The worrying Tayyip Erdogan
From The Economist print edition
Turkey’s prime minister once promised big reforms to bring his country closer to the European Union.
WHEN Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development (AK) Party narrowly escaped banning by the constitutional court in July, the big question was which Erdogan would then come to the fore. Would it be the non-ideological pragmatist, whose bold reforms had helped Turkey to secure the start of membership talks with the European Union in 2005? Or would it be the dogmatic and erratic leader who had provoked Turkey’s meddlesome generals, always anxious to undermine the AK Party because of its Islamist roots, by seeking soon after his election victory in July 2007 to ease the ban on the Islamic-style headscarf in universities?
The question of which version of Mr Erdogan is in charge has gained extra urgency because Turkey is grappling with mounting violence in the mainly Kurdish south-east. It also matters to the financial markets as the government tries to protect its fragile economy from the global financial typhoon. Worryingly, the answer seems to be: the second version. Mr Erdogan appears increasingly autocratic and out of touch. And because he lacks any credible political opponents, either within or beyond the AK Party, this is making Turkey look stagnant and adrift—and further away from EU membership than ever.
Mr Erdogan’s odd behaviour was on display during his most recent trip to America. When asked in Washington for his view about Iran’s nuclear ambitions he retorted that “those who possess nuclear weapons do not have the right to tell others to not acquire them too.” This comment did not go down well with American officials, whose memories are seared by Turkey’s refusal in March 2003 to let America use its soil to launch a second front against Iraq. A recent gas deal struck by the Turks with Iran has not helped. For all of Turkey’s assistance over Iraq since 2003 (some 70% of non-combat materiel for American troops goes through Turkey) and in Afghanistan (where Turkey has 1,200 troops), America is asking new questions about Turkish dependability as a Western ally.
Another thundercloud is gathering over demands by the Armenian diaspora in America, most of whom strongly supported Barack Obama’s election as president, that he stick to the view he expressed as a senator that the massacre of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 should be seen as “genocide”. Turkey’s recent efforts at reconciliation with Armenia, motivated in part by hopes of staving off a formal recognition of genocide by the Obama administration, seem to be making little progress. Some Western diplomats ascribe this to the pressure hawks in the diaspora have applied to the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan.
But it is at home that Mr Erdogan is causing the most concern. The hope was that, with his legal travails behind him, the prime minister would resume much-delayed political and economic reforms. Instead he has adopted an increasingly strident nationalist line. There is talk of his having struck a deal with Turkey’s new, hardline chief of staff, Ilker Basbug, according to which Mr Erdogan has promised to freeze reforms that dilute the army’s power in exchange for his party’s not being attacked in court again.
Mr Erdogan’s new approach was most evident in a speech he gave earlier this month in the predominantly Kurdish town of Hakkari. Responding to a wave of bloody protests that has racked the Kurdish region, he invited those who were not happy to “go wherever they please”. Ibrahim Guclu, an independent Kurdish politician, says that “in other words, he was telling the Kurds to get out.” This is a far cry from a ground-breaking speech Mr Erdogan made in Diyarbakir three years ago, when he admitted that the Turkish state had made mistakes with the Kurds.
Now he is giving the army much freer rein in its 34-year campaign against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). When Taraf, a liberal Turkish newspaper, exposed army negligence in a recent PKK attack that killed 17 soldiers at an outpost in Hakkari, he chose not to order an investigation and attacked the newspaper instead. His aides are reported to have blamed leaks of the intelligence reports cited by Taraf on Israel and the CIA.
Meanwhile EU-inspired work on drawing up a new constitution to replace the current one, drawn up by the generals after a military coup in 1980, has stalled. Reports of police torture and extra-judicial killings are on the rise. Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia, long among Mr Erdogan’s stalwart supporters, is grumbling, as is the European Commission. Mr Erdogan’s response has been to rescind the press accreditation of several journalists who cover the prime ministry. All of this is giving more ammunition to those EU members that have never wanted Turkey to join their club.
Mr Erdogan owes much of his electoral success to the unprecedented economic stability of his time in office. By sticking firmly to IMF prescriptions Turkey helped foreign investment to soar, tamed inflation and narrowed the budget deficit. But the IMF standby arrangement expired in May. And although Mehmet Simsek, the economy minister, has repeatedly hinted that it should be extended, a deal remains elusive. Foreign investors, who hold as much as 70% of the Istanbul Stock Exchange, have been pulling out, and the lira has tumbled by more than a third against the dollar this year. Growth of GDP has dipped sharply, to below 2%. Turkey’s huge current-account deficit makes it more vulnerable than many other emerging markets. Although it has so far been relatively unaffected by the world financial malady, it is only a matter of time “before it catches the bug”, says one Istanbul-based banker.
Mr Erdogan’s supporters insist that the government’s inertia is mainly to do with municipal elections being held next March. An IMF deal would preclude a pre-electoral spending spree. Being too nice to the Kurds might strengthen the nationalist opposition in the face of spiralling PKK terrorism. “Once the elections are over, you’ll see the old AK,” promises Abdurrahman Kurt, an AK deputy from Diyarbakir.
But such promises are beginning to ring hollow. When Mr Erdogan won power a second time, with an even bigger share of the vote, in July 2007, he promised to reach out to all Turks “including those of you who didn’t vote for me.” He seems now to be alienating such voters. And as corruption also starts to infect the AK’s ranks, it is beginning to resemble many of the tired old parties that it buried at the polls.