by Graham E. Fuller — Nearly all the indicators coming out of Turkey continue to be bad—for Turkey and for nearly everybody else. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be the only one profiting from the ongoing dark course of events. Taking advantage of an unexplored and murky coup attempt against him in July last year, Erdogan has vastly increased his autocratic powers and undermined both the spirit and character of a democratic society and plunged the country into intimidation and polarization. He is also undermining his own political future at a faster rate.
If Erdogan had resigned in 2012 after ten years as prime minister of Turkey, he would unquestionably go down in history as Turkey’s greatest leader since its founding father Atatürk nearly one hundred years ago. In multiple areas his successes had been numerous and path-breaking. Indeed, in my last book, “Turkey and the Arab Spring,” I had great praise for the range of innovative and dynamic polices he and his AK Party inaugurated: a booming economy, a vigorous opening to the world market, new trends in Turkish globalization, the broadening of domestic welfare programs, health, access, and education. Aided by his imaginative foreign minister Davutoglu and former president Abdullah Gül, Turkey embarked on an innovative and creative course in foreign policy based on a sweeping new regional vision that made Turkey both a regional great power and an object of envy in the Muslim world for its accomplishments. Turkey rejoined the Middle East and expanded into Eurasia while maintaining ties with Europe in promoting its continent-spanning identity.
Yet most politicians seem to stumble after too long in power, losing vision, making more mistakes, growing corrupt, surrounding themselves with yes-men and succumbing to egomaniacal personal ambitions. Erdogan is a classic case in point. And so, as my book on the AKP era in Turkey neared completion, Erdogan’s worst features were beginning to show, demonstrating initial disturbing trends that have since only continued to accelerate. Erdogan is now engaged in broad abuse of Turkish political institutions to advance his own unchallenged power, through intimidation of all opposition, and silencing all dissent. A once vibrant political party, the AKP now bows obediently silent before Erdogan’s arbitrary demands. His former foreign minister and briefly prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu has now dropped out of sight—silenced, a non-person. The same goes for AKP co-founder and respected former president Abdullah Gül whose voice, influence, even presence, has now totally vanished. Erdogan rules exclusively in the interests of his own power as he becomes ever more paranoid, isolated, imperious, and erratic.
Two new and disturbing signs have emerged with Erdogan’s purported victory in his April referendum campaign—designed to create a new presidential system that would grant him sweeping new powers in the political, legislative, military, judicial and security arenas. These new powers represent disturbing erosions of democratic institutions. Worse, domestic and foreign observers widely believe Erdogan’s narrow victory was the result of ballot box stuffing—a possible harbinger of things to come.
Second, one might have hoped that Erdogan after his questionable victory would demonstrate some magnanimity to become the “president of all the people.” Not a bit of it. He has maintained his own vengeful treatment of all opposition, now reaching down to remove even those in the lower reaches of opposition political parties, the media, the police, the military, the legislative, and one third of the judiciary. A witch hunt is waged against all critics now threatened with loss of jobs, confiscation of property, seizure of passports, even detention, arrest and prosecution. The government officially announced that as of 2 April 113,260 people have been detained since the July 15 coup attempt, while 47,155 were put into pre-trial detention. These figures are low. Many more have fled the country. The Turkish press is now rated as one of the least free in the world.
Equally disturbing is Erdogan’s increasing loss of political savvy, his isolation, paranoia,mercurial statements, and loss of judgment, especially in foreign policy. Beginning around 2011 Erdogan launched into a series of foreign policy blunders that continue unabated. After a remarkable decade of hugely expanded good neighbor relations, the following five years watched him alienate virtually every state in the Middle East and beyond in the EU, Russia and the US. Through dangerous adventurism in Syria, including behind the scenes tolerance towards ISIS in order to overthrow Asad, he opened the door to devastating ISIS-sponsored terrorism inside Turkey itself.
More important, the long term implications of Erdogan’s Kurdish policies now threaten the whole region. Within Turkey itself Erdogan shares the blame, along with the Kurdish armed movement PKK, for the collapse of negotiations with Turkey’s Kurds, and the resurgence of ugly domestic warfare between the Kurds and Ankara. (This after Erdogan took some of the most promising historic steps in modern history towards a Kurdish settlement during his first decade.) Erdogan’s mishandling of the Kurdish case has major implications for Ankara’s worsening relations with the US, Iraq, Iran, and skews its strategy in Syria.
So where does Turkey now go?
There seems little room for hope that Erdogan might now soften his policies as his hold on power grows. Erdogan has squandered his earlier striking foreign policy gains. It is hard to imagine Turkey developing close working relations with any state in the years to come. Ad hoc tactical deals have replaced principle, strategy or vision. Sadly, his policies now seem mainly designed to promote his own personal power and not the interests of his country.
As Erdogan is increasingly perceived as imperious and mercurial, most countries now seem to be in damage control mode in dealing with Turkey and will seek to avoid major confrontations. The EU has all but written him off, although Turkey’s strategic importance requires maintaining at least “correct” relations with Ankara. Erdogan’s visit to Washington in mid-May is likely to be prickly and inconclusive. Russia may be the only state that has benefited from Erdogan’s regional mistakes and weakness. Turkey has no friends.
The Turkish economy, once a powerhouse of success, is sagging. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish families have lost their livelihood through the sweeping detainment and arrests of perceived opposition in any capacity across the country. Foreign investment and tourism are dropping.
What might bring a turning point? National parliamentary elections are coming up in late 2019. Erdogan’s general intimidation of all opposition will make it difficult to gauge public opinion. But as the Turkish public recognizes how increasingly isolated, ineffective, and disrespected their country has become, a majority is quite likely to vote against his AKP party in the next elections—assuming absence of major fraud. Widespread fraud next time is likely to bring more citizens into the streets and probably greater repression. Indeed, domestic disorder may grow against Erdogan’s rough and imperious policies even before 2019.
What domestic controls might serve to limit Erdogan’s unbridled exercise of power? There are anecdotal signs of discontent within his ruling AKP party from people who did not sign onto the AKP to watch Erdogan destroy its earlier legacy and impose one man rule, but overt opposition has not surfaced. Worse, so far Turkish politics has yet to produce any serious, charismatic opposition leader to challenge AKP power.
Painful times lie ahead for Turkey. There are nonetheless a few grounds for some hope. Turkish democratic institutions, however flawed, have been around for nearly seventy years; Turks are politically sophisticated and experienced and state institutions are well-rooted and probably durable enough to withstand corruption and abuse. Neither the Turkish public, nor even the more tamed army will likely remain silent against any attempts to fully destroy democratic process.
However unhappy Washington is with the situation, it should also know that even when Erdogan is gone, Turkey will never again revert to being a “loyal ally”of the US. Any future leader of Turkey will be strong defender of Turkish sovereignty against all players, including the US. But Turkey’s own wisest move at this point is to return to the stability of its former “good neighbor policy.” That requires cooperation with a broad range of players, including Iran, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as with the West, US, Russia, China, and the EU—all of whom have major role and stakes in the area. Wisdom, unfortunately, seems in short supply.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle)