General Omar Bradley once said, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” And he wouldn’t have had the stellar career he had if he didn’t know what he was talking about.
The quest to come up with the best candidate to challenge Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey’s next presidential election has so far been mostly about strategy, i.e., sharply focused on electoral dynamics without giving much attention to anything else.
Two popular metropolitan mayors stood out as viable options. Yet they each had drawbacks. Ekrem İmamoğlu, a brilliant demagogue who in 2019 came out of nowhere to end Erdoğan’s decades-long municipal reign over İstanbul, was caught in the middle of a politically charged criminal prosecution that might see him banned from politics, while Mansur Yavaş, a former Grey Wolf nationalist in charge of the country’s capital, was deemed unlikely to attract the crucial Kurdish vote.
This left us with an obvious yet somewhat unpleasant choice: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the uncharismatic leader of the main opposition party who was ultimately nominated by the “table of six” after a brief difference of opinion among the six-party alliance.
From a strategy standpoint, Kılıçdaroğlu does have some promise, though. His roots in the eastern province of Dersim (officially named Tunceli) are expected to engender a certain affinity among Kurds. On top of that, the profiles of some of his alliance partners might serve as lightning rods to shield him against the ruling party’s potential accusations of being un-Islamic or unpatriotic.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s personal background as a kid who grew up in poverty as well as the apparent modesty of his current home, which has been the backdrop of several of his recent video messages, are well-positioned to draw sympathy from the ordinary citizen whose purchasing power has been in freefall, whereas the ruling elite have been doing very little to conceal their lavish lifestyles.
Plus, he has been developing his oratorical skills and doing a relatively better job of getting the verbal upper hand over Erdoğan on certain occasions, effectively leading the national debate and preventing him from changing the subject.
Finally, the government’s sluggish and chaotic response to the devastating earthquakes of February has been a damning indictment of Erdoğan’s sui generis executive presidential system and has arguably cost countless lives in a large region inhabited by some of his most loyal voters. As opposed to his nationalist alliance partner, Kılıçdaroğlu did not withhold criticism. He was fairly proactive and vocal in holding the incumbent president accountable, which might have contributed to his popularity.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of strategy, it’s time to go professional and talk some logistics.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: As much as we might want to see him gone, Erdoğan has absolutely nowhere to go. He has got in way too deep and has trampled on way too many to buy into an offer of peaceful retirement.
Granted, Turkey had military juntas in the last century that got away with wreaking havoc on the country, but they also took out bulletproof legal insurance by abolishing the existing constitutions and passing new ones, thereby resetting the clock. Erdoğan hasn’t. What he has done is to gradually encroach upon the judiciary and law enforcement over several years to ultimately turn them into an incredibly vindictive weapon for harassment, intimidation, abusive prosecution and mass incarceration. Other than him clinging to power, there is nothing that can categorically rule out the possibility of he and his inner circle ending up in the crosshairs of the very machinery they built.
Exile is not an option, either. Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, once one of Erdoğan’s favorites, famously pleaded guilty in New York federal court to defrauding the US as part of a sanctions-busting scheme that involved Turkey’s state lender Halkbank and possibly Erdoğan himself. The Turkish strongman’s ongoing status as head of state is possibly the only thing keeping US authorities from going directly after him. While exiling tyrants is a convenient way of ending their rule without creating vicious cycles of revenge, in Erdoğan’s case it might prove to be a bridge too far to find a country willing and able to harbor him against Ankara and Washington at the same time.
The New York case is not the only affair that might spell trouble for him since his regime has also been implicated in a number of allegations including cocaine trafficking with Latin America and war crimes in Turkish-occupied northern Syrian provinces.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Erdoğan’s empire. Despite his setbacks, he still has plenty of ammunition, including actual ammunition. He exercises unfettered control not only over civilian government agencies, the judiciary and the traditional media but also the intelligence, military, law enforcement and a Wagner-like private paramilitary network called SADAT.
While he seems to have failed to conquer social media, especially Twitter, which continues to be a bastion of dissent, he does hold the off-switch of the platform along with other social media and messaging apps whose bandwidths are all at the mercy of Erdoğan’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK). In the event that things start to get out of control, he theoretically has the power to shut down everything and impose a China-like blackout.
To sum up, we have on our hands an autocrat sitting on an extremely centralized state apparatus and a colossal financial network with no viable exit strategy, whose very survival is at stake in the upcoming elections.
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill and sour the optimistic mood around the nomination of Kılıçdaroğlu, who, against all odds, has shown adequate leadership and unified the diverse opposition factions. Yet I can think of no scenario in which taking down a well-entrenched strongman like Erdoğan can be a simple matter of election victory. Assuming we’re not misled by the atmosphere on Turkish Twitter, the chants in football stadiums and some polls showing Kılıçdaroğlu already well ahead of the incumbent, the logistical challenges of taking on Erdoğan will have to be addressed sooner or later.
*Ali Dinçer lives in Belgium and previously worked for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.