The Erdogan Enigma
I nominate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, as the most inconsistent, mysterious and therefore most unpredictable major politician on the world stage. His victory in a referendum last Sunday formally bestowed him with near-dictatorial powers — which leaves Turkey, the Middle East, and beyond in a greater state of uncertainty than ever.
Here are some of the puzzles:
Mystery #1: Holding the referendum. The Turkish electorate voted on April 16 in a remarkable national plebiscite that dealt not with the usual topics — floating a bond or recalling a politician — but with fundamental constitutional changes affecting the very nature of their government: Should the country continue with the flawed democracy of the past 65 years, or centralize political power in the presidency? Under the new system, the position of prime minister would essentially disappear, and the president would hold vast power over the parliament, the judiciary, the budget and the military.
Turks generally saw the 18 proposed changes to the constitution as a momentous decision. Famed novelist Elif Şafak spoke for most Turks when she wrote that Turkey’s referendum “could alter the country’s destiny for generations to come.” After the referendum passed, some of those opposed to it cried in the streets. “Turkey as we know it is over; it is history” wrote Yavuz Baydar, a journalist. Defense & Foreign Affairs assessed the referendum as perhaps “the most significant and transformative change in Eurasia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa since the collapse of the USSR in 1990-91.”
But there’s a catch: for years Erdogan has held the powers the referendum supposedly gave him. He is the boss in Turkey, who can bend the country to his wishes. Anyone — cartoonist, cafeteria manager or Canadian — accused of “insulting the president” can be fined or jailed. A former prime minister or president who dares disagree with Erdogan vanishes from public life. He alone makes war or peace. What Erdogan wants, he gets, regardless of constitutional niceties.
Erdogan’s fixation on officially imbuing the office of the presidency with the vast powers he already had in practice prompted him to steal an election, fire a prime minister, start a near-civil war with the Kurds and provoke a crisis with Europe. Why did he bother with all this for a mere superfluity?
Mystery #2: The referendum results. Erdogan brought enormous pressure to bear for a momentous victory in the referendum. He made full use of his control of most of the media. Mosques were mobilized. In the words of one international organization, in several cases “No” supporters “faced police interventions while campaigning; a number were also arrested on charges of insulting the president or organizing unlawful public events.” Opponents also lost their jobs, met with media boycotts, faced electricity outages and got beaten up. A week before the referendum, Erdogan even announced that the “No” voters risk their afterlife. Then, according to a Swedish NGO, “widespread and systematic election fraud, violent incidents and scandalous steps taken by” the election board “overshadowed the voting.”
Despite this, the referendum passed by a perplexingly meager 51.4 to 48.6 percent. Were it fairly conducted, why would Erdogan take the chance of losing, thereby diminishing his stature and reducing his sway? If the referendum was fixed — entirely possible, given his party’s record — why was the affirmative vote so low, and not a more imposing 60, 80, or — why not — 99 percent? The unimpressive 51.4 percent majority virtually invited opposition parties, supported by the European Union and others, to challenge the legitimacy of the referendum, raising awkward questions that Erdoğan surely preferred not discussed.
Mystery #3: Gülen: Erdogan wantonly ended a key alliance with fellow-Islamist Fethullah Gulen, transforming a stalwart ally into a determined domestic opponent who challenged Erdogan’s primacy and revealed the Turkish leader’s corruption.
In his political war with Gulen — an elderly Muslim cleric living in the Poconos of rural Pennsylvania — Erdogan implausibly claimed that Gulen’s movement had planned and led an alleged coup attempt in July 2016; then he cracked down on Gulen’s followers and anyone else who met with his displeasure, leading to 47,000 arrests, 113,000 detainments, 135,000 firings or suspensions from jobs, and many, many more victims who were forced to enter the shadows of “social death.” Erdogan then went further, demanding that Washington extradite Gulen to Turkey and threatening a rupture if he did not get his way: “Sooner or later the US will make a choice. Either Turkey or [Gulen].”
Why did Erdogan pick a fight with Gulen, creating turmoil within Turkish Islamist ranks and jeopardizing relations with the United States?
Mystery #4: Semantic purism. The European Union reluctantly agreed to visa-free travel for 75 million Turks, given them permission to enter its huge Schengen Zone, a benefit that would potentially allow Erdogan to push out unwanted Kurds and Syrian refugees,and increase his influence in countries like Germany and the Netherlands. But the EU made this access contingent on narrowing Turkey’s vaguely worded anti-terrorism laws; it demanded “revising the legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards.” Erdogan could have made this meaningless concession and arrested anyone he wanted on other charges, but he refused to do so (“It’s impossible to revise the legislation and practices on terrorism,” intoned one of his ministers), and forewent an extraordinary opportunity.
Mystery #5: Canny or megalomaniacal. Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, and for eight years, he governed cautiously, overseeing remarkable economic growth, mollifying the military leadership that held the country’s ultimate power and successfully pursuing a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” In contrast to the hapless Mohammed Morsi, who lasted just a year as president of Egypt, Erdogan timed his moves with such deftness that, for example, hardly anyone noticed in July 2011 when he subdued the military.
That was then. Since 2011, however, Erdogan repeatedly has fomented his own problems. He gratuitously turned Syria’s Bashar Assad from his favorite foreign leader (the two and their wives once even vacationed together) into a mortal enemy. He shot down a Russian fighter plane, then abjectly had to apologize. He lost out on a pipeline transporting eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.
He illegally built himself — on protected land — an absurdly large palace, the largest in the world since Nicolae Ceausescu’s disastrous People’s Palace in Bucharest. In a particularly ignoble farce, Erdogan showed up at the funeral of American boxer Muhammad Ali to give a speech, deliver presents and have his picture taken with family members, only to be rejected in all these requests. He was forced to slink back home.
And he makes enemies everywhere he goes. In Ecuador, Erdogan’s bodyguards handcuffed three pro-Kurdish Ecuadorian women and roughed up a parliamentarian who tried to protect them. When asked about this incident, the deputy speaker of Ecuador’s legislature replied, “Until Erdogan’s bodyguards assaulted a deputy, our public was not aware of Turkey. Nobody knew who was a Turk or a Kurd. Now everybody knows and naturally we are on the side of the Kurds. We don’t want to see Erdogan in our country again.”
What happened to the cunning leader of a decade back?
Erdogan’s Islamist supporters sometimes suggest that he’s on his way to declaring himself caliph. As the hundredth anniversary of the Istanbul-based caliphate’s abolition approaches, he may find this tempting; depending on whether he uses the Islamic or Christian calendar, that could happen, respectively, on either March 10, 2021, or March 4, 2024. You heard it here first.
Sadly, Western responses to Erdogan have been confused and weak-kneed. Angela Merkel agreed to haul comedian Jan Bohmermann into court for ridiculing Erdogan. Donald Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on his tyrannic victory, and rewarded him with a meeting next month.
It’s time to see Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the dictatorial, Islamist anti-Western egomaniac he is, and to protect his neighbors and ourselves from the damage he is already causing and the greater problems to come. Removing US nuclear weapons from the Incirlik air base would be one step in the right direction; even better would be to put Ankara on notice that its active NATO membership is in jeopardy, pending a dramatic turnaround in behavior.