Erdogan wins big — and that spells trouble

Erdogan wins big — and that spells trouble
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s snap election gamble paid off. His sweeping victory in Turkey’s presidential elections guarantees him the freedom to implement the terms of last year’s constitutional referendum, which passed by the slightest of margins. The new amendments to the constitution, which will go into effect next year, create a presidential system that gives Erdogan extensive powers, while neutering the parliament and abolishing the office of prime minister, a post that he held for 11 years beginning in 2003.  

The man who grew up on the mean streets of Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, and served as the city’s mayor before becoming prime minister, can now run for re-election twice more, meaning that he can serve as president until 2028.

Erdogan’s Turkey once was seen as a model for governance by moderate Islam. Though his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) drew much of its support from the politically and religiously conservative hinterlands of Anatolia, during Erdogan’s early years as prime minister, Istanbul and western Turkey continued to be dominated by Kemalist-inspired secularism.


Erdogan initially revived a sluggish Turkish economy; he did so again after the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, in 2011 Turkey’s GDP grew by more than 11 percent. Erdogan also offered more cultural autonomy to Turkey’s Kurds, whose existence Turkish governments had denied for years, calling the people “Mountain Turks.” He even began a peace process with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK organization.

Much has changed since 2014, when Erdogan assumed what previously had been the ceremonial post of president. Erdogan built himself a billion-dollar presidential palace and outfitted his presidential guard with Ottoman-style uniforms. More ominously, he began arresting journalists who dared to criticize him, and then, using the July 15, 2016, failed coup as a pretext, fired 100,000 government employees, detained more than 150,000 persons, and arrested nearly 50,000 people including 20,000 military and police.

He also interfered with the judicial system; the new amendments to the constitution formally give him the power to do so. And he arrested the leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, on what many consider to be trumped-up charges.

Erdogan has terminated the peace process with the PKK and sent troops into Iraq to attack the organization’s fighters. For some time, he also did little to tighten Turkey’s porous border with Syria, looking the other way as ISIS fighters used Turkish territory as a rear staging area. Though he since has reached an understanding with Washington on dealing with ISIS, Turkish forces continue to bomb Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), previously allied with American forces fighting ISIS. He insists that the YPG and its political arm, the PYD, are both linked to the PKK.

Though President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE has kind words for Erdogan, as he does for most of the world’s strongmen, Turkey’s relations with Washington continue to deteriorate. During his last visit to Washington, Erdogan outraged many observers as he watched his bodyguards tussle with protesters outside his embassy window. Moreover, Washington is deeply concerned that 2019 is not only the year when the new amendments go into force; it is also the year that Turkey will receive its shipment of Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft systems. This will be the first time a NATO member has acquired any such system. It therefore should come as no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the first to congratulate Erdogan on his electoral victory, stating that “the outcome of the vote confirms Erdogan’s great political authority.”

Together with Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Erdogan no longer can be relied upon to join a NATO consensus to take any action against any future Russian aggression.

There have been numerous news reports about the uncertain state of Erdogan’s health. He reportedly collapsed at a rally last year, and there are constant — but unsubstantiated — rumors that he suffers from some form of cancer. Erdogan appeared to be the picture of health on the night of his big victory, however, and Turks, as well as Turkey’s erstwhile NATO allies, may have to look forward to another decade of what will only become an ever harsher form of high-handed authoritarianism.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.