms through. Now, with peace efforts with the Kurds on indefinate hiatus (to say the least), it’s Turkey’s main opposition parties who are standing in Erdogan’s way: the Republican People’s Party (CHP) withdrawal and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Analysts note that the two parties fear Erdogan and his ruling AKP party are “too authoritarian” already – indeed, the president has done little to dispel that image, both in domestic and foreign affairs. (See: Is Erdogan his own worst enemy?) But complicating the opposition's efforts is Western support for Erdogan’s constitution project, at least in part. (The “part” being increased emphasis on human rights and democratic institutions.) Not to mention Erdogan’s Teflon-esque abilities to bounce back after controversy. Remember, the president survived a wave of nationwide anti-government protests, a dramatic dip in his ruling AKP party’s popularity, a corruption scandal, and a highly publicized battle with former ally and influential cleric Fethullah Gulen – all this in a mere three years. Similarly, AKP lost its majority in a June vote, but rebounded in a snap poll with nearly 50% of votes.

Granted, Erdogan needs the support of some 50 opposition lawmakers to directly enact changes to the Turkish constitution (or 14 to bring the issue to a national referendum). But, as Bloomberg notes, "the [constitutional] panel’s failure after just three meetings opens the way for the ruling AK Party [...] to submit its own draft charter." Add to that Erdogan's recent grandstanding on the global stage, which has historically played well at home, and Turkey’s strategic value to the West amidst the Syria crisis, and the question remains, not if the president can push through reforms and expand his own powers in the process, but when. Opposition be damned.