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Erdoğan’s Opponents Face Increased Pressure as Turkish President’s Popularity Declines

Physical fights broke out in Turkey’s parliament last week amid what the opposition and analysts say is a trend of increased aggression as the Turkish president’s popularity declines.

Polls have suggested that opposition parties are gaining ground against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose critics accuse him of helping create a currency crisis with his unorthodox economic policies, including a refusal to increase interest rates amid rising inflation.

There is widespread speculation that Erdoğan could call an election before the scheduled 2023 date, although he has denied this.

The US representative of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Yurter Özcan, told The Media Line that while there has always been aggression towards his party, he said the aggression has intensified.

“I think they’re concerned that we’ve been making a lot of headway and making a lot of strides with the youth, with the Kurds and with some of the conservatives in the country,” he said.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been credited with taking a more proactive approach and helping form an alliance of parties from diverse ideological backgrounds that could be a strong contender to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the next election.

“We have the upper hand in terms of defining the agenda, defining the political debate in the country. We are making the plays and the AKP has become defensive,” said Özcan.

In late November, Metin Gürcan, a co-founder of the Democracy and Progress Party, a splinter party from Erdoğan’s AKP, was detained and later arrested, a more serious legal status in Turkey.

A week later, a top government official accused the leader of the CHP of being connected to criminal groups after he tried to enter the national statistics office over accusations that inflation was being underreported.

Critical voices outside the government and political parties have also faced pressure.

Local outlets reported on Monday that prosecutors are seeking up to 12 years in prison for retired admirals who issued a joint statement about the importance of a maritime agreement, which some saw as criticism of the government’s plan to build a canal in Istanbul.

Two journalists were also reportedly indicted this week after their news website reported about allegations of corruption by Erdoğan’s former lawyer.

Accusations of criminal activity against critical voices and opposition parties have been the reality in Turkey for years.

Hundreds of thousands of people were fired or suspended from their jobs following the failed 2016 coup attempt while some media organizations were shut down and opposition politicians jailed.

The Turkish government said this was necessary to ensure public safety and stability after a deadly putsch while Erdoğan’s critics have accused him of using the failed coup to centralize power.

Opposition parties say restoring independence and decentralizing power away from the president’s role is a key part of their talks over how to co-operate.

A survey this week by pollsters Metropoll showed that Erdoğan’s coalition could be beaten if enough opposition parties form an alliance in the next election.

“[Erdoğan’s] not confident about the results of the upcoming elections,” said Hüseyin Konuş, a former Turkish diplomat, who is now a director with the Institute for Diplomacy and Economy, which focuses on Turkey’s foreign policy and economy.

“As long as this decrease in his support goes, I think he will harshen his rhetoric and embrace a more aggressive rhetoric and also approach to critical voices, mainly to opposition parties.”

Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow focused on Turkey at the Washington Institute, believes the increased pressure could mean a snap election is on the horizon.

Erdoğan may be “re-embracing a narrative of victimization which has helped him so much in the past. He has cast himself as the underdog, at times the authoritarian underdog who is under attack and is therefore justified to take down his opponents before they undermine him,” Cagaptay told The Media Line.

However, he argued the economy would be the deciding factor in the election.

Turkey’s lira has lost about 45% of its value this year, hitting record lows against the US dollar.

The ensuing inflation has led to increasing food prices and long lines for cheaper bread.

The Turkish president has insisted rising costs have been due to factors outside his government and the increase would soon stop.

“We are aiming for lasting prosperity, lasting stability. The prices we pay will be justified by the gains we make,” Erdoğan said, the Reuters news agency reported.

A struggling economy has already come at a political cost to Erdoğan.

The lira faced an earlier meltdown in 2018 when the US put sanctions on its NATO ally for its detention of an American pastor.

The currency crisis was partly blamed for Erdoğan’s party losing the 2019 local elections in Istanbul and the capital Ankara, the president’s greatest political defeat since coming to power.

“Short of robust and sustained economic growth … nothing will restore his base,” Cagaptay said.