Three years ago, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his country were soaring. The Turkish economy was booming and a model for growth and expansion. Erdogan, spurned by the EU for membership, was looking east. Never modest, he saw himself as the leader of the Islamic Middle East, on the cusp of recreating the Ottoman Empire.
Now those dreams have been dashed. The economy has hit powerful headwinds. Erdogan is being battered by domestic resistance to his increasingly authoritarian and Islamic rule. And foreign conflicts are taking a toll.
Any analysis of Turkey must begin with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Though the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, Ataturk despised the Islamic fundamentalists and created an avowedly secular democratic republic. Even the wearing of head scarves by girls and women in schools and public buildings was prohibited. In the more than eight decades since its founding, Islamists have periodically gotten control of the government and chipped away at the country’s secularism. In the past, the army has taken control of the government in a coup.
Turkey’s stability and friendship is vitally important to the United States. Strategically located between east and west, offering a crucial overland energy route from the Middle East into Europe that avoids Russia, Turkey has the largest army in NATO after that of the United States. Its population of 75 million is greater than that of any country in the EU.
This brings us to the current political situation. In 2002 the religiously rooted Justice and Development Party (AK) captured a majority of the parliament. Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister. He is now in his second term. Secularists feared that Erdogan would lead the country on a path toward becoming an Islamic state like Iran or Saudi Arabia. He has done precisely that on a gradual basis.
Concerned that the powerful military might usurp control to ensure the country’s secular character, Erdogan defanged the military by arresting and imprisoning top generals. Most analysts contend that the treason charges were phony.
Erdogan doesn’t tolerate opposition. Not only from the generals, but from journalists. More of them have been imprisoned in Turkey than anywhere else in the world. Erdogan has also moved harshly against Turkey’s Kurdish minority. A recent EU report highlighted the government’s continued infringement of fundamental freedoms and “uncompromising stance against dissent.”
Erdogan was able to run roughshod over the military and secular dissenters as long as the economy was booming. But that has recently changed.
In the last year, Turkey’s industrialized production has declined by 1.4 percent. Prices have risen by 7.6 percent. The rate of unemployment is 9.3 percent. International investors are losing confidence in Turkey. They are demanding 9 percent interest on government bonds and the Turkish stock market has declined by 12 percent.
Not surprisingly, this economic decline has led to violent protests. Prime Minister Erdogan described the protestors as “terrorists and looters.” In contrast, President Gul, a long time Erdogan ally, criticized the politics of polarization, i.e., Erdogan’s policies, as a threat to democracy and called for an “environment that will make both foreign investors and our own entrepreneurs safe.”
Erdogan’s domestic woes are compounded by his disastrous foreign policy moves. One of the linchpins of Turkey’s foreign policy had been a cooperative military and intelligence relationship with Israel. In an effort to make himself the leader of the Islamic Middle Eastern world, Erdogan decimated that relationship which has cost Turkey in terms of shared intelligence about hostile neighbors including Iran.
With Egypt, Erdogan jumped right onto Morsi’s bandwagon, finding common cause with another elected ruler seeking to move his country toward Islam. Erdogan expected to have major influence in Cairo, solidifying his role as a regional player, but Morsi didn’t follow Erdogan’s example of making gradual shifts to Islam. When Morsi’s more extreme behavior promoted a military takeover, Erdogan’s standing in Cairo plunged to zero.
Syria has been Erdogan’s most calamitous move. From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey, whose population is Sunni Muslim, worked to oust the Shiite Assad. The Turks opened their borders to more than 500,000 refugees and they have armed rebel fighters. These moves have been hugely unpopular in Turkey and have raised ethnic tensions.
As the Syrian rebel movement became increasingly dominated by Islamic militants, Erdogan realized the folly of his policy. The jihadists could attack Turkey next. Also, if Syria broke up, Kurds in Syria could gain autonomy which would encourage Kurds in Turkey to do the same. In a radical change of position, Turkey has begun shelling rebel positions in Syria.
Finally, Erdogan pressed Turkey’s request for EU membership. The EU responded with an ambiguous response, while criticizing Turkey’s human rights policies. To add insult to injury, the report was released on a Muslim holiday.
Realistically, EU membership for a large Muslim country like Turkey will never happen. My recent novel, The Spanish Revenge deals with the existing conflict between Christians and Muslims in Western Europe. Those nations will never open their labor markets to a nation with 70 million Muslims.
All of these developments are rattling Turkey’s electorate which faces a critical election next year. Erdogan had initially rejected a third term as prime minister, hoping to become president after the constitution had been changed. Currently the presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but Erdogan was planning a constitutional revision which would give the president even greater power than Erdogan has as prime minister. With all of the country’s woes and the authoritarian Erdogan’s increasingly unpopularity, he may face rejection at the polls. This would trigger greater instability in the country.