Talking Turkey: Turkey's sultan to add to volatility in Mideast

Mr Erdogan's drifting away from European liberal values will have inevitable consequences.

By narrowly winning a referendum on his country’s future direction, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has crowned himself Turkey’s king of kings. By transforming the parliamentary system into a presidential model, he has given himself vastly more power that is enjoyed by the Presidents of the United States and France without their checks and balances. The trajectory of Mr Erdogan — from his fiery rhetoric as mayor of Istanbul to when he got in trouble with the law — is a unique journey during his stints as Prime Minister and, since 2014, as an elected President. He began as a reformer hoping to get into the European Union, but unlike the maker of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who pulled the remnants of the Ottoman Empire by bootstraps into the modern age, Mr Erdogan chose the reverse direction. Mr Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), realised that his main base of support lay in Anatolia, with an aspirant conservative religious people. He, therefore, adopted a religion-tinged policy — his wife wears a headscarf — also in tune with his own feelings. His peace moves with the restive Kurds, their party PKK designated as terrorists, were given up. But Mr Erdogan came into his element in the steps he took following the failed coup of last July.

Thereby hangs a tale. Mr Erdogan’s ascent to power was in collaboration with Fetullah Gulen, a cleric leaning towards Sufism and running countless schools and other organisations. What is more, the Gulenists, as they are known, infiltrated in hordes into various organisations such as the judiciary, government and the Army. After the breaking point came over charges of corruption among Mr Erdogan’s senior ministers, Mr Erdogan used the coup to sack and imprison thousands in the bureaucracy, the government and the Army under sweeping powers he gave himself after the coup. Mr Erdogan’s evolution continues. The Prime Minister’s post will be abolished and he will be overseeing judicial appointments, sit above Parliament and control the Army with a firmer hand. We must remember that after Ataturk, the Army was the dominant power, a period interspersed by periodic coups when one weak civilian government made way for another. In recent times, Mr Erdogan has made a major geopolitical shift. Although Turkey remains a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), it has drawn closer to Russia, now a principal actor in the Syrian tragedy, and had a wobbly relationship with the rest of Europe with an agreement to stop the flow of refugees to the European Union for a hefty price.

Turkey’s membership of the European Union was never a serious proposition, given major countries’ objection to the prospect of an influx of 80 million Turks. With Mr Erdogan giving himself extraordinary powers, the prospect is even more remote now that he has also promised to initiate bringing back the death penalty. Whatever the European Union’s feelings, the West cannot get away from the regional importance of Turkey, lying on the verge of the tempestuous Middle East and for long a route for jihadists going to Syria and Iraq. (Mr Donald Trump recognised Turkey’s importance by making a congratulatory call even as Western Europe fumed). But Mr Erdogan faces his own kind of problems. Turkish Kurds remain a menace, the PKK leader is still in jail. Turkey briefly intervened in the Syrian civil war to ensure that the Syrian Kurds, close fighting allies of Americans, would not carve out a border area as a Kurdish free state that could be joined with the Turkish Kurds dominant in the country’s southeast. It is no secret that Kurds, spread over several countries, want a homeland of their own. Second, even more importantly, as the results of the referendum show, Mr Erdogan rules a country divided down the middle. He won the referendum, with the official machinery fully behind him, largely on the strength of rural votes and those of dual citizens living in Germany and the Netherlands. The urban voter in the major cities and towns voted “No”. As it happened, Mr Erdogan was not shy in denigrating the German and Dutch leaderships as “neo-Nazis”, a particularly hurtful epithet, for denying Turkish ministers space to campaign for the “Yes” vote.

Mr Erdogan’s drifting away from European liberal values will have inevitable consequences. So will the concern among Nato members of how long its membership will last. Much depends upon how long it will take to end the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq. Mr Trump’s resolve to defeat the so-called Islamic State is within reach as far as its physical presence is concerned. But as a stream of terrorist incidents in Europe shows, individual attempts at terrorism by indoctrinated or inspired by IS’ ideology are impossible to stop. India can form its own opinion of the shape of things to come if his visit to New Delhi late this month materialises. But it would be impossible to miss the significance of a changed Turkey in India’s larger neighbourhood. Besides, Mr Erdogan is likely to make a strong pitch for the extradition of Gulenists living in India. A tug-of-war between the United States and Turkey is in the offing because Gulen has long lived in self-exile in the United States. To hand him over to the Turkish authorities would condemn him to a lifelong prison term or worse. Dictatorships are the norm, rather than the exception in the Middle East and neighbouring countries. But extinguishing the promise of democratic times in Turkey is particularly distressing. With the Trump presidency in the United States and unpredictable future policies, the Turkish twist has added a new element of uncertainty in the most explosive region in the world. During an earlier meeting with a few journalists in New Delhi, Mr Erdogan had sounded rational although he also undertook his willingness to solve the Kashmir problem. Predictably, New Delhi ignored his offer of mediation.

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