The new sultan: Erdogan’s triumph makes drift towards authoritarianism more likely

 

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Transfixed by the chaos engulfing swathes of the Middle East, it is no surprise that the West has not given Turkey’s first direct presidential election the attention it merits – and would have received in more peaceable times. This is a pity because the tectonic plates are shifting fast in the country, which is a crucial link between East and West, and the changes may be both permanent and troubling.

After yesterday’s first round, in which he won more than 50 per cent of the vote, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the all-powerful Prime Minister since 2002, is almost certainly heading for several more years in power under a new label, giving him time to complete the construction of what he calls the “new Turkey”. The polls put him well ahead of his two rivals, a septuagenarian ex-diplomat and a young ethnic Kurd, which is not surprising, as the public has not learnt much about either candidate. Figures for last month showed that while Mr Erdogan received 533 minutes of airtime on state television to make his pitch, his two rivals got three minutes and 45 seconds respectively.

That farcically lopsided allocation of media coverage is only one of many indications that Turkey is morphing into a Russian-style “shell” democracy, in which managed plebiscites mask the essentially autocratic character of a system containing few or no checks and balances.

Like Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s strongman specialises in the rhetoric of “us and them”; in his case, railing against a strange and unlikely combination of Jews and supporters of the US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, who, he insists, are plotting to destroy him. Lest anyone dismiss this as hot air, it should be noted that Mr Erdogan has made good use of these alleged conspiracies to ram through key changes, purging institutions of his opponents, starting with the army and police. When he began putting generals on trial, Western governments were inclined to applaud, seeing the Turkish armed forces as over-fond of politics and their own privileges. But the purges have continued to the point where the only serious resistance to Mr Erdogan’s whims now comes from the judges, who in April bravely struck down his attempt to ban the use of social networks.

This is where Turkey’s foreign friends should really start to worry, because if – or rather when – he becomes head of state, Mr Erdogan will be able to nominate judges and sap the Supreme Court’s ability to oppose him. It gets worse, because Mr Erdogan also plans to transform the hitherto largely ceremonial presidency into the beating heart of government, with the power to appoint ministers and dissolve parliament.

If Mr Erdogan gets away with all this, it will be because he has presided over unparalleled economic growth and – equally crucially – has championed the restoration of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim identity, which is a hugely popular cause among the religious masses. As the advocate of both God and Mammon at the same time, he is in a strong position. Abroad, his increasingly eccentric behaviour is forgiven because he also appears to deliver stability, which, in the eyes of Washington, is a precious commodity.

No one begrudges Turkey its economic boom and new sense of swagger, but it is unfortunate that these gains have come at the expense of the hope that Turkey might develop along different lines. A few years ago, Britain was energetically championing Turkish membership of the European Union on the grounds that Mr Erdogan had showed how it was possible to synthesise Islam and Europe’s democratic values. That is not a claim that anyone outside Turkey is likely to make in future.

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