Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Editorial | Sultan Erdogan and cold turkey

Published:Sunday | April 23, 2017 | 4:00 AM

Last Sunday's referendum eroding the foundations of democracy in Turkey has strengthened Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hold on power and set the country careering towards the precipice of ideological isolation from Europe. It wasn't supposed to be like this. When Mr Erdogan came to power in 2003 as prime minister, later transitioning to president 11 years later, he was seen by the West as a poster boy of integrationism, bastion of stability, and a strong ally of America and Europe. How the tables have turned.

The political atmosphere in Turkey has become increasingly unstable. It has become a magnet for terror attacks from Islamists who believe the government has sold out by joining Western allies in a military pushback against radicals. Agitation with Kurdish fighters continues on one flank. The economy has tanked.

Following last year's botched coup by rogue elements within the army, an embattled Erdogan has reacted like a wounded animal short of a mortal blow. He purged the army and judiciary in a sweeping reprisal, and threw thousands of perceived political saboteurs out of public-sector and university jobs. Voices of opposition have been silenced.

Though European Union (EU) leaders are smarting from Erdogan's snub, they would do well not to seek to destabilise his government and engage in punitive machinations that ostracise the regime. For an authoritarian Turkey that is a crucial partner in the war against terrorism and an important geopolitical pole between Europe and the Middle East is still a better alternative to the unknown.

But even though Mr Erdogan has deepened his control, we suspect that he has overshot confidence in his sway and influence. Despite his power grab over the last year, he eked out a marginal victory with only 51.3 per cent in the referendum. Mr Erdogan could stay in power for another 12 years. The prime ministership will be dissolved and he will have unilateral power to appoint judges, contrary to the prior system in which they were elected by their peers.

 

MODERN-DAY SULTAN

 

Mr Erdogan, for all intents and purposes, is becoming a modern-day sultan. His egotism and self-obsession notwithstanding, the Frankenstein Mr Erdogan has become is partly a creature of the EU's own making.

Turkey's sociocultural uniqueness has made its accession to the EU most difficult.

Despite years of negotiations and back-bending concessions towards EU integration, the Turkish leadership has never quite felt as if it was part of the family. Attempts to wring out more give-ins have been viewed as the manifestations of Arabophobia and Islamophobia.

If Mr Erdogan follows through with his just-stated intention to reintroduce the death penalty, he would effectively have killed off the European project, which has been on life support for some time. It would be a case of cold turkey. If the EU does not cobble together a rapprochement of sorts with the Erdogan regime and rekindle any hopes of Turkish accession to the boardroom of European governance, the chance may be lost for a generation, at least, with grave political consequences.

We do not think Mr Erdogan to be invincible at home. The country is rigidly divided. His regime may not even survive till 2029. Should cleavages in Turkish society worsen and the security situation disintegrate further, the president's grip will become more tenuous.

The rise of the Islamic Right has had a paralytic effect on the development of a fully democratic polity in Turkey, and failure to stop its march could further destabilise the region. Mr Erdogan has satiated religious conservatives in his AK Party and fostered the Islamisation of Turkish politics. But if he is not careful, he might be sowing seeds that germinate into radicalist weeds.