Why Turkey is one step away from becoming a dictatorship

Recep Erdogan's government is increasingly autocratic REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo
Recep Erdogan’s government is increasingly autocratic REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

Turkey has the second largest armed forces in the NATO. It plays a crucial role in a turbulent neighbourhood, especially in war-torn Syria. It is exerting a growing influence in the western Balkans, in the eastern Mediterranean and, more recently, in Africa. Above all, it is important in the Black Sea and in Russia’s war in the Ukraine; last year he helped broker a deal to allow more Ukrainian grain to be shipped to a hungry world.

So foreigners should pay attention to Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested this week that they be held on May 14. Erdogan’s behavior as elections approach could bring what is now a deeply flawed democracy to the brink of a dictatorship In all rules.

When he became prime minister in March 2003, Erdogan promised a lot to Turkey. Secularists feared he had an excessively Islamist agenda, but he and his Justice and Development (AK) party have not gone very far in persecuting him. In its early years, Erdogan’s government brought new economic and political stability to a country that for decades had lacked either. He exposed the generals, who had too often meddled in politics and carried out coups. He introduced reforms to boost the economy. He even brought peace to the kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, long persecuted by the army. In 2005 he deservedly won a prize that had eluded all his predecessors: the formal opening of talks for Turkey to one day join the European Union.

However, the longer Erdogan has been in power, the more autocratic it has become. After 11 years as prime minister, he was elected president and set out to turn that previously weak post into a dominant one. Following a 2016 coup attempt, he had tens of thousands of people purged from their jobs or detained, often on the slightest hint of connection to the religious group blamed for the plot, such as having attended to one of his childhood schools.

Following a coup attempt in 2016, he had tens of thousands of people purged from their jobs or detained, often on the slightest hint of connection to the religious group blamed for the plot.  (AP)
Following a coup attempt in 2016, he had tens of thousands of people purged from their jobs or detained, often on the slightest hint of connection to the religious group blamed for the plot. (AP)

It has been co-opting institutions and eroding checks and balances. It has turned much of the media into a tool of propaganda state. In fact, it has censored the Internet. He has jailed many critics, including opposition leaders. He has sidelined rivals within the AK party. He has subjugated the judiciary, using the courts to harass his opponents.

On the verge of his third decade in power, he sits in an immense palace and commands courtiers too frightened to tell him when he is wrong. His increasingly eccentric beliefs quickly become public policy. Thus, he has imposed on a previously independent central bank a monetary theory that is utter madness. He believes that the cure for inflation is to cheapen money. This is the main reason why Turkish inflation is of the 64%. The standard of living deteriorates, tempers flare.

Voters, especially in the cities, are fighting back. Three years ago, Erdogan’s party lost mayoral elections in the three largest cities: Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. Polls suggest he could lose the presidency in four months if the opposition unites behind its best candidate and the elections are more or less fair.

It’s a big “if”. Erdogan is determined to tilt an already lopsided election even more in his favor. The Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, Perhaps Erdogan’s most plausible rival, he has recently been sentenced to prison and barred from politics for calling election officials who annulled his first victory as mayor “idiots”. The government has asked the Constitutional Court to shut down the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDHP), the largest Kurdish party, many of whose leaders languish in jail. The court has frozen the hdp’s bank accounts. The opposition will need the support of Kurdish voters if it wants to overthrow the president.

Erdogan helped broker a deal to allow more Ukrainian grain to be shipped to a hungry world.  (Reuters)
Erdogan helped broker a deal to allow more Ukrainian grain to be shipped to a hungry world. (Reuters)

Erdogan once compared democracy to a tram ride: when you arrive at your destination, you get off. Under his tenure, elections have seldom been completely fair, but they have been generally free and have been attended by large numbers of voters. What is worrying this time is that, fearing defeat, Erdogan will step down and make sure that the elections are neither fair nor free.

Western leaders must speak up. The United States and the EU have too often refrained from criticizing Erdogan for fear of alienating a critical, if troublesome, ally. Nobody wants a country as important as Turkey to go completely rogue. Everyone is aware that a resentful and isolated Turkish president could do a lot of damage. He could fan territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus. He could create more confusion and conflict in Syria. He could allow the 5 million migrants and refugees in Turkey to set sail for southern Europe, something many would try if they could. And he could go beyond his current refusal to take sides in Ukraine, despite being a NATO member, by continuing to block Finland and Sweden from joining NATO.

But Turkey also needs the West, especially to restore some stability to its battered economy. Although its accession negotiations are stalled, it is still hoping for an improved and enlarged customs union with the EU that will boost growth. It needs to find a way to revive foreign direct investment, which has plummeted in response to political and economic uncertainty. Turkey depends on Western technology to improve its low productivity. And he wants Western weapons, especially American fighter jets. He could not achieve any of this if Erdogan turned his back on democracy and joined the club of dictators. All of this gives him a strong incentive to stick with the West.

It’s time for Biden to be blunt

And that should give Western leaders bargaining power. Erdogan is a bully who sees shyness as a reason to push and toughness as an incentive to fix things, as he has recently done with many of his Middle Eastern neighbors. Western leaders should therefore show Erdogan how concerned they are about his behavior by speaking out before the election, privately and publicly, against possible bans on Imamoglu and the hdp. It is not too late to pull Erdogan back from the brink. But the West has to start warning him now.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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