He’s trashed Turkey’s economy. He’s locked up all opposition. He’s playing a deadly game standing between East and West. Now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on the brink of triggering a war to boost his re-election chances.
It’s the centenary of Turkish democracy. On June 23, the nation that sits at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East will go to the polls to choose a new president. It may be the last time its 85 million citizens get a chance to have a say in what path it chooses.
President Erdogan is in serious trouble. That’s despite rewriting the constitution, stacking the courts, jailing political opponents, guaranteeing the military’s loyalty and whipping up nationalistic fervour.
After two decades of uninterrupted political success, his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is polling just 30 per cent support.
It’s little wonder why.
Erdogan refused to allow interest rates to rise. This resulted in inflation exploding to 80 per cent. The value of the Turkish lira has since collapsed. Now people are simply unable to pay their bills.
Erdogan desperately needs a distraction.
In typically autocratic fashion, he’s whipping up fear to justify a war.
He’s just not sure against whom it should be.
The embattled president is manufacturing border crises with his NATO ally Greece. Territorial waters, drilling rights and the future of Cyprus are all trigger points with this ancient foe.
Then there is the Kurdish minority in his own and surrounding countries. He’s played this card several times before. Despite winning international acclaim for their successful stand against Islamic State, Erdogan paints them as separatists, terrorists and outsiders.
And that leads to another problem: Syria. Swarms of refugees have crossed the border from this civil-war-wracked neighbour. Now Erdogan is proposing to send in his tanks to resolve both issues with a single blow.
Each option, however, comes at a cost.
A war with Greece would trigger the NATO alliance against Turkey. Its relationship with Europe and the United States would evaporate. And sanctions would be the least of Erdogan’s worries.
A war with Syria would topple Turkey’s balancing act with Russia. Putin has been keen to use Erdogan as a wedge within the Western alliance. He’s offered desperately needed cash in return.
But there is a third option: Making elections irrelevant.
Erdogan paints himself as a protector of the people. Even if he has to protect them from themselves.
“This tactic, which he has utilised many times before, is an embodiment of devlet baba (or the Turkish concept of the state as a father),” Istanbul-based analyst Erin O’Brien writes in Foreign Policy. “Under this logic, the head of state can be flawed, corrupt, or make extreme decisions and still be trusted because he is believed to be doing so in the name of the family — the Turkish populace.”
The most extreme example came in 2016.
A failed military coup enabled Erdogan to declare a state of emergency and detain some 110,000 people from opposition parties, media and academia. The legal fraternity, military and police received selective attention – as did ethnic-religious minorities. About 50,000 would be formally charged.
Since then, Erdogan has cemented these state-of-emergency powers as his own in perpetuity. And he continues to seize every opportunity to lock up any voice of opposition.
“Turkey today is a prime example of increasing authoritarian practices,” says Center for Applied Turkey Studies in Berlin analyst Sinem Adar.
“Since the late 2000s, the country has steadily moved away from the rule of law and effective separation of powers … The demise of Turkish democracy is arguably one of the most disappointing examples of a global trend.”
Istanbul’s popular mayor and potential opposition presidential candidate were recently convicted of “insulting public officials”. It’s just one of many new laws the AKP has pushed through parliament that can be used as weapons against any form of criticism.
If his appeal fails, Ekrem Imamoglu faces two years behind bars.
But that’s just the tip of the legal iceberg.
More than 100 senior members of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) now face terrorism-related offences. The pro-Kurdish group has a real chance of holding the balance of power between the AKP and an evolving alliance of opposition parties.
The trigger was the bombing of a popular Istanbul shopping strip on November 13. Six people were killed, and another 81 were injured.
The Turkish government blamed the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The PKK denied it.
“But then he did what he typically does best — turned a crisis to his advantage,” argues Chatham House strategist Timothy Ash.
With friends like these …
Turkey is a member of NATO. It’s an applicant to the European Union.
But Erdogan has refused to impose sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, even as he sells advanced combat drones to the defenders in Kyiv.
“This initially appeared to be suicide for the president’s re-election prospects; but with hindsight, it made Turkey critical to all sides,” argues Ash.
But both sides are equally crucial to Erdogan.
Russia backs Syria.
Greece is part of NATO.
If Erdogan wants war with either, he’ll face consequences. Would the inevitable international backlash – whatever its source – be worth it?
Greece, however, is an ancient enemy. The border disputes between the two have prehistoric origins.
Now the bickering has flared again. And such simmering hatred is a popular tool for autocrats struggling with problems at home.
“We can come suddenly one night … if you Greeks go too far, then the price will be heavy,” Erdogan threatened late last year. “The islands you occupy do not bind us. We will do what is necessary when the time comes.”
Both Greece and Turkey are members of the NATO alliance. But NATO’s response to any conflict between the two is clear-cut.
An attack on any of its members is an attack on all.
Any member that becomes an attacker will be left to its own devices.
But Europe needs Turkey.
And Turkey needs Europe.
“This is exemplified by the refugee deal that positions Turkey as Europe’s gatekeeper,” says Australian National University Turkish Studies expert Burcu Cevik-Compiegne.
“It partly explains the reluctance of Europe to impose sanctions on Turkey when Erdogan escalated the Greek-Turkish border crisis in 2020, sending a flood of refugees into Europe.”
Syria – a fighting chance?
Erdogan promised late last year that his troops would “come down hard on the terrorists … at the most convenient time”. This came amid widespread missile strikes against Kurdish communities in Syria and Iraq in retaliation for the Istanbul bombing.
Erdogan insisted this was “just the beginning” of a major new operation.
“First and foremost, it would signal to his base — a population with growing frustration toward Syrian refugees in the country — that he and his party are “doing something” about Syria and the refugees, which he says he will return to Turkish-controlled areas,” argues O’Brien.
“Second, a conflict would provide a rallying cry for more nationalist elements of the Turkish population. Erdogan, at the helm of an invasion of Syria, could project himself as the protector of the country from Kurdish terrorists in the lead-up to the elections.”
Preparations appear to be afoot.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has told military commanders on the Iraqi border that they must be prepared to “complete the task” of crushing the emerging Kurdish independence movement.
But Putin remains a problem.
Erdogan urgently needs his cash to combat inflation.
Moscow is using Turkey to circumvent international sanctions. Ankara naturally takes a cut.
Russia also has paid billions upfront for the construction of a new nuclear power station. It’s offering to turn Turkey into an international energy hub. It’s offering cut-price oil and gas – and stolen Ukrainian wheat.
In return, Erdogan is making NATO look weak by delaying the acceptance of Sweden and Finland’s membership of the alliance.
But invading Syria to crush the Kurds would upset this lucrative apple cart.
“Economic sunshine (or at least the absence of a storm) will help Erdoğan, as will his claim that in a region of instability and insecurity, Turks need his acumen in managing a complex geopolitical mix to Turkey’s advantage,” argues Ash. “Vote for experience, he will say, and shun my inexperienced rivals.”