A Sultan in Autumn: Erdogan Faces Turkey’s Uncontainable Forces

The unprecedented economic growth and personal popularity once enjoyed by the Turkish leader have given way to stagnation, a dwindling support base, and problems abroad.

During his first decade in power, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan maintained his popularity by delivering unprecedented economic growth and dramatically increasing access to healthcare, education, and other essential services. But in recent years, he and his party have faced setbacks, including humiliating mayoral election losses in Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities in 2019. At home, the once robust Turkish economy has sputtered, while abroad Erdogan must balance a perilous alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the need to maintain amicable relations with Washington. A potential refugee crisis from Syria looms as another threat. And on the political front, Erdogan can no longer count on majority support from Turkish voters, a trend driven by disillusionment among millennials, his own clumsy anti-elitist messaging, and establishment fatigue, among other factors.

In this taut and compelling volume—copublished by The Washington Institute and I.B. Tauris—Soner Cagaptay lays out the mounting challenges to Erdogan’s rule. While suggesting the adaptive president may still survive politically—with undoubted costs for Turkey’s citizens, institutions, and allies—he also offers a more hopeful subtext, intimating that the country’s resilient democracy can outlast any one leader.

Pls see the link for the book written by Soner Cagatay. 

Here is the Introduction: A Sultan in Autumn

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a consequential leader in the context of Turkish history. He has won more than a dozen nationwide elections since 2002, primarily by delivering strong economic growth, increasing access to the proverbial pie, and improving social services.

His popularity has, in turn, allowed him to eliminate key elements of Turkey’s twentieth-century political system, labeled Kemalism, while also casting Turkey as a prickly member of the international order, quarreling with and often pushing back against allies, from the United States to France to Germany, as well as neighbors, from Greece to Iran to Syria.

For over half a century, Kemalism prohibited religion in government officially, as well as subordinating religion institutionally, but Erdogan, especially since around 2010, has flooded Turkey’s government, education system, and public sphere with his version of conservative Islam. This has swelled the ranks of his Kemalist enemies. Many secular, liberal, and leftist Turkish citizens, including Kurdish nationalists, loathe Erdogan equally. As a nativist populist leader, Erdogan demonizes, brutalizes, and cracks down on these demographic groups, which he believes will not vote for him in any case. Many of Erdogan’s opponents are, therefore, eager to see him lose the country’s next general elections, currently scheduled for 2023, so that they can prosecute him through the court system and target him
more generally for his misdeeds, all with the goal of diminishing his stature and legacy.

In the foreign policy realm, Erdogan’s interventionist and nationalist policies have alienated many among Turkey’s European allies, most recently France. Among other areas of tension, Paris and
Ankara have engaged in a proxy war in Libya, supporting opposing sides in that country’s civil war (as explained in chapter 7). His policies, specifically support to the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, have undermined Turkey’s ties to Israel, Egypt, and Gulf Cooperation Council members such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, countries that see the
Brotherhood as the greatest threat to their security.

Iran, too, opposes Turkey’s policies in the Middle East, most notably Ankara’s support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. For a time, this support put Turkey on a collision course with Assad’s other international patron—and Turkey’s historical nemesis—Russia.

While Erdogan has recently made peace with Putin, Moscow can hardly be considered a friend to Ankara in the strategic sense. Turkey and Russia disagree on a plethora of issues, ranging from Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to the older Cyprus conflict.

To be fair to Erdogan, not everything looks bleak from Ankara. The Turkish president has managed to maintain good ties with a number of states, including Qatar, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Britain.

However, owing to sharp policy differences over Syria and the Arab uprisings explained in this book, Turkey’s ties with its oldest and most important ally, the United States, have weakened considerably
under Erdogan. Simply put, Erdogan cannot rely on Turkey’s sevendecade-long ally to reliably cover for Ankara. This presents difficulties:

Erdogan must constantly manage his relationship with Putin in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus, where Ankara and Moscow support opposing sides in conflicts. Erdogan’s game plan: continue to play
everyone, including Russia, but also the United States, European countries, Iran, and Arab states, against one another.

The economy is Erdogan’s Achilles’ heel, both at home and in foreign policy, where it will determine whether he can continue his juggling act with international players. After enjoying some fifteen years of growth, Turkey’s economy entered recession in 2018, which may be why his faction lost mayoral elections in Istanbul, Ankara, and other key Turkish cities the following year, and with that his popular
majority. In addition, when Erdogan nullified the Istanbul outcome on March 29, 2019, which his party lost by a narrow 13,000 votes, the opposition delivered him a resounding beating in the revote—the
first such electoral reversal for him. His candidate, Binali Yildirim, lost by nearly a million votes.
There was a time when Erdogan—whether one liked him or not—represented change in Turkey. He stood for a forward-looking vision for the country, and there was hope that he could navigate
the most pressing challenges, from the Kurdish issue to corruption to economic mismanagement, and he did. For instance, after taking office as prime minister in 2003, he delivered a decade of economic
growth, a record achievement in recent Turkish history. And in 2011, he entered into secret peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to find a political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The
people loved him for his effectiveness and supported him at the ballot box. But today, Erdogan appears to have lost his magic touch. He no longer represents change in Turkey. Now, he stands for the status quo, including problems locked in by his own errors (e.g., ineffective monetary policy, the S-400 deal, and personal acrimony with regional leaders). And the opposition, which has proven resilient, represents change and problem-solving. To put it succinctly, although Erdogan
controls Turkey, he does not lead it anymore.

Today Erdogan is, therefore, a leader in trouble. And unfortunately, many of the ways he fights to retain power actually facilitate the greatest threats to Turkey’s strength. For instance, to divert attention from the economy, governance issues, and rising opposition at home, he has since 2018 been aggressively seeking conflicts into which to interject Turkey. To be fair, Erdogan is not creating these conflicts. In a
world where the United States is retreating from global commitments and interventions, Turkey’s neighborhood is rife with wars. Erdogan knows well enough, however, to align foreign policy distractions with Turkey’s real foreign policy concerns, from the eastern Mediterranean
to the South Caucasus.

As of early 2021, this strategy has resulted in Turkish military involvement in wars in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus, as well as mutually driven crises between Ankara and fellow NATO members France and Greece. Rallying public opinion around war and national security issues seems to have prevented further erosion of Erdogan’s popularity in the short term. The military interventions may have
even brought short-term gains. But at what ultimate cost?

If the hobbled Turkish economy fails to grow strongly, not only will Erdogan’s base keep weakening, but he will be unable to continue with his foreign policy game. The odds could thus steepen against
Erdogan generally.

But one of the things that makes Erdogan such an intriguing figure to study is his ability to beat the odds. Can he survive the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, a resilient opposition, demographic
challenges, and multiple wars? In this book, I make the case for his probable survival, but one with unfortunate costs for Turkey’s citizens, institutions, and allies. I also describe why and how I think
he will manage his various challenges, and what effect his continued leadership will have on Turkey’s future, as well as ties between Ankara and its friends and neighbors.

Soner Cagatay / Washington Institute