The recent general election in Turkey proved to be a major setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to use his party’s parliamentary majority to, via constitutional referendum, establish a presidential system in Turkey when it failed to win enough of the parliaments seats in order to do this. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has effectively governed Turkey since 2002–quite a long time for a single-party to have that much power. And throughout all of that time Mr. Erdogan has been premier in one form or another. Ahmet Davutoglu may be the present leader of the party and the Prime Minister but Erdogan is recognized to be the real power in Turkey today – not wholly unlike how Russia’s Vladimir Putin has essentially been Russia’s leader since 2000 regardless of whether or not he was President or Prime Minister.
That he wishes to have more power centered around him his evident. His detractors have plenty of grounds to argue on that one. That he is a full-blown autocrat in the making is certainly arguable. I don’t perceive him to be nothing more than a mustache-twirler as many of his critics and opponents make him out to be. I think he’s an idealist in a lot of respects. And I think he’s potentially dangerous for that very reason.
When he and his party supporters were trying to advance the establishment of a presidential-system this year it was clear they were advocating something they really thought was needed. Having been in power for so long, they see the various checks and balances of a parliamentary democracy as a mere hindrance to their ability to progress new policies for the good of the country. Erdogan wants to get things done. Given how he seems to believe that what is good for Turkey and what he seeks for Turkey are essentially synonymous he likely believes that a presidential system would be in Turkey’s best interests, since he always has Turkey’s best interests at heart. And I wouldn’t necessarily doubt he is entirely sincere in that belief. Therefore it is logical that such a leader believes he should have more authority and power when it comes to enacting various state policies. Just look at the way he tried to micromanage a re-development project in Istanbul which led to the nationwide Gezi Park protests of 2013. That demonstrated just how much of a hand he seeks to have in the various affairs of the state on multiple levels.
AKP has unquestionable under Erdogan done a lot of good for Turkey both politically and economically and made it a much more vibrant country as a result. Arguably his real decline into megalomania started as recently as 2011 when he sought to pressure the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to relent and for Assad to step down after Damascus began brutally crushing what was then a popular grassroots uprising which has since devolved into a very horrible and destructive war there. Turkey has had to ingest millions of destitute Syrian refugees as a result of that war and Erdogan has been outraged at the lack of an international response to the Syrian crisis. He’s likely frustrated that the Turkey he perceived to be an all important regional power has so far failed to bring to an end that conflict or influence it decisively. Assad’s continued survival is humiliating to Erdogan. Similarly, he has refused to recognize the new government in Egypt given its origins in the July 2013 military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood which he is sympathetic towards.
Erdogan hasn’t given up his dream of making Turkey a regional powerhouse. Indeed it still is one economically. Unlike the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, Turkey was never blessed with an abundance of oil and natural wealth. But it has done very well as a regional and world leader when it comes to manufactured goods (everything from electronics to cars) and agricultural goods. Economically it is classified as a newly industrialized country, a category which it shares with Brazil, China, India and South Africa among others.
Erdogan in many ways reminds me of the last Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. While Erdogan is certainly no monarch or despot, both men had similar visions for their country and an apparent inability to distinguish between the good of the country and what they perceive to be the good of the country, or at least what ought to be for the good of the country. Both clearly idealists who undertook notable development and industrialization efforts of their respective countries. And as the Shah was at the height of his power and megalomania he made a point of doing away with the facade that was the two-party system in favour of a blatantly authoritarian one-party state in the mid-1970’s in order to advance his lofty vision for Iran–and that of course led to his downfall.
Erdogan today is arguably becoming – or already is – a megalomaniac. And it’s understandable to a degree. He has been in power for years now and doubtlessly feels that he is destined to make his country great and realize its ambition as a regional power. His building of a 1,000-room presidential palace in Ankara in the run-up to his preparations to bring about a presidential system signifies that he envisages the center of regional power returning to Turkey where it was in Ottoman times.
And, again not unlike the Shah, he trumpets Turkey’s imperial past to the point that make some more cosmopolitan Turks cringe. Did you see his historic patriotic commemoration and reenactment (with men dressed as Ottoman soldiers pulling replica galley’s overland to reenact that milestone historical event of Turkey’s past as an imperial power) of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman’s in the 15th century late last May? It reminded me of the extravagant festivities the last Shah of Iran held at Iran’s historic ruins of Persepolis in 1971 to commemorate Iran’s own rich imperial past and in a way connect that dynasty with it (there were coins minted at that time which depicted the Shah’s dynasty as being the latest successor to the Achaemenid kings of 2,500 years ago) and to mark Iran’s rise as an important power in the modern world.
Today when I see Erdogan or his followers attributing criticism to their attempts to further consolidate more power into their hands to conspiracies pertaining to some Gulenist “parallel-state” or a ploy by Kurdish separatists to undermine them one is reminded of the Shah’s dismissal of criticism leveled against what he saw as his noble and righteous rule (he quite literally made comments along the line of feeling the pulse and will of his people in his hand) often believing that political criticism amounted to the nefarious work of Communists attempting to subvert his regime. Their sweeping and arbitrary crackdowns on the smallest of political dissent (Erdogan has jailed many journalists in the past and has sought to muzzle critical press of his policies) also has some worrying parallels.
I hesitate to say that Turkey is situated at a crossroads to avoid a much overused cliché. But as a country it is certainly at a noteworthy juncture, where it goes from here may prove to be quite indicative about what kind of a future is in store for it and its people.