As this year’s president of the G20, Turkey might expect to be basking in global admiration — and not so long ago that would have been true. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former three-term prime minister at the head of his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), could four years ago have pointed to rates of economic growth on a par with China, a vibrant democracy ostensibly able to synthesise Islam and freedom, and Turkey’s re-emergence as a regional power that could serve as a pillar of stability in a turbulent Arab world.
Now he is president, the economic growth story has petered out. After the AKP’s emphatic win in this month’s general election, there appears little check on Erdogan’s authoritarian policies, or his drive to accelerate the power shift from parliament to his presidency. Although his constitutional role is to unify, President Erdogan critics say he has polarised Turkey.
With this latest victory in his long string of election triumphs the president towers above his rivals. In his dozen years in power, however, they say he has come to confuse an absolute majority in parliament with his own absolutist rule and that he won in part through tactics that have left the country deeply divided. This comes at a time when the ethno-sectarian rifts in Syria and Iraq are spilling into Turkey.
Turkey’s economy, with a high current account deficit and heavy corporate foreign debt exposure, is vulnerable to the shift in sentiment against emerging markets brought about by international expectations of a tightening of monetary policy and end to cheap credit. Opponents say Erdogan and the AKP have trampled over the rule of law and freedom of expression, while using the judiciary to batter former Islamist allies and secular dissidents, and in so doing have coarsened public life and hollowed out institutions.
For a Nato ally and EU candidate member, Turkey’s loss of regional influence and international reputation has been significant. The “zero-problems-with-the-neighbours” foreign policy of Ahmet Davutoglu — former foreign minister and now prime minister — has become what Ebrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s Chief Policy Adviser, has described as “precious loneliness”. Turkey has few neighbours left with which it does not have problems. It has fallen out with Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and, less virulently, with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Anti-western tirades, strident neo-Ottoman discourse from the government and outpourings from the AKP’s media empire, have alienated many erstwhile admirers.
Package of sweeteners
A year ago, when Erdogan began his crackdown on non-AKP media in earnest, he responded to European criticism by telling the EU to “please keep your wisdom to yourself”. This year, amid EU panic at the wave of Syrian refugees pouring across its borders, he did not need to bother. Last month Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany offered President Erdogan a package of sweeteners to persuade Turkey to act as a holding pen for Syrian refugees.
Although Germany, along with France, had opposed the idea of Muslim Turkey joining the EU, she offered to help unblock accession negotiations. There was always a strong case for keeping these talks rolling while the prospect of EU entry worked as an engine of reform in Turkey, especially in areas from justice to competition. But the net effect of the EU’s rediscovery of Turkey’s value as a partner was probably to enhance Erdogan’s image — only days before an election he chose to re-run because the AKP lost its majority in June for the first time since 2002.
Erdogan’s hitherto expansive regional policy and permissive Syria policy — allowing Turkey to be used as pipeline for Sunni volunteers and arms into Syria to fight the regime of Bashar Al Assad — has boiled down to a single issue: How to stop Syrian Kurdish militia tied to Turkish Kurd insurgents from conquering more territory below Turkey’s border in northern Syria. His election tactics ultimately turned on this single question. After Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) bombings of Turkish Kurd targets rekindled fighting between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), the predominantly Kurdish south-east of the country erupted in flames.
But the PKK-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters across the border have been among the most effective ground troops in the US-led coalition against Daesh. Ankara, although it has finally let Washington use its southern air bases, has held back in the fight against Daesh, seeing the cross-border spread of Kurdish nationalism as a much bigger threat.
Now it looks as though the US wants to use its Syrian Kurdish allies to spearhead a drive against the Isis stronghold of Raqqa, south of Turkey’s border. If the stateless Kurds were to inflict such a defeat on the extremists, their international legitimacy would be almost unassailable. Whatever its allegiance to Nato, Ankara is threatening to intervene if the Syrian Kurds make further territorial gains. Whether or not Turkey is slipping its western moorings, its traditional anchors may no longer hold fast.
— Financial Times