Not long ago, when events in Turkey were as unsettled as they are now, its military leaders would have stepped in, toppled the government and taken draconian control to restore order. But President Recip Tayyip Erdogan seems safe for now, having emasculated the military leadership after the failed coup last year, sacked much of the judiciary and bureaucracy, jailed opponents and perceived rivals, cowed the local media by locking up editors and journalists and currently imposing a local news blackout.
Indeed, never mind the rampant terrorism and the fault lines which are fracturing Turkey, he sees a long future ahead for himself. He wants to amend the constitution to get rid the Prime Minister’s position – one he held from 2003 to 2014 – and instead have executive powers invested in the presidency which he’s held since 2014. What’s more, there are legislative plans to amend the rules which would allow him to remain president until 2029. It just so happens that would match the 15-year reign of Kemal Ataturk as president.
For a leader who has shown shrewdness in consolidating power, he has been clumsy in exercising it. He allowed Daesh (so-called Islamic State) to come and go as they pleased because they were trying to undermine his nemesis in neighbouring Syria, Bashar al-Assad. He gave the restless Kurds some leeway only for them to grab some more. Then he plunged into Iraq, claiming Mosul was really a Turkish city, and jumped into Syria when Daesh forces began causing trouble along the border, ignoring the risks of violent repercussions.
As we have seen so often in the past year, the result has been the Kurds carrying out terrorist acts against mainly police and military targets and Daesh suicide bombers exploiting random civilians, such as the nightclub bombing on new year’s eve. All this has terrified likely tourists whose numbers are down by tens of thousands, inhibited foreign investment and sent the once prospering economy backwards.
‘They are working to destroy our country’s morale and create chaos by deliberately targeting our nation’s peace and targeting civilians with these heinous attacks’, Erdogan said after the latest atrocity. ‘We will retain our cool-headedness as a nation, standing more closely together, and we will never give ground to such dirty games’.
For a man presiding over such chaos, Erdogan is in a surprisingly strong international position. He is a pivotal figure between Europe and Asia, an autocrat leading a democracy. He has been branded a ‘neo-Ottoman’ which would not have displeased him. His security forces have been accused of using torture, but allies like the U.S. wonder whether that really matters when he’s now joined the fight against Daesh and President-elect Donald Trump said he would ‘bomb the shit out of them’. E.U. dare not utter a squeak of concern when Turkey is home to two million refugees, many of whom would like to make a new start in Europe where outsiders are no longer welcome. Erdogan has placated his other big regional rival, Russia, for now even though one of his policemen assassinated Moscow’s ambassador recently.
Domestically, ‘half the country adores him and half the country loathes him’, says Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The secular elites in the big cities dislike him for his authoritarianism, but in the heartland of Anatolia the conservative masses admire a strongman no matter how much power he seeks for himself. Cagaptay says he expects Turkey to remain ‘in the best-case scenario, in a perpetual state of crisis’.
Mark Almond, lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, wonders whether there are men inside the ruling AKP party ready to defy Erdogan’s grip on power and keen to replace him. ‘But I doubt if they have the numbers or courage to take President Erdogan on’, he wrote in the London Daily Telegraph. ‘Turkey’s agony looks set to continue’.
FOOTNOTE. Erdogan himself certainly sees himself remaining in his current job for many years. The presidential mansion he now calls home has one thousand rooms no less. According to Time, it has a laboratory dedicated to detecting poison in the presidential diet. The decor – heavy on red carpets, marble and chandeliers – suggests a return to Ottoman glory, a subject dear to Erdogan’s historical outlook. But perhaps not the slogan Turkish schoolchildren learned from Ataturk: ‘Peace at home. Peace abroad’. Under Erdogan, the country may end up with neither.
John Tulloh had 40-year career in foreign news.