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

 

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable