Erdoğan prepares war and repression to save his skin – POLITICO

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Paul Taylor is editor-in-chief of POLITICO.

PARIS — After bringing down the Turkish economy and impoverishing the middle class that he himself had enriched, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now dragging his country into a useless war and manipulating justice against his rivals.

It is Erdoğan’s ruthless will to cling to power in 2023 – the centenary of the Turkish Republic – and let’s hope he fails.

Turkey’s presidential election, due to be held on June 23, is arguably the most important – though by no means the fairest – vote in the world this year. It will determine whether this nation of 85 million citizens, at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, will continue to slide down the path towards an authoritarian and expansionist power, or if it chooses a more liberal and pluralistic.

For the first time since Erdoğan’s conservative, Islamist-tinged Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, the prospect of political change is serious. Inflation tops 80% annually, the Turkish lira has fallen against the dollar, and government popularity has plummeted as economic hardship has grown.

Polls show Erdoğan – who has ruled with an increasingly autocratic hand after changing the constitution to create a bespoke presidential system – is in serious political trouble, with the AKP receiving just 30% support.

Of course, his response has been typically brutal on both domestic and international fronts.

Despite opposition from Washington and Moscow, Erdoğan has trumpeted preparations to send tanks into Syria, seeking to dislodge Kurdish militias allied with the West in the fight against Islamic State militants, but which Ankara considers as linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). guerrillas. He seems determined to complete a buffer zone across Turkey’s southern border.

Meanwhile, the Turkish president is also threatening to hit NATO ally Greece amid fabricated disputes over gas drilling, Cyprus and the alleged ‘militarization’ of Greece’s Aegean islands – although the international economic and political cost of such action makes it highly unlikely.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan has positioned Turkey as the indispensable mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, helping broker deals and arranging talks between US and Russian security chiefs. He has also managed to support Ukraine – including with sales of military drones – while maintaining trade and energy ties with Russia and without jeopardizing his personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin or incurring the wrath of the West.

Meanwhile, back home, the Turkish president has used a judicial system not quite renowned for its independence to try to disqualify his strongest potential challengers.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, a popular figure in the center-left secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), who could be a unifying opposition presidential candidate, has just been sentenced to more than two years in prison. prison and banned from holding public office for “insulting public opinion”. officials. For now, the decision is on hold pending appeals, but Erdoğan can try to speed up the legal process, so his rival is banned from running.

The West might be relieved to see Erdoğan’s back | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Additionally, more than 100 politicians from the main pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) are still on trial for alleged terrorism offences, which could lead to the banning of the movement. The HDP is not part of the alliance of six opposition parties, which is developing a common electoral platform, ranging from the social democratic left to the liberal centre-right. However, he could become the kingmaker if, as polls suggest, neither the AKP nor the opposition win a majority in parliament.

Erdoğan, former mayor of Istanbul, himself faced similar legal harassment before the AKP triumph in 2002. Sentenced to a year in prison for reading an allegedly Islamist poem, he banned from standing for election and had to wait before becoming prime minister.

However, it remains to be seen how far this formidable militant is prepared to go this time in terms of real military action to play the nationalist card in his fight for his re-election.

In 20 years, Erdoğan went from a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to open or latent conflict with Syria, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Armenia. However, in recent months he has begun a rapprochement with several of these adversaries – partly because the failure of the Turkish-backed Arab Spring uprisings forced him to adjust his foreign policy, but also because he has desperately needs Arab and Western capital to consolidate. the economy, gutted by its reckless policy of keeping interest rates low.

While public opinion is strongly nationalist in Turkey, a ground incursion into Syria that triggers a US or Russian reaction, forcing Ankara to back down, could backfire – as could its crude use of the judiciary to ward off opposition. On the other hand, a limited cross-border operation with few Turkish casualties might actually be acceptable to voters, in the same way that Israel’s regular strikes on Gaza in retaliation for Palestinian rocket attacks by Hamas are seen as police operations rather than wars.

The coming months will therefore be filled with martial gestures, in particular to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of a modern and secular republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu protest against repeat municipal elections in 2019 | Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Erdoğan will want to project Turkey’s restored influence into a multipolar world where middle powers can wield more influence, as the United States and Russia are less willing or able to act as global policemen. But after interventions in Libya and in support of Azerbaijan against Armenia, he could well stop before a ground assault in Syria, if the major powers continue to warn him.

The European Union, unfortunately, is likely to be a spectator rather than a force for moderation or change. The bloc is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, but it has lost influence in Ankara as the country’s EU accession process is moribund, and Brussels regularly has to buy Turkey off with aid to keep nearly 4 million Syrian refugees on its soil rather than letting them flood Greece.

The West would no doubt be relieved to see Erdoğan’s back. But governments are hedging their bets, keeping lines of communication open to the strongman on the Bosphorus and offering depressing public aid to the opposition, even as they quietly pray for a more moderate, pro-Western Turkey in June. .

Crossed fingers.


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