ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week raised the pressure on the opposition with veiled threats of clashes in the streets in response to protests against his rule.
Facing elections at some point in the next 18 months, coupled with the worst economic crisis of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is looking to neutralize the threat from an opposition that seems well-positioned to challenge him, according to analysts.
“Supposedly they’ll take to the streets without any shame,” Erdogan said in a televised speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara on Tuesday.
Referring to the 2016 coup attempt against him that saw his supporters confront rogue military elements and led to more than 250 deaths, he added, “Wherever you take to, this nation will teach you a lesson just like it gave a lesson to those who took to the streets on July 15.”
His remarks led Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), to accuse Erdogan of calling for civil war.
This week’s announcement of 36.1% inflation — although independent economists say it could be as high as 83% — has illustrated Turkey’s economic problems. The lira lost 44% of its value against the US dollar last year while unemployment remains in double digits.
The crisis has seen protests in major cities and a dizzying carousel of sackings and fresh appointments at the Finance Ministry and central bank.
It is not just potential demonstrators that Erdogan and his allies are seeking to offset ahead of possible early elections.
The CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu has risen from obscurity to be considered a potential rival in the presidential race after he became Istanbul mayor in 2019.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the AKP’s alliance partner, on Tuesday called for Imamoglu to be removed from office if ties between municipal staff in Istanbul and terrorist groups are proved.
The Interior Ministry on Dec. 26 launched an investigation into more than 550 staff at the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality over alleged ties to a number of terrorist organizations.
The call echoes attacks on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is part of Turkey’s wider Kurdish movement and the third-largest party in parliament after the AKP and CHP.
The HDP has seen dozens of its elected mayors removed and replaced by government-appointed trustees over claims of links to terrorism since 2019. The party also faces a legal bid to close it down.
“The opposition parties have engaged strong coordination in their electoral alliance, which has survived, and that’s no small feat,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.
“They have done a good job of promoting this idea of transitioning to a strengthened parliamentary system and have engaged in extensive talks to put together a proposal. They have also done a good job in touring the country, challenging the government and trying to reach out to voters.”
Bahceli, who is often more vocal in attacking Erdogan’s possible rivals than the president himself, has also threatened another CHP politician spoken of as a viable challenger, CHP Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas.
Following a violent disturbance involving MHP members in November, Bahceli warned Yavas that “the breath of the Gray Wolves is now on his back.” The Gray Wolves is a far-right group linked to the MHP that is long associated with political violence and killings.
Both Yavas and Imamoglu have been polling favorably against Erdogan in recent months. A survey published by MetroPOLL this week showed they were the two most “likable” politicians in Turkey, with Erdogan relegated to fourth place.
“Yavas is 20 points ahead of Erdogan and Imamoglu 12 points ahead in the presidential race,” said Ozer Sencar, MetroPOLL’s founder and director. “Under these conditions, Imamoglu and Yavas are the presidential candidates who have a chance of winning.”
Meanwhile, prosecutors have also submitted papers to revoke the immunity of 28 opposition parliament members, most of them belonging to the HDP, broadcaster NTV reported on Tuesday.
Turkey has imprisoned several parliament members in recent years. The mostly HDP deputies have usually been jailed on terrorism charges related to historical speeches interpreted as supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU as well as Turkey.
Meanwhile, Erdogan seems to be weighing his timetable for the forthcoming elections.
“I suspect that in six months the economic situation will be much worse,” Esen said. “It’s in his interest to have early elections, but I don’t know if he has the support to win, which, to a rational politician, would mean no early elections."
He added, “He’s looking at opinion polls regularly, trying to find that most opportune moment for early elections. That could be in three months’ time, six months’ time or much later. It all depends on how the opinion polls show him doing.”