The success and failure of Erdogan’s leadership
Once a country that most “Arab Spring” countries aspired to emulate, Turkey is now at a historic crossroads. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, faces a new reality with former friends and allies now enemies, and seemingly waning influence at home and abroad.
This is somewhat changed circumstances for the man many admired worldwide for the form of governance formulated under his Justice and Development Party. As head of the party, Erdogan steered Turkey to become a regional superpower, achieving rapid growth in many sectors. The expansion of the country’s economy, the advanced infrastructure, and the huge tourism push are just a few examples.
Turkey invaded the Arab world not only through its industrial and agricultural products, but also through its soft power, in the form of its highly popular Turkish drama series.
Through multiple economic and political moves, Erdogan had become an iconic figure for many Arabs, including supporting the Turkish flotillas on the shores of the Gaza Strip that attempted to lift Israel’s siege. Then his popularity soared after clashing with Israel’s President Shimon Peres at the Davos Economic Forum and storming out of a panel discussion. Erdogan had essentially fulfilled the desire of Arab people to have a leader they could glorify.
Indeed, Turkey has influenced the entire world with a different model for Islam and politics, but this situation has changed. Turkey’s involvement in the internal affairs of many Arab countries has come at a high price, resulting in Erdogan losing much of his status among various leaders and his own people.
Power can sometimes cause one to become delusional and seek absolute authority. For example, the Turkish government’s response to the Taksim Square protests was clearly disproportionate. The violence against the demonstrators, denounced by the international community, only caused the anti-government protest movement to grow. The government’s eventual concessions to some of the demands made by the people helped to overcome the crisis, but at a high cost to the party and Erdogan himself.
There was more to come. The country had previously been known for secret conflicts waged between the army and the government, coupled with Erdogan’s crackdown on many of the army leaders he believed were against him. But this time there was talk of corruption at the heart of the administration, described as a “black spot” on the history of democratic Turkey.
Erdogan responded to these charges just as many Arab regimes had done before they were toppled. “It’s a foreign conspiracy against us and our economy,” he said. News of escalating conflict between Erdogan and his longtime friend President Abdullah Gul shows that he might have overcome his poor background, but resisting the temptations of exceeding his power is another beast altogether.
The performance of a country’s economy validates the actions of its government. As expected, the Turkish economy suffered, with the lira dropping dramatically and causing lower growth expectations.
Critics accuse Erdogan, who is known for his strong personality, of trying to alter Ataturk’s secular approach in Turkey. He was imprisoned in 1998 after being accused of inciting religious hatred by quoting verses of a Turkish poem while addressing a crowd. After he defected from the banned Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, he founded the Justice and Development Party.
While Erdogan has always said he would abide by Ataturk’s vision for Turkey as a civilized and contemporary society, his actions have proven otherwise. One highly controversial decision, to prevent unmarried people from living together and banning mixed living areas on campuses, are examples of the anti-Ataturk approach, his opponents argue. They believe Erdogan is depriving people of their basic personal freedoms.
Erdogan plans to run for president in 2015, in the first direct-voting elections. Although his past victories ensure him a place as one of Turkey’s most important leaders, he should still have an exit strategy. Most leaders fail to calculate when it is the right time to leave politics.
Turkey is still a remarkable democracy with internationally certified elections showing that the wishes of the people are respected. But the model it has developed, mixing secularism with Islam, appears to be less in vogue in so-called Arab Spring countries.
There is clearly a decline of political Islam in Arab Spring countries. The conversation has now turned from Arab countries cloning the Turkish experience, to the possibility of having this decline reflected in Turkey. That’s politics.