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.

Syria has been the biggest disaster, from Erdogan’s lengthy affair with Assad to his inability, along with Obama and everyone else, to do much about removing him. He has already received twenty-six thousand refugees, and more could be on the way. Erdogan struggles to stay ahead of events but has few levers with which to affect change. The grotesque violence in Syria has drawn passionate Erdogan tirades against Assad but little concrete help, except with Syrian refugees. While Turkey supports the Syrian opposition and hosts the Syrian National Council that keeps Syrian Kurds out, it does not want military action that would conjure up all sorts of regional problems. And Erdogan’s renewed embrace of the United States has drawn criticism from Islamist circles questioning how Turkey can cooperate in a Cold War synergy with Washington and be a “model” for the Arab world.

Turkey’s relations with Baghdad also have gone downhill. Erdogan’s feud with Prime Minister Maliki is public. Similarly, Turkey has gone from an open embrace of pseudo-elections in Iran to direct competition with Tehran in Syria and Iraq. These confrontations have injected a Sunni-Shia divide into the regional political discourse, a dimension that Erdogan has tried to paper over. Turkish public discussion has been somewhat muted on all of this. Turkey’s only real friend and greatest economic partner in the region paradoxically may be the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, even as Turks fear Iraq’s unity is unraveling. Syrian turmoil is increasing Turkish concern about a second autonomous Kurdish region, but more immediately, there is also anxiety over an empowered PKK operating in Syria, once again backed by Damascus. Throughout the Middle East, Turkey’s positive reputation apparently remains intact, but its influence is uncertain.

Bargaining Away Kurdish Peace

Erdogan promised to produce a more liberal and democratic constitution this year; it would replace the military-dictated one adopted after the 1980 coup. A parliamentary group and numerous private organizations are at work supplying advice on the new document. But Erdogan’s ambition to create a presidential system in the new constitution and move to the presidency in 2014 may be torpedoing his long-stated goal of resolving the increasingly bloody Kurdish issue, including satisfying key Kurdish demands on issues such as expression of identity and education in Kurdish.

At one point, Erdogan looked to have the will and political capital to deliver a long-desired political solution to the century-old Kurdish problem. He initiated a “Kurdish Opening,” worked the area politically and sent senior officials to talk with PKK leaders. For many reasons, some beyond Erdogan’s control, none of this bore fruit. As the Kurdish issue has become regionalized and the Kurdish-inhabited Arab region remains in flux, the urgency of accommodation with Turkey’s Kurdish population increases. The prime minister maintains the rhetoric but has apparently changed course and returned to a policy of increased military operations against the PKK. He also seeks greater collaboration from the Iraqi Kurds in eliminating the PKK in their territory, a solution he probably knows is not likely to work. Additionally, the government keeps jailing more and more local Kurdish politicians, accusing them of supporting the PKK.

Increasingly, Erdogan’s focus seems to be on creating a presidential system in the new constitution that will allow him to make a Putin-esque move to a more powerful presidency. His AKP party does not have the votes in parliament to pass a constitution without a referendum. It needs the support of another party or a coalition of individual parliamentarians. However, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) opposition, which shares the AKP’s conservative values (and some of the same voters), has expressed converging views with AKP on important issues in a new constitution, most notably few concessions to the Kurds, allowing Erdogan sufficient votes to pass the constitution in parliament. That could eliminate public endorsement for a new constitution, and it bodes ill for a better resolution of the Kurdish issue. If creating a presidential system requires such a bargain—the help of the ultranationalist MHP and the back of the hand to the Kurds—few doubt what choice the prime minister will make.

Countdown

Erdogan is an enormously skillful politician with a keen sense of what Turkish voters want. Even the most masterful politician, however, would have a hard time juggling all the domestic and foreign issues facing Turkey. In a perverse way, this is a tribute to Turkey’s impressive growth, profound political change and greater complexity under Erdogan. Unless the economy also tanks, he will most likely survive the growing political turbulence and the problems of the new constitution, his position still strong. In any event, his present term has three years left.

But if he proceeds down his current track, this transformative Turkish leader will forego a truly historic contribution: the potential transformation of Turkey’s enormous Kurdish problem. It is too early to say anything conclusive about the likely denouement. Indeed, this issue is a moveable feast. Last Wednesday, in what seems like a cynical ploy to the liberal gallery, Erdogan agreed with the main opposition-party leader to establish an all-party commission to develop a new approach to the Kurdish issue. That won’t happen: the nationalist leader immediately denounced the effort, and a two-party agreement with the main opposition is highly unlikely. Interviewed later the same day, Erdogan said there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey.

Events and domestic politics will determine what Erdogan does next—but it does not look promising. Too bad for Turkey and its mute American friends.

Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, was American ambassador to Turkey 1989–91.

Image: United Nations Photo