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paul taylor is a contributing editor of POLITICO.
PARIS — After collapsing the Turkish economy and impoverishing the middle class he himself had enriched, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now dragging his country into an unnecessary war and rigging the courts against his rivals.
It is a ruthless push by Erdoğan to cling to power in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, and let us hope it fails.
Turkey’s presidential election, due to take place on June 23, is arguably the most important, though by no means the fairest, in the world this year. It will determine whether this nation of 85 million citizens, at the hinge of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, will continue to speed down the path of being an authoritarian and expansionist power, or choose a more liberal and pluralistic path.
For the first time since Erdoğan’s conservative, Islamist-tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, there is a serious prospect of political change. Inflation is over 80 percent a year, the Turkish lira has tumbled against the dollar and the government’s popularity has plummeted as economic difficulties mount.
According to polls, Erdoğan — who has ruled with an increasingly autocratic hand after amending the constitution to create a bespoke presidential system — is in deep political trouble, with the AKP receiving just 30 percent support.
Of course, their response has been characteristically brutal on both the domestic and international fronts.
Despite opposition from both Washington and Moscow, Erdogan has heralded preparations to send tanks into Syria, seeking to dislodge Kurdish militias allied with the West in the fight against Islamic State militants but seen by Ankara as linked to outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas. He seems intent on completing a buffer zone across Turkey’s southern border.
Meanwhile, the Turkish president is also threatening to attack NATO ally Greece, amid fabricated disputes over gas extraction, Cyprus and the alleged “militarization” of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, though the international economic and political cost of any such action makes it very unlikely.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Erdogan has positioned Turkey as the indispensable mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, helping broker offers and organizing talks between US and Russian security chiefs. He, too, managed to support Ukraine, including through the sale of military drones, while maintaining trade and energy ties with Russia and without jeopardizing his personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin or drawing the ire of the West.
Meanwhile, at home, the Turkish president has used a justice system that is not noted for its independence to try to disqualify his most powerful potential rivals.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, a popular figure of the secular center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), who could be a unifying opposition presidential candidate, has just been sentenced to more than two years in prison and disqualification from public office for “insulting public officials.” For now, the ruling is suspended pending appeals, but Erdoğan may try to speed up the court process, so his rival cannot run.
In addition, more than 100 politicians from the main pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) remain on trial for alleged terrorism offences, which could lead to the movement being outlawed. The HDP is not part of the six-party opposition alliance, which is putting together a common electoral platform, ranging from the social democratic left to the liberal center-right. However, he could emerge as the kingmaker if, as polls suggest, neither the AKP nor the opposition win a majority in parliament.
Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul, was subjected to similar judicial harassment before the AKP triumphed in 2002. Sentenced to a year in prison for reading an allegedly Islamist poem, he was barred from running for office and made to wait before converting. in prime minister.
However, it remains to be seen how far this formidable activist is willing to go this time in terms of actual military action to play the nationalist card in his re-election fight.
In 20 years, Erdogan has gone from a “no problem with neighbors” policy to open or simmering conflict with Syria, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Armenia. In recent months, however, it has begun to reach out to a number of these adversaries, partly because the failure of the Turkish-backed Arab Spring uprisings has forced it to adjust its foreign policy, but also because it is in desperate need of Arab capital and Western power to prop up the economy, wrecked by its reckless policy of keeping interest rates low.
While public opinion is strongly nationalist in Turkey, a ground incursion into Syria that triggered a US or Russian reaction, forcing Ankara to back down, could backfire on him, as could his crude use of the judiciary to stop side to the opposition. On the other hand, a limited cross-border operation with few Turkish casualties might actually be palatable to voters, in the same way that Israel’s regular attacks on Gaza in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks by Hamas are seen as police operations rather than wars.
The next few months will be filled with martial gestures, not least to mark the 100th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s founding of a modern secular republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan will want to project Turkey’s restored influence into a multipolar world where middle powers can wield more influence, as the US and Russia are less willing or able to act as global policemen. But after the interventions in Libya and in support of Azerbaijan against Armenia, it may not come to a ground attack in Syria, if the major powers continue to warn it.
Unfortunately, the European Union is likely to be a bystander rather than a force for moderation or change. The bloc is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, but it has lost influence in Ankara as the long-stalled EU accession process is moribund, and Brussels has to regularly bribe Turkey with assistance to keep nearly 4 million Syrian refugees on their soil instead of letting them flood Greece.
No doubt the West would be relieved to see Erdoğan’s back. But governments are hedging his bets, keeping open lines of communication with the Bosporus strongman and offering depressingly little public aid to the opposition, even as they silently pray for a more moderate, pro-Western Turkey in June.