Walking around Istanbul in 2012 I could easily pick up on the optimism and growing restlessness of its residents. The economy was booming -- Turkey was the second fastest growing economy in the world, behind China. However, not everyone benefited. Right next to the epicenter of the economic flourish, Taksim Square, a massive slum hosting mostly African migrants grew more crowded by the week.
Not everyone benefited equally, either. The biggest winners were corporations run by men close to Erdogan and his cronies. Nonetheless, the general consensus, including most who were opposed to the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced er-doe-on), was that the economy was doing well.
However, residents of the cosmopolitan city considered the country’s political situation warily. Erdogan deliberately, steadily accumulated power since his election in 2003. His ambitions, and hubris, grew.
By 2012, Turks were fully aware of his plan to run for president and change the constitution to make the office the most powerful in the country. Erdogan’s yearning for a presidential system is no endorsement of the American system, but rather of the tactic employed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Today, Putin is Russia’s authoritarian president, but before his election in 2012, he was the prime minister -- the most powerful political office at the time. To be clear, Turkey and Russia are hardly friends -- the two countries have a centuries-old rivalry -- but that hasn’t stopped Erdogan from mimicking Putin’s playbook.
Large opposition rallies regularly gathered in Taksim Square to protest the AKP (Erdogan’s political party) and its financial corruption, intimidation of opposition journalists and outlets, the jailing of dissidents, foreign policy decisions, erosion of rule of law, human rights violations, anti-secular laws, and Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. Groups and parties representing the entire Turkish political spectrum participated together in the rallies and marches, from the far-right Nationalist Party all the way to members of the Turkish Communist Party.
A year later, in the summer of 2013, Taksim Square was a scene of violent clashes between those same protestors and police. While the spark that ignited it was the government’s forced eviction of people protesting against the planned destruction of nearby Gezi Park, the protests conjoined all the grievances against the government.
However, Istanbul is politically distinct from the rest of the country.
The majority of Turkey’s population lives in small, rural towns in Anatolia, the eastern part of the country. Istanbullus (Istanbul residents) are typically liberal-secular while their eastern countrymen are the opposite -- conservative and very religious. The latter demographic is the powerful base AKP consistently mobilizes.
There is no evidence that Turkey’s elections are corrupted à la Russia’s. Erdogan and his party genuinely won their elections thanks to easterners and Istanbul business oligarchs.
Erdogan’s political machinations are hollowing out Turkey’s democratic institutions, particularly the parliament and independent media. However, his plan is not unstoppable. His party must maintain its parliamentary majority in order for a constitutional change to go through. He also has to outmaneuver Abdullah Gul, the former president and ally who wants to wrest leadership of AKP away from Erdogan.
Simultaneously, neither is Turkey a maverick country able to freely maneuver in its relations abroad. Turkey is still a member of NATO and has a long-standing (and repeatedly delayed) application to join the European Union.
To the east, Turkey shares a massive border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- two of which are in the midst of civil wars that are proxies of the region’s larger sectarian war (a war Turkey is determined to keep outside its borders). To the north is the Black Sea and Crimea where Russia, if it holds on to its newly conquered real estate, will likely set up a port and naval base.
In short, Turkey lives in a rough neighborhood and can’t throw its weight around without balancing relations. The result is an eclectic list of allies, including the United States, Iran, and Iraqi Kurdistan, and rivals, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
As a military ally with a large diplomatic mission in Turkey, the United States could apply some pressure on Erdogan and buttress political opposition. If Erdogan succeeds in transforming himself into a nearly all-powerful president, it will be harder for the U.S. to maintain relations.
Erdogan -- he’s demonstrated repeatedly -- is bellicose and susceptible to angry outbursts and impetuous decisions. He’s repeatedly vowed to “shut down Twitter” and the government attempted to restrict access to it earlier this year.
After a preventable mine explosion in May that killed over 300 people -- preventable because safety standards were ignored by Erdogan’s cabinet even after repeated warnings and requests from the workers union -- Erdogan publicly downplayed the disaster saying “these things are normal” and cited examples of workplace disasters in 19th-century England.
When relatives of the miners protested Erdogan and his government’s negligence, he accused them of being enemies of the state. A right-wing, pro-Erdogan newspaper promptly blamed Jews for the mine explosion.
This is but a small taste of what an Erdogan Turkey would be like. A Putin-esque regime in Turkey would be politically and economically unsustainable. It would also be an unhelpful addition to a region already overrun with kings, ayatollahs, and presidents for life. That’s a future the U.S., and Turks, should work to avoid.
Photo Source: PressTV