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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Turkey and Erdogan: Back but to what end?

Turkey and Erdogan: Back but to what end?

Turkey and Erdogan: Back but to what end? Anthony Harrington

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With some 51% of the vote, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged the victor in Turkey's first direct presidential election on 10 August. As has become fashionable in democracies, Erdogan told his cheering supporters in his victory speech that he "will not be the president of only those who voted for me - I will be the president of 77 million". Those opposed to him quietly murmured “Fat chance!”

Until this election, the Turkish president has always been chosen by parliament. This is the first time the voters have had a chance to elect the president directly. Erdogan is dead keen on transforming what was a largely symbolic post into one that will enable him to, in his words, "use the full extent of his constitutional powers".

He has in mind something analogous to the US presidential set up, it seems. Erdogan is obviously and intensely ambitious for Turkey to transform itself into a heavyweight economic and political power. This burning ambition coupled with his autocratic nature - he knows in his bones what's best and critics just don't get it and need to be brushed aside - suggests that Turkey could find itself marching down an increasingly autocratic route.

In an insightful article on the elections Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical strategist at Stratfor argues that Vladimir Putin is Erdogan’s natural role model. The two “get” real politics while other politicians simply huff and puff and play to their respective audiences. Not that these two don’t play to the gallery, but they get their ducks in a row first, at least for short term gains. Whether either can make a fist of things in the mid term remains to be seen. As the Stratfor authors put it:

“[...] given how he has emasculated the Turkish military – something few thought possible a decade ago – one should be careful about underestimating Erdogan. His sheer ambition is something to behold. While Western elites ineffectually sneer at Putin, Erdogan enthusiastically takes notes when the two of them meet.”

Of course, Erdogan makes plenty of mistakes, including major foreign policy errors. One of his recent bets was that Turkey could shape an Islamic Sunni opposition to replace President Bashar al Assad in Syria. That hasn’t happened. At the same time, his anti Israel stance has gone down a treat with the Islamic world but, on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, Greece and the Greek Cypriots appear to have decided that if Erdogan doesn’t like Israel, closer relations are in order. Whether the Greeks still feel that way after Israel’s excesses in Gaza remains to be seen.

Lastly, Turkey has no solution as yet to the fact that its southeast is home to a majority ethnic Kurd population who, as Stratfor points out, feel solidly linked to great swathes of neighboring Kurdish populations in Syria, Iraq and Iran. The original carving up of the Kurds being down to those two fine colonial powers, Britain and France, drawing lines on a map in cavalier fashion while playing at Masters of the Universe.

Stratfor’s take is that despite Erdogan’s desire to see Turkey as a major influencer – if not the major influencer – in the Middle East, “it remains too much a part of the Middle East to extricate itself from the region’s complexities”. No wonder at least half the EU politicians are dead set against Turkey’s accession to the eurozone. For them it would be the equivalent of a Middle Eastern country joining, which would bend the notion of “Europe” right out of shape. And that, for the foreseeable future, would seem to be a bridge too far...

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Tags: Bashar al Assad , Cypriots , Cyprus , Erdogan , Greece , Islamic Sunni opposition , Syria , Turkey
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