Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the Ottoman Empire, embodied by the absolutist Sultans, was a pivotal geopolitical and economic power which was in permanent antagonism with Western Europe. Today, Recep Erdogan strives to re-establish the central role of a Sultan-like leader of a revived Turkey. The Turkish economic boom under his reign – GDP per capita nearly tripled – has been accompanied by repressive measures against the liberal-secular opposition and stern critiques. In the run-up to the municipal elections last Sunday, repression culminated in an attempt to cover up corruption scandals by censoring social media platforms Twitter and YouTube. Nonetheless, his Party for Justice and Development (AKP) celebrated a strong electoral victory, gaining more than 45% of the votes, thus cementing Erdogan’s position and reassuring him of his tough stance. Yet, his policies do not only divide the country, further undermine Turkey’s chances to join the European Union, and cause headaches for Turkey’s NATO allies, but fundamentally threaten Turkey’s economic and political position in the international system.
Not that autocratic policies are new phenomena under Erdogan. For years, he has passed laws which undermine the separation of powers and have re-Islamified the constitutionally secular country. Neither did he shy away from using inexorable violence to suppress the Gezi Park protests last summer. But the recent policies destroy the very base of Turkish democratic pluralism. The root of the corruption scandal and consequential suppression of the rising is Erdogan’s discord with the powerful preacher Fethulla Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, and was an ally of the AKP in their struggle to dismantle the powerful military in the 2000s. The Gülen movement, which is suspected to be behind the recent leaks and arrests, runs schools and universities and has allegedly infiltrated the judicial system and police. In mid-December last year, various close allies of the Prime Minister, including three sons of the Cabinet Minister, were arrested under suspicion of corruption; in the subsequent months multiple recordings of private conversations between Erdogan and his son or ministers were published on YouTube, which allegedly prove Erdogan’s entanglement in corruption. His reaction was despotic; he tightened the media and internet censorship – Turkey ranks as 154th in the press freedom index – limited the power of the judiciary and removed or relocated 6000 policemen and hundreds of judges and federal prosecutors. He declared the municipal elections to decide over his tough line and was overwhelmingly supported by those who believe in a conspiracy: Kurds, Islamic conservatives or those who benefited financially or otherwise. Fatefully for Turkey, the victorious election foreordains Erdogan’s bid for presidency in August this year, which would have pivotal consequences if successful.
Turkey’s geopolitical weight is vital in grasping the dilemma of Erdogan’s autocratic reign. According to the IMF, Turkey’s economy is the sixteenth largest in the world, and has NATO’s second largest army. Geographically, it bridges the Middle East and Europe, bordering Syria to the east. Its history is closely linked to Europe and NATO, participating on the side of the allies during WWII, joining NATO in 1952 and subsequently actively containing the expansion of the Soviet Union into the Mediterranean. For those reasons, the west had great hopes in a democratic country which seemed to be the mediator between the Islamic and western worlds and serve as the archetype for other Muslim states in transition. The EU therefore opened membership accession negotiations with Turkey in 2005. Yet, Erdogan now seems willed to cut off those ties.
The EU was quick to condemn his actions, which will most likely freeze the already icy relations – hitherto, only 1 out of 35 chapters have been closed since official accession negotiations started in 2005 – and make Turkey’s membership prospects under Erdogan futile. Stefan Füle, the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner, remarked that he is ‘gravely concerned by blocked Twitter’ as this opposes the most fundamental EU values. Losing Turkey as an EU member might be acceptable to the majority of the European public, but it would bury all hopes of a functioning Turkish democracy; instead is likely to pursue the path of turning into a theocratic autocracy. In addition, the Turkey-NATO relationship took a blow from a leaked phone call in which Hakan Fidan, the intelligence chief, suggests to Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, to ‘make up a cause of war by ordering a missile attack on Turkey [by Syria]’; thereby, Turkey would pull all NATO members into the Syrian conflict. This has raised substantial concerns among NATO over the unreliability and increasing unpredictability of Turkey. The incalculable political environment translated into economic consequences, as Standard & Poor’s downgraded Turkey’s credit rating outlook to negative, reflecting international investors’ uncertainty as well as the drastic depreciation of the Turkish Lira.
Unfortunately though, Premier Erdogan is likely to pursue the path of crowning himself Sultan, risking his nation’s global standing. More protests and violent crackdowns will probably be the consequence. In the long run however, the isolated political and economic position will severely damage his reputation and the health of the country. Back in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire declined until it eventually dissolved in 1922, when it was isolated from its allies. Let us hope that the Turkish electorate will be wary of history and prevent Erdogan’s bid for Sultan in the August elections.