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Oliver Wright
Sep 20 2018

L'État, c'est Erdoğan

Any list of the policy zig-zags, U-turns, changes of heart and alleged betrayals that Turkey has endured since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party came to power back in 2002 would be a long one.

It would run from the step-by-step abandonment of orthodox economic policies, through a divorce with the Gülen movement, all the way to China where Turkey’s once vocal support of an oppressed Muslim minority has been replaced by awkward silence. Along the way, relations with the United States, the European Union, Russia, Syria and the Kurds, to name but a few, have veered between the sublime and the ridiculous.   

Anyone in Turkey trying to toe the official line, increasingly important as authorities become ever more intolerant of dissent, faces a Sisyphean task just to keep up with what that line is, as a government replete with nervous tics regularly decides that yesterday’s lifelong friend is today’s sworn enemy and today’s elixir is tomorrow’s poison.

In unstable global times changes of heart and direction are inevitable, yet in negotiating choppy waters, Turkey has steered an erratic course suggesting a broken rudder.

It is just as well then that Erdoğan has articulated goals for Turkey that encompass a range of auspicious dates - 2023, 2053 and 2071 - for without this guidance Turkey’s progress might easily be mistaken for Brownian motion. Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan has lately become coy about discussing the most proximate of those waypoints. The 2023 goals, which ought to be heaving into sight over the horizon, are dead in the water, a casualty as much of the mismanagement of Turkey’s economy as of a difficult global environment.

If the unflattering sketch of Turkey outlined above is even partly accurate, then it is reasonable to ask how Turkey has arrived at this position.

An obvious candidate is a political system in which powers have come to be concentrated in the hands of one man. Even before he was re-elected as president in June, Erdoğan called all the shots in Turkey. With the enhanced powers officially bestowed on him by an executive presidential system, approved in a 2017 referendum, there are even fewer restraints in place.

To his supporters, this is a good thing. In their view, Turkey’s previous mishaps and mis-steps result not from poor decision making on Erdoğan’s part, but from constraints imposed on him by the previous political structure. This argument rests on the assumption that Erdoğan’s decision making is both sound and motivated by the intent to further Turkey’s interests. The trouble is abundant evidence suggests otherwise. The longer Erdoğan has been in power and the more of it he has accumulated, the more difficulties Turkey has encountered and the more its policies have flipped unproductively from one extreme to the other, particularly in relations with the outside world.

It is thus a safe to predict that as long as Erdoğan’s star is in the ascendant, at least in Turkey if not in the wider world, the prospects of stability are bleak.

But the suggestion made earlier, that Turkey’s problems stem from myopia on the part of Erdoğan, and those whose opinions he values, may well be mistaken. It rests on another questionable assumption, namely that Erdoğan acts in what he perceives to be the best interests of country. But he may actually just be acting to further what he perceives to be his own best interests, disguising his intentions - to himself as much as to others - with well-publicised acts of piety and patriotism.

It is precisely to prevent this that many countries incorporate a range of checks and balances into their legal systems. These have now been more or less been abolished in Turkey, largely at Erdoğan’s insistence.  

Given the above, the Turkey’s haphazard behaviour becomes rather less opaque. What drives it is less a state’s struggle to establish a new identity for itself and more an individual’s quest for power. In such a situation, there is every reason to expect the kind of zig-zags, U-turns and changes of heart that have characterised Turkey’s progress, because from Erdoğan’s perspective such gyrations matter little, and might even be positive insofar as they help him personally.

It would therefore be wrong to suggest that Erdoğan is an erratic decision maker. That this appears to be the case results from misconceptions about his basic aims.

It is worth adding that what serves Erdoğan’s interests may not serve Turkey’s interests. The two may often be aligned, if only because a stronger Turkey equates with a stronger Erdoğan. But there are also many situations when the interests compete. In the economic sphere, for instance, the system of cronyism by which much of the country’s economy is run these days may benefit Erdoğan, though not the vast majority of his country’s citizens. Likewise, Turkey’s close alignment with Qatar may have resulted in some perks for Erdoğan, such as a new luxury presidential jet, but the benefits to Turkish national security are far less obvious.

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