Can Turkey Recover From Erdogan’s Reign?

Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan has ruled Turkey for almost two decades. As Turkey nears its centenary, it has become its most important ruler since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. During the first decade of ErdoÄŸan’s rule, many Western officials refused to acknowledge or acknowledge the change in Turkey under ErdoÄŸan’s leadership. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for example, praised Turkish democracy long after it ceased to be one. While President Donald Trump has not consistently confronted ErdoÄŸan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and congressional leaders have held the Turkish president to account. To his credit, President Joe Biden did not approach ErdoÄŸan with the same sycophancy as his predecessors.

Today, most American political leaders recognize that Turkey is not an ally. Only a few dozen congressional lawmakers are members of the Turkish group, while barely ten years ago, more than 200 were. Whether transactional or ideological, Ankara’s flirtation with Moscow shows just how unreliable Turkey could be as a NATO ally in any future crisis. ErdoÄŸan’s support for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates and the re-qualification of critics as terrorists demonstrate that Turkey is not an ally in the fight against terrorism, a recognition reinforced by the recent decision of the Intergovernmental Foreign Action Task Force to put Turkey on its money laundering. and the gray list of terrorist financing. Realists also cannot cite Turkey’s value as a bulwark against Iranian ambitions after Turkey informed Iran of Israeli spying on Iran’s nuclear program.

ErdoÄŸan is unpopular. So what?

Turks victimized by ErdoÄŸan, West-oriented Turks and many emigrants both stress that ErdoÄŸan and Turkey are not synonymous. They note the growing unpopularity of ErdoÄŸan in Turkey. The devaluation of the Turkish lira – 80% in a decade – testifies to Erdogan’s financial mismanagement. While ErdoÄŸan brags about big infrastructure projects, many of them appear to be transparent attempts to reward his cronies with billion dollar contracts. Even Turks loyal to ErdoÄŸan note the corrosive effects his regime has had on the country. “Istanbul is no longer the city of old” is an increasingly common complaint among those who were once happy to ignore ErdoÄŸan’s religious conservatism in exchange for pro-business policies. Too many Turks feel suffocated by ErdoÄŸan’s restrictive attitudes and autocratic tendencies. Turks who are more educated and cosmopolitan resent his stupidity and his plot.

This poses two questions. First, if such unpopularity could lead to its political downfall, and second, if Turkey can return to the more moderate and secular path it charted before 2002.

Can Erdogan lose an election?

The answer to both of these questions is no. To assume that ErdoÄŸan will submit to electoral responsibility is wishful thinking. True, in 2019 an opposition candidate won Istanbul despite ErdoÄŸan ordering a vote on fragile grounds. While this may give hope that a candidate – perhaps even Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Ä°mamoÄŸlu – can overthrow the president, it nevertheless assumes that the lesson ErdoÄŸan has learned is that he must respect the ballot boxes. Instead, ErdoÄŸan’s track record suggests he will avoid a repeat by stepping up the crackdown ahead of election day and manipulating the numbers as the votes are compiled. The fact that so few Turks took to the streets – and the center-left Republican People’s Party, the party to which Ä°mamoÄŸlu belongs, barely raised his voice when Erdogan arrested Democratic People’s Party leader Salettin DemirtaÅŸ only encourages ErdoÄŸan.

Turkey also has an unfortunate history of political assassinations. Paramilitaries like SADAT may have used snipers to kill Turks during the Reichstag coup. The group is now announcing assassination training. If Erdoğan faces a charismatic opponent, then he could kill two birds with one stone, toppling one rival while blaming another for the murder, a tactic he perfected in his rivalry with former ally Fethullah Gülen. As election season approaches, İmamoğlu could turn into a walking dead man.

Some Turkish analysts argue that old age and poor health could lead Erdogan to retire in favor of someone like Hulusi Akar, the current Turkish defense minister. If Akar lost the election, ErdoÄŸan could blame him but would not be stigmatized by the loss. This too is wishful thinking. First, the idea that Akar, who has spent much of his career working in or for the West, is an undercover liberal is ludicrous. At best, Akar is an opportunist, who can never be trusted to stand up for his principles. Believing it would tilt to the west, however, ignores the significant demographic shift in Turkey over the past two decades. Simply put, Diyarbakir and Kayseri are better representative of Turkey in 2021 than the European quarters of Istanbul, Bursa and Bodrum.

ErdoÄŸan is also unlikely to pass the torch to Akar for another reason. As the ruler of Turkey, ErdoÄŸan revived the past in order to imprison retired leaders. Considering the number of people imprisoned, mistreated or killed by ErdoÄŸan, the most populist decision a future leader could make would be to arrest ErdoÄŸan and spend his retirement years in Silivri prison.

Can Turkey recover from Erdogan?

Many Turkish intellectuals and journalists in exile increasingly resemble their Iranian counterparts who insist that Iran is not the Islamic Republic and insist that positive change is imminent. The reality, however, is that those who place their hope in Iranian reformism or believe that forty years of the Islamic Republic have not changed society have become self-parodies. Turkey is no more an “Etch A Sketch” where a little shake can result in a blank slate than Iran is. In more than eighteen years, ErdoÄŸan not only reshaped the entire military to make it an engine of Islamism rather than a defense force for secularism, but he also reshaped the school. Over 30 million Turks received their education under ErdoÄŸan. His control over the media reinforced the incentive. If ErdoÄŸan’s reign ends tomorrow, it will take decades of concerted effort – and a completely overhauled if not purged bureaucracy – to remove his poison from the system.

Many Turks put aside by ErdoÄŸan now regard the pre-2001 era as the golden age. They advise caution in Washington to avoid burning bridges with the Turks who see ErdoÄŸan as a scourge. Fair enough. But there is a difference between acknowledging that ErdoÄŸan is not Turkey and denying that he has reshaped the country into something that will never be a partner like it once was. Greeks, Armenians, Arabs, Kurds and others want nothing more that Turkey is a normal country, at peace with itself and its neighbors. To achieve this, however, it will take much more than the pious wishes of exiles and former ambassadors; on the contrary, if cancer afflicted ErdoÄŸan tomorrow, Turkey would still face a long and difficult return to normality, which will be measured not in months but in decades.

Michael Rubin is a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey and the wider Middle East. He also regularly teaches at sea courses on conflict, culture, terrorism and the Horn of Africa in the Middle East to deployed units of the United States Navy and Marines. You can follow him on Twitter: @ mrubin1971.

Image: Reuters.