President Erdoğan’s contempt for liberal democracy is putting him on a collision course with the west
In a month’s time, Turkey, a supposed democracy, will have its next general election. Yet, there is only one possible winner. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, its leader for the last decade-and-a-half, will win again.
As a journalist for one of its last free media outlets put it last year, a little ironically:
‘I have no idea how many justice ministers in the democratically civilised world have to make speeches arguing that their country is not a dictatorship. But Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ has recently felt compelled to remind the world of just that. Bozdağ said the mere existence of main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is proof that “there is no dictator in the country.”’
So that’s all right, then. But really, if Erdoğan is really not a dictator, the distinction at this point seems somewhat academic.
He has tinkered with the constitution to increase his power (while Turkey is in a state of emergency that has been renewed seven times); distorted the electoral pitch through media domination and, quite clearly is engaged in outright cheating, as noted by the OSCE; rolled back social reforms; and crushed free speech by jailing more journalists last year than any other country in the world – including China, with roughly twenty times its population.
During Erdoğan’s meeting with Theresa May earlier this month, he called the journalists he jailed ‘terrorists’; while May, desperate for a post-Brexit deal with a major non-European Union country, spoke limply about ‘democratic values’ (another reminder of how Brexit has diminished Britain on the world stage, lest we forget).
And, no, Erdoğan is not widely known for his self-awareness at the best of times. Last Wednesday, the man whose bodyguards beat up on US demonstrators and who imprisons record numbers of journalists, dramatically denounced ‘thuggery’ in Israel after the incursion from Gaza. While he has a point about the brutality of the reaction, he is hardly one to talk.
If all this were not enough, like most would-be despots, he is busy ruining his economy through simple ignorance of how things work: despite Turkey’s GDP having grown well in recent years, the lira hit a new low this month after he told the press that he would tackle inflation by lowering interest rates rather than raising them.
In short, Turkey has already shown that it cannot be a democracy under Erdoğan, and the direction of travel is clearly towards dictatorship (given that it seems almost impossible to remove Erdoğan at this point, he is effectively a dictator anyway). The only real remaining opposition to his rule comes from activists and independent-minded journalists such as Can Dundar, whose book on life as a jailed journalist I reviewed at Progress here, and who has now launched a news website from exile in Germany.
At an international level, for all the above reasons it seems pretty improbable that Turkey could join the EU any time soon. That said, one day not too far away, the EU may well be home to undemocratic states anyway (such as Hungary, or Poland, where the direction of travel is towards authoritarianism), and who knows where that debate will be in a decade.
Also, if Turkey gets much closer to Russia and Iran, it might also one day end up quitting Nato. This would be a big loss for the west, as Putin has picked the Middle East as his preferred theatre for proxy war, cold war style.
Whatever the true objective of Ankara right now, Turkey is testing its membership of Nato to the limit and looks like it is playing a game of brinkmanship with the west, which surely does not want Erdoğan to throw in his lot with Putin. The signs in the tea leaves are not good: last year he negotiated the purchase of Russian, and not American, missiles, creating a technical and political headache for his allies.
Interestingly, at least one mainstream journalist has even drawn political parallels between the populism of Erdoğan and Jeremy Corbyn. As the Labour leader has the possibility of becoming prime minister at some point in the near future, we might reflect on that.
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