BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: Erdogan – a victim of hubris

By bne IntelliNews March 18, 2015

Suna Erdem in London -


They’re banning Minecraft in Turkey. Great, I’m moving back. Shame they had to un-ban Twitter and YouTube. They should go the whole hog and prohibit the internet – then we parents could flock there, safe in the knowledge our children won’t be trolled, shamed or groomed online.

But paranoid parents apart, most would judge a ban on Minecraft to be ridiculous. It’s also arbitrary. If you worry about violent games, ban Call of Duty, not a children’s construction game where they blow up the occasional pig. However, like many eye-catching stories that emanate from Turkey, it’s not quite true.

Much uttered about Turkey in recent years has the flavour of a joke – stories of criminalising adultery and banning abortions turned out to be false. The hapless parliamentary speaker Bülent Arınç recently said ludicrously that women shouldn’t laugh in public, and an outcry ensued when the government restricted alcohol advertising. Yet women still guffaw with impunity and a friend who owns a restaurant says obtaining an alcohol license is easier than ever.

These stories are entertaining – and I had great fun during my years as Turkey correspondent of The Times – but the regular reference to the government’s perceived Islamist ambitions often disguises what’s really happening.

Prime minister-turned-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party came to power in 2002 and was for many years one of Turkey’s best ever governments. It presided over a remarkable economic turnaround and improved Turkey’s international standing.

I’ve interviewed Erdoğan a few times, and his charisma is undeniable. But he’s also like many authoritarian Turkish men I knew and was irritated by while growing up there. He delights in a brashness he believes to be authentic and is quick to take umbrage – as the many he sued for satirizing him can testify. If you dent their pride, these men burn boats.

Early on, Erdoğan broke taboos and invested much political capital in changing Turkey’s hard line policy on Cyprus and securing candidacy for EU membership. He felt snubbed when Europe allowed Cyprus to become a veto-wielding EU member while still divided, and again when Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy openly opposed full Turkish membership, reinforcing his view that the EU doesn’t want a Muslim state in the fold.

At home, Erdoğan was also under siege from a vocal urbanised elite worried he would put their daughters in headscarves. I spent many a dinner party arguing this was unlikely and was called desperately naïve by people who believe 9/11 was a conspiracy by “the CIA and the Jews”.

The fears persisted, and in 2008 the Constitutional Court nearly shut down Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK) for alleged Islamism. Then came the shock of military intervention in the presidential elections. Erdoğan’s government stormed the ensuing snap polls, but his paranoia increased as he felt slighted at home and abroad.

This is where his politics started going wrong, and the wild stories written about him began to converge with the truth. Erdoğan teamed up with a wily Muslim cleric to neuter the politically overactive military and its anti-democracy supporters. But the cause expanded to encompass those Erdoğan or his allies simply didn’t like. He also took control of much of the media through his cronies. The brutal crackdown on young anti-government protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park two years ago was a defining moment.  From campaigning against the media-controlling establishment, Erdoğan suddenly personified everything he was supposed to be fighting against.

With eyes only for his grassroots supporters, Erdoğan is now surrounded by sycophants. “He doesn’t care any more what people think of him,” one of his close aides told me, “or what the West thinks.” One wonders what might have happened if he’d felt more welcomed by the EU – whose demands on human rights and the economy had been a great driver for Turkey’s early 21st century renaissance.

Economic strength

Despite his international fall from grace, Erdoğan clings on. Detractors talk about his iron grip, crushing of dissent and promotion of backward, knuckle-dragging Islamists. But the main reason his support remains strong is the economy. It was no coincidence AK was elected in 2002 after Turkey’s worst post-war economic crisis – and, under Erdoğan, GDP per head has grown from $3,000 into double figures. Many voters care little about You Tube bans, but like what they see – new roads, bridges, shopping centres, public transport, houses, mortgages, landscaped kerbsides, the power of the lira in their pocket…

When I worked in Turkey for Reuters in the 1990s – dark years of state violence and a dismal economy – my wages increased by several million lira each month. AK has managed to knock six zeroes off the currency. A senior opposition politician told me that even his mother won’t support him: “She doesn’t care how rude Erdoğan is – as long as she can afford better vegetables at the market, he gets her vote.”

Turkey is on tenterhooks, as the economy is now struggling. Moody’s has the country on its lowest investment grade rating, Baa3, with a negative outlook. The current account deficit remains wide and both Fitch and Standard & Poor’s could also soon issue a downgrade. This is probably why Erdoğan has been unusually reticent after being slapped down by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, as well as the central bank chief, for trying to force a vote-winning interest rate cut.

The most recent polls show more Turks oppose AK than support it and many are undecided. Fears of an impending economic crisis are widespread. As he battled real and imaginary demons, has Erdoğan taken his eye off the ball and forgotten to insist on good governance?

So forget the headlines about headscarves and alcohol and a supposed sympathy for Isis, Erdoğan looks like he has fallen prey to hubris after three terms in power, and neglected the things that matter. It’s something that has happened to many a leader, from Thatcher to Blair. Simple, quotidian and devoid of any conspiracy or dangerous Islamism. How disappointingly boring.

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