What Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought first and foremost in his political career is the sort of absolute power enjoyed by the sultans of the old Ottoman empire. By outwitting his formidable political opponents, both at home and abroad, he has largely managed to win this. Skilfully he managed a constitutional coup which first placed him in the presidency, and then redefined the role, function and powers of that office.
Erdogan’s presidential ambitions go back a good few years. The events of 2013, when he held the post of prime minister, may have crystallized them. Twice during the course of that year violence directed largely against Erdogan and the party he leads, the AKP, broke out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. The underlying cause in both cases was a widespread perception that Erdogan was attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world, and was becoming too dictatorial in doing so.
Then came the events of 15 July 2016.
In a chaotic night of violence, what appears to have been an attempted coup by a group of the Turkish military left nearly 300 people dead and more than 1,400 injured. The confused sequence of events has never been fully explained, but the subsequent state of emergency that Erdogan imposed on Turkey was maintained for two full years.
During that time Erdogan was able to govern with virtually dictatorial powers, jailing some 160,000 people judged to be political opponents. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists imprisoned. On July 8, 2018, just before the state of emergency was lifted, a new purge resulted in the sacking of a further 18,000 state workers, while another TV channel and a further three newspapers were closed.
Erdogan now heads an administrative system that is close to one-man rule.
And yet a modicum of the basic constitutional and judicial structure of the old Turkish republic lingers, and the popular will still has the ability to break through. Erdogan began his political career as mayor of Istanbul and, throughout his time in national politics, his AKP party ruled the city. Indeed he is on record as saying that if his party “lost Istanbul, we would lose Turkey.”
Then came the municipal elections of March 2019. To the shock and horror of the AKP and of Erdogan himself, the AKP candidate was defeated by 0.2% of the vote – a mere 13,700. The AKP immediately challenged the result and petitioned for a rerun. That did not sit well with the electorate. In the new vote, held in June 2019, the anti-AKP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, boosted his margin of victory 57-fold to win 54.2% of the vote against 45.0%. It was a record in the history of Istanbul local elections.
Despite this setback, Erdogan has become a fulcrum of political and military activity in the Middle East. Domestically he has for years been combatting the PKK, a group struggling for Kurdish autonomy, sometimes prepared to use terrorism to make its point. He maintains that the YPG group, which dominates the Kurdish Peshmerga military force stationed on the Syrian-Turkish border, is indistinguishable from the PKK.
When US President Donald Trump suddenly announced a withdrawal of US forces from the area, Erdogan sprang into action, launching a military attack aimed at forcing the YPG back further into Syria. He has constructed a so-called “safe zone” projecting several kilometers into Syria, into which he is trying to move the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey during their civil war.
With one foot firmly planted in NATO, he should in theory be closely aligned with his Western colleagues. His other foot, however, appears to be resting in the snows of Moscow. He has concluded an arms deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin which gives him access to an anti-missile system designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35 produced by the US, which he was also seeking to acquire. Forced to make a choice, he plumped for the Russian deal.
In January 2020 he intervened militarily in Libya both to boost his standing at home and to fulfil his vision of holding a dominating position in the Middle East. His rationale, he said, was to protect Libyan-Turks or Libyans of Ottoman descent.
“It is our duty to protect our kin in Libya,” he declared, in a chilling reminder of Adolf Hitler’s justification for the Austrian anschluss, the takeover of the Sudetenland, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In his latest move on the global chessboard, Erdogan is openly referring back to the glory days of the Ottoman empire. In the middle of August he sent the Oruc Reis, an oil and gas exploration vessel, escorted by warships, into what has always been regarded as Greek territorial waters. Accusing Greece of trying to grab an unfair share of untapped resources,
Erdogan claimed that the many small Greek islands that lie off the Turkish coast should not be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries.
Choosing the anniversary of the battle of Manzikert in 1071, when the Seljuks beat Christian Byzantine forces, captured the Byzantine emperor and forced their way into Anatolia, Erdogan warned the Greeks that they would again be swept aside if they stood in the way of Turkish ambitions in the region.
“Turkey will take what is its right,” he said. The Greeks were “unworthy of the Byzantine legacy.”
Erdogan springs from a Muslim Brotherhood background, and is in sympathy with its pro-Islamist aspirations. That puts him on a collision course with the secularist philosophy of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, and thus with a large segment ‒ perhaps the majority ‒ of the Turkish population. In seeking to dominate the Sunni Islam world, Erdogan has intervened in Syria, Libya, Iraq, the Holy Land, and now the Aegean ‒ all areas that used to belong to the Ottoman empire.
More than one commentator has described Erdogan’s bid to expand Turkey’s sphere of influence as “neo-Ottoman adventurism”, in line with the recent conversion of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s former basilica, back into a mosque. In Erdogan we have a world leader with personal, religious and political ambitions that make him a potential danger to regional, if not global, stability.