As with many authoritarian leaders Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey) did not start out as a dictatorial leader. He began as a leader who promised relief from “old school” leadership. Western powers thought he “seemed like a bridge between cultures”. (Drexel Filkins in The New Yorker). As Governor of Istanbul he had been “charismatic” and “a smart technocrat”. But by 2017 he was the President of Turkey and he declared himself a winner in a very close referendum. “It all brings Turkish Democracy to an end.” (New Yorker).
He gave himself vast new powers: he took control of the judiciary, he acquired the ability to make laws by decree, he abolished the office of Prime Minister, and he abolished Turkey’s parliamentary system. He got his new handpicked parliament to pass a law that allowed him to run for two more five year terms, and his “pocket” parliament could extend this until 2034. These are textbook moves these days for turning a democracy into a dictatorship.
He then quelled demonstrations with arrests and bullets and, as most authoritarian leaders manage to do, he created a “government of fear and intimidation”. (New Yorker)
After the coup in July, 2016 (either real or staged) 40,000 people were detained -150 of them journalists, 100,000 employees were fired, and 179 television stations, newspapers and other media outlets were closed. Again, pretty classic stuff.
“Half the country loves him, and half the country loathes him.” (James Jeffreys, a former US Ambassador to Turkey tells the New Yorker). (Sound familiar?)
2007 even saw Erdogan touting a conspiracy theory that there was a secret cabal (“Ergenekon”) that opposed him, made up of the secular elite that formerly led Turkey.
Simon Tisdall writing in theguardian.com in April, 2018, is writing just before the most recent election/“referendum” which Erdogan won by a landslide. Mr. Tisdall says that these leaders who claim to be democratic all have a similar mantra, “You vote, I win.” The Washington Post wrote that “Erdogan is transforming Turkey into a totalitarian prison” where it is a crime to tweet. Although their numbers differ from those in the Guardian, WaPo agrees that since the July, 2016 coup Erdogan “has embarked on a campaign of repression.” 600,000 have been arrested, 150,000 forced from jobs.
You cannot talk about Erdogan without mentioning opposition cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who now resides in Pennsylvania. The Turkish President is certain that Gulen is fomenting opposition to his rule and that he put together the coup attempt. The Washington Post also agrees that Erdogan has waged a multifront campaign against the media in a nation that once had a “robust” independent press.
The Washington Post, in a later article, goes on to discuss how Turkey’s relationship with the US has changed. We were almost (since 9/11) beginning to look at Turkey as a modern ally. “We once thought of Turkey as a buffer between Europe and the Middle East, and between the Middle East and Russia,” said the former Bush administration officials, James Jeffrey and Michael Singh.
But by the end of the Iraq war things had changed significantly. Turkey became a champion of Hamas, helped Iran evade Obama sanctions, complicated the fight in Syria, threatened to allow thousands of refugees to enter Europe, was refused admission to the EU, was guilty of provocative violations of Greek air space, was buying an air defense system from the Russians, and refused to return American pastor, Andrew Brunson. “But it is hard to really lose an ally when it was not much of one to begin with,” says the author of this Washington Post article, Steven Cook.
There’s more. Recently the Turkish economy is having trouble with the value of its currency, the lira. President Erdogan has made some decisions about raising interest rates and inflation which are putting pressure on the people of Turkey. Turkey is home to many poor people and economic inequality is even more pronounced than it is in America. Turkey’s leader finds his paranoia building. He always felt that America might have assisted Gulen with the 2016 coup and now Trump has put tariffs on steel and aluminum. Things are feeling a bit tense. In addition, Turkey may have let capitalists talk the country into lots of high rise buildings which are unfinished, and which no one can afford to rent. Even the new Turkish airport is a very expensive project which is only partially completed. Hopefully Erdogan will get over his paranoia and listen to some better financial advisors soon. No one wants Turkey to be a dictatorial state at all, but especially one with a failed economy.
What is difficult to understand, and this is me talking, is how these authoritarian men I have been writing about come to believe that they are so brilliant and infallible and beloved that they can run a nation of millions of people all by themselves? Have we profiled the dictatorial mind? Can we tell in advance who is a little too impressed with his (and maybe someday her) own importance? Why do dictators generally turn paranoid and then punitive towards their own people?
Why are some people unable to give up power once they get it? And why hasn’t the world learned its lessons and found a way to keep people with these particular personality flaws out of power? George Washington was never in love with power and he resigned rather than accept a new term in office, but he knew all about the power trips of the English Kings (and a few Queens). He tried to protect America from those who might be hungry for power, but now we are faced with a dilemma similar to what we are seeing around the globe. How have we let this dangerous pattern get started in America. Are we certain that we will be able to prevent what has happened in far too many nations from happening here? People on news talk shows keep reassuring us that our country is resilient enough to survive a little flirtation with fascism. You think…?
So keep an eye on Turkey because chaos there may be contagious.
Photo Credits: From a Google Image Search, Toronto Star, Journal du Cameroun