Erdogan's Juggling Act

Domestic troubles. Regional conflagrations. Kurdish problems. Turkey's path is a difficult one.

Turkey and its prime minister are approaching a critical and potentially transformational period.

Few elected leaders anywhere have been as successful as Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He retains enormous public popularity after ten years of rule, and his authority in the AK Party is unrivaled. He controls almost everything and often gets down in the weeds. He has eviscerated the military’s political clout and even has taken Ataturk down from his century-old pedestal. Most importantly, the Turkish economy has vastly accelerated and so far withstood a faltering Europe, giving Erdogan and Turkey significant international caché.

Whether one considers Erdogan a dynamic reformer, an Islamic tea partier, a power-hungry statist, a common scold or all four, he increasingly generates political turmoil in Turkey, drawing animated criticism from all quarters—including from the supportive Gulen movement in addition to opposition parties. His leadership and judgment are being seriously questioned, most recently in regards to whether his ambition is getting in the way of managing critical issues such as Turkey’s unending Kurdish dilemma. Indeed, one prominent AKP supporter last week wrote that “The once reformist party of Turkey seems to have developed statist, nationalist, and even Islamist tendencies, which are the likely grounds for a new authoritarian politics.”

Sitting in Washington, it is difficult to carp about the political discourse of another country as it wades into issues that for decades have divided Americans. But the always-visceral Erdogan never fails to attract attention by providing advice on numerous issues—he is a continuing guide to good Turkish living.

Some of his recent controversial advice has been to Turkish women: have at least three children so Turkey’s influence in the world remains strong. Last week, he kicked off a hornets’ nest by urging the banning of abortions (they are legal in Turkey up to ten weeks) and inveighing against caesarian operations. He further compared an abortion to a botched military strike in southeast Turkey that killed thirty-four Kurds—Turkish citizens—who turned out to be smugglers, not separatists from the PKK, an armed insurgency group. His refusal to apologize for this grave incident generated enormous uproar, dividing his government and giving fodder to political opponents, particularly in the media, who know how quickly Erdogan seeks public apologies and fines for their written transgressions.

Even a portion of the friendly press such as Zaman, which reflects the views of the Gulen movement, joined in the criticism. His family-related advice has antagonized many Turkish women, but they still have little political influence. Much of this is seen as classic Erdogan, but one cannot preclude that the astute prime minister was trying to divert public attention from issues like the massive bombing error.

Pressing questions about Erdogan’s rule are emerging. Today’s principal concern is whether his personal ambitions and overweening certainties may be eclipsing his judgment—and affecting Turkish interests.

The Media

Erdogan’s attacks on the media are long-standing. It is not easy to evaluate the constraints on the Turkish media, which is far more dynamic and freer now than in the military-dominated era. Many previously supportive columnists have grown critical. Despite this progress, Erdogan’s attacks and commercially distraught media management have reportedly produced self-censorship among journalists and their bosses, some firings and fines for calumniating the prime minister. Some hundred journalists are in prison because of the Sledgehammmer investigations (allegedly murderous activity by either the shadowy Ergenekon force or coup plotting by the military) and as a result of increased scrutiny of Kurdish organizations. Many believe these prisoners guilty of criticism or free speech rather than conspiracy as they languish in jail without trial. EU and U.S. officials have publicly expressed concern for the state of the Turkish media.

Equally long-standing are Erdogan’s arrests of senior military figures—retired and serving—charged with plotting coups during the decade of AKP rule and, more recently, in 1980 and 1997. Some one-fifth of Turkey’s senior officers are in prison, many without trial. This has occasioned a split in the Islamic political community. While Erdogan appears increasingly troubled by more arrests, fearing military effectiveness and political payback while seeking judicial ways to end the process, Gulen-community followers keep attacking him for not thoroughly demolishing the military’s political clout.

Regional Diplomacy

Erdogan’s highly touted Middle East involvement has lost some luster. This he denies, either stoutly overlooking the facts or letting amnesia set in. Turkey, of course, remains important and active diplomatically and commercially in the region. But since the Arab uprisings, Turkey has lost friends and money (although it may have gained a friend in Somalia). The much-touted vast Turkish influence in the Middle East seems to have faded.