The evolution of Erdogan’s tenure as leader of Turkey is reflective of a broader change across the global political landscape. Democratic reforms he has spearheaded since taking the helm in 2003 led to President Obama proclaiming Turkey to be a ‘model’ for other states in the region to follow. His recent victory in the Turkish constitutional referendum enhanced his executive presidential powers, further embodying the trend of ‘strongman’ leaders, and moving Turkey ever closer to the nationalist, authoritarian, ‘managed democracy’ systems of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Rodrigo Dueterte’s model in the Philippines.
The irony, of course, is that Erdogan’s strides to dictatorship came about through perhaps the most democratic of processes – a nationwide referendum.
The troublesome implications for the West will rest upon continued support for an authoritarian regime. Turkey’s geostrategic importance will continue to dictate relations between itself and the U.S. Russia’s historically frosty relations with Erdogan will continue to thaw, as the Turkish leader views Putin’s leadership as a replicable model in his own country. Continued support for Erdogan will be seen as hypocritical of proclaimed Western values, and will further undermine the legitimacy of Western moral hegemony in the Middle East, and indeed worldwide.
The push for greater presidential powers was in no small part catalysed by the continued threats Turkey faces from extremism in its neighbouring states and the flood of refugees from these countries, further triggered by a coup attempt in August 2016. Paranoia, in part justified by real dangers and crises that the West has failed to effectively address, has led to thousands of arrests and a crackdown on critical media outlets across Turkey.
Internally, the referendum has revealed increasing divisions in Turkish society. In drawing comparisons to Brexit, the populist outcome was opposed by major urban centres such as the capital Ankara, and Istanbul, where Erdogan was mayor for a decade. The margin of victory was much closer than expected by Erdogan and his AK party. Widespread reports of electoral malpractices and disproportionate coverage in the mainstream media of the ‘yes’ campaign will continue to plague what was supposed to be a decisive victory for the leader.
Continued strife in Turkey may well lead to further protests, and potential for further coup attempts to oust what opposition view as a step closer to a fully-fledged dictatorship. A future plot to seize control by opponents would increase Erdogan’s paranoia, provoke more erosion of parliamentary, judicial and media powers, and tighten his grip over the country.
President Trump’s congratulatory phone call in the immediate aftermath of the disputed result is an indicator of the direction that U.S.-Turkish relations will take. With no acknowledgement of human rights violations during the call, it appears Trump’s fetish for regional strongmen is not lost on Erdogan, and co-operation on continued issues such as fighting ISIS will override any desire for the U.S. to denounce Turkey’s erosion of democracy.
A strong Turkish leader is undoubtedly crucial to Western strategy, and in the resolution of the plague of issues that continue to rage across the Middle East. A dictatorship, which supporters see as imperative to efficiently make decisions and acting in times of crisis, is perhaps understandable in the short-term. In the long run, Western and U.S. support for an authoritarian, ‘friendly tyrant’ regime will bring the same ideological hypocrisy and damaging consequences that haunted U.S. reputation and legitimacy in the Middle East and in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s. Warm relations with Erdogan, the most powerful Turkish leader since the country’s founder, Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, must continue to be conditional on his respect for international law and the human rights that are slowly eroding whilst his grip on personalised rule fastens.