A 2018 political phenomenon: First it was Xi Jinping, then Vladimir Putin and now Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It appears that they are all here to stay in politics for a long time. According to some development theorists, virtual one-party rule with popular support is good for growth as it ensures policy stability, provided the leaders have a vision.
Lee Kuan Yew governed Singapore for more than 30 years and Robert Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for nearly four decades. Singapore under the visionary leadership of Lee rose from a basket case to a model to be emulated by other countries to reach high levels of development, while Mugabe’s Zimbabwe rapidly went down a sinkhole, though he too had a vision. Zimbabwe’s downfall was largely due to corruption, an imprudent foreign policy that courted the hostility of the west and western sanctions on the country.
Critics believe the Nationalist Party can act as a check against Erdogan
If Lee and Mugabe are on the two extremes of a virtual one-party spectrum, Turkey’s Erdogan who won last Sunday’s presidential election falls in between. No doubt, like Lee, Mugabe, Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin, Erdogan is a democratic dictator. But whether he can turn Turkey into a world power is the question that looms large after his landmark victory.
Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, is now the all-powerful executive president, the country’s first.
The victory at Sunday’s presidential poll, held under a state of emergency, enables him to pick the vice presidents, head the state and government, command the armed forces and appoint ministers, high-level officials and senior judges. The powers vested in the presidency – which the Turkish people narrowly approved in a referendum last year – have seriously undermined the checks and balances required to prevent a democracy from turning into a dictatorship. The new constitutional reforms approved last year have done away with the office of the prime minister. Parliament is largely a rubber stamp of presidential decrees. The President can dissolve parliament, issue executive decrees and declare a state of emergency.
The President can dissolve parliament, issue executive decrees and declare a state of emergency
But the election results show that the people had voted intelligently. Yes, Erdogan, a professional soccer player and Marmara University business administration graduate who once sold lemonade and sesame bread at traffic lights, is popular enough to be reelected, but the people apparently had felt that he needed to be checked. So they did not give his party a majority in parliament. Although he won the presidential election with 53 percent of the votes in the first round itself, his AK Party (Justice and Development Party) suffered a 7 percent dent in parliamentary polls held simultaneously. The party won only 43 percent of the votes, securing 295 seats. However, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has agreed to extend support and the two parties add up to 343 seats in the 600-member assembly – yet 20 short of the 363 seat mark required to give legal effect to last year’s referendum. Critics believe the Nationalist Party can act as a check against Erdogan.
The results also show that Turkey is politically divided down the middle – with one half endorsing Erdogan and the other half opposing him. In another blow to Erdogan, the Kurdish political party, HDP, whose leader has been jailed, crossed the ten percent cutoff point to win 67 parliamentary seats.
Under his 15-year-rule, the country’s economy grew significantly. Critics say this was because he happened to be in office at the right time when the coordinates necessary for economic growth were in place. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the year in which Erdogan was ensconced as prime minister, made Turkey a key supplier nation. Turkey won a large number of contracts to rebuild war-ravaged Iraq’s infrastructure. In 2017, when Saudi Arabia broke ties with Qatar and imposed an economic blockade on the tiny but rich Gulf nation, Turkey stepped in to ensure that Qatar did not suffer food shortages, thereby further straining ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey and Qatar were supporters of Egypt’s post-Arab Spring Brotherhood government, which the Saudis together with US support subsequently ousted. Turkey’ economy has been growing at a remarkable of 7.5 percent since Erdogan took office, though its currency, lira, has suffered a 20 percent depreciation while inflation has reached double digits and the current account runs a deficit in what is seen as a major imbalance in the economy.If all systems go, the 64-year-old Erdogan will be the president till 2028, provided he wins the second term in five years’ time.
But the botched military coup on July 15, 2016 became a game changer
His reelection is crucial for the stability of the Middle Eastern region. At a time when key Middle Eastern nations have muted their support for the Palestinians in deference to US President Donald Trump’s wishes and in view of their growing secret ties with Israel due to their antagonism with Iran, Erdogan has emerged as a champion of Palestinian rights. Many Muslims believe that he can fill the leadership vacuum in the Muslim world.
Turkey is a key player in the Syrian war, too. Initially, it supported the Saudi-Qatar moves to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey, which became a generous host to millions of Syrian refugees, turned a blind eye when jihadists from all over the world used the country as a transit base before they crossed into Syria. Many joined the ISIS and other extremist groups.
By shooting down a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, Erdogan displayed courage to take on Putin’s mighty Russia, which had militarily intervened in the Syrian conflict to prop up the
But the botched military coup on July 15, 2016 became a game changer. Erdogan was livid that the United States, whom he supported in the Syrian war, had doubled crossed him and had a hand in the military coup. The US has denied the charge. In a surprise turnaround, Erdogan visited Russia and agreed to work with Moscow in finding a solution to the Syrian conflict.
While Erdogan courted Russia’s friendship, the US established strategic ties with the Syrian Kurds, whom Erdogan’s Turkey has branded terrorists for their close links with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. This further strained Ankara’s ties with Washington and other western nations. The West has accused Erdogan of undermining democratic principles. Scores of journalists are in jail for criticising Erdogan while tens of thousands of public servants are in detention for being members of a banned Islamic religious group led by Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled scholar living in Pennsylvania. Erdogan has accused the Gulen movement of engineering the 2016 coup, a charge the group has denied.
Erdogan has scoffed at Western criticism. He no longer expresses desire to seek the oft-rejected European Union membership. On the contrary, his government is courting China for investments and trade.
Erdogan, an Islamist in secular Turkey, is now a virtual sultan -- an Ottoman caliph sans its vast empire. His ambition is for Turkey to reclaim its Ottoman heritage at least by 2023, the centenary of the founding of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But the question is: can he achieve his dream, overcoming many economic and international hurdles?