Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched military operations against Kurds in northern Syria. Back home, he’s battling a major political rival, economy still in recovery and internal strife – is Erdogan as strong as he looks?
Just days after President Trump abruptly pulled U.S. troops from northern Syria, Turkey unleashed a military offensive against Kurdish forces in the area. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long railed against their ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades – but understanding the stream of airstrikes and Trump-Erdogan tweets requires a breakdown of Turkey’s politics, internal strife and shifting identity.
Ece Temelkuran, renowned Turkish journalist and author of How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, joined Altamar just before the momentous developments in Turkey and Syria. As she explained, Erdogan has “created a new map where you don’t see the West so much, but you see the Eastern countries more … Erdogan’s policies pull Turkey into the Middle Eastern desert, and, so to speak, it’s all dusty and blurry there. Since he came to power, especially after his second term in 2007, Turkey has been roiling in Middle Eastern politics, which became really troublesome after the Syrian civil war began.”
But Erdogan’s military venture could provide a needed popularity boost after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the mayoralty of both the country’s capital of Ankara – and twice lost Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, in local elections this year. Temelkuran argues that Istanbul’s star-power mayor Ekrem Imamoglu “has challenged Erdogan like he’s never been challenged before. Ironically, Imamoglu chose the path that Erdogan followed in 2002 and he became Prime Minister of Turkey… so, he is a real political threat, I would say, in terms of Erdogan’s ambitions… he’s mobilizing and politicizing that energy to become a political leader that represents the ‘other half of Turkey’ and is aiming for more – for AKP voters that have been disappointed by Erdogan’s malpractice and wrongdoing. He’s going to climb the ladder of power in the coming years.”
Indeed, cracks have been beginning to show as Erdogan’s promise of a “New Turkey” and ambitious reforms have been severely clouded by his authoritarian style, intolerance to dissent, merciless crackdown on the press, intellectuals, and minority populations, and economy on the brink of a recession in recent years. In the words of Temelkuran: ““Erdogan treated an illness in Turkey with another illness.”
Nevertheless, Erdogan won’t be dislodged easily. Following its economic slowdown, Turkey has rebounded, with analysts predicting GDP growth of up to 3.5% in 2020. Moreover, Temelkuran says: “Strength is irrelevant. What matters is being powerful or not. And Erdogan is a very powerful person, a very powerful politician.”
Ultimately, Temelkuran thinks Erdogan is both a reflection of global politics today and a harbinger of the times ahead: “The ideal person designed for our times is a person who can do anything to seize the power and stay in power… I don’t see any difference between Putin, Chinese leader [Xi Jinping], Erdogan and Netanyahu… they represent the new world.” Listen to our analysis of what’s next for Turkey – available for download here.