For Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, the conflict occurring in neighboring Syria has been just what he needed to emerge as a regional leader. For the first time in a very long time Turkey is regarded as an acceptable arbitrator among Middle Eastern Islamic states. Hamas, Hezbollah, Ahmadinejad and Bashir al Assad, among others, all want him and Turkey as a friend.
The issue of Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU) has arrived at a mutual — and for the moment convenient — impasse. The fact is France and Germany under Sarkozy and Merkel really haven’t wanted a dominantly Moslem nation in the EU at all. As Turkey has grown more politically powerful, that opposition only has grown. How things will change under the new socialist French president, Hollande, remains to be seen.
From an economic standpoint Turkey has had a phenomenal GDP growth rate in the last two years — 8.5 percentr in 2011 and 9 percent in 2010. Unfortunately inflation has been zooming along this year above 10 percent spurred by inflows of foreign capital that speculates in the rise and fall of stocks and bonds and the Turkish banks that deal in them. All in all it’s a heady environment for a country — and an administration — that can compare today’s relative stability with an inflation rate of 70 percent ten years ago.
For PM Erdogan personally, Turkey is on the brink of being the key element in the Middle East’s future. Of particular importance, say his supporters, is the success he is achieving in combining an expansion of minority rights — principally for the Kurds — with a greater recognition of Islamic cultural and religious beliefs. The authoritarian style that Erdogan exhibits was reinforced by his strong, nearly overwhelming, third term victory last June. He has been in power now for ten years and has gained political strength along the way.
There are now about fifty generals held in prison along with more than one hundred journalists. The military-controlled secular government created by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk and reinforced by the 1982 constitution would appear to be stripped of its earlier predominance. While the theme of growing Turkish democracy is worthwhile, the practice under Erdogan and his well-organized Justice and Development party (AKP) has muzzled the secular elites in favor of Islamic elites.
To become a member of the latter, the first lesson to learn is never to question the authority and/or preeminence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This has been a slowly growing, but seemingly inexorable, factor in Erdogan’s leadership. According to Huseyin Celik, the AKP vice chairman, “…we are preparing a new legal package.” What this will mean in practice is still open to interpretation, but the implication is that a new basic document will be formed that limits the powers of the judiciary to interfere with governmental decision-making.
With the potential for construction of a new or amended constitution, Erdogan’s authoritarian manner appears sliding toward autocracy. Some go as far as to say that this tendency is a reflection of a desired mystique not unlike that which grew up around Ataturk himself. Certainly this charge is sounded by the still energetic Kemalists, who deeply resent their diminished status.
More important to Erdogan, however, is the sense of power he has gained as the newly favored intermediary in the Syrian conflict and as a middleman in the contest of nuclear wills between Iran and the West. “In the catbird seat” would have to be translated into Turkish, for that is where Erdogan now sits. From Anatolia to Georgetown, Erdogan is lauded as the leader of a country that once again in political and military terms is viewed as the gateway between East and West. As an increasingly staunch Islamic nation, Turkey is often mentioned as an example for other countries in the region — Egypt as the most notable.
Tehran has played its economic card with Ankara by allowing the Turks to pay for Iranian oil in their own currency. Ankara’s large oil import bill is thus substantially reduced and the Iranians prone to buy more Turkish goods. The Saudis, not to be outdone, have made it clear to Erdogan that if the oil sanctions against Iran really begin to bite, the Turks can count on their Saudi “brothers” to fill all their petroleum needs. Meanwhile, Israeli intelligence is bending over backwards to reestablish its once close relationship with its Turkish counterpart, and even the Americans are doing all they can to emphasize the personal friendship between President Obama and P.M. Erdogan.
Along with being “in the catbird seat” comes the need for Erdogan to “keep his eye on the prize” while watching out for becoming “too big for his britches.” There are many other expressions to remember, however, that might be useful at this stage of Erdogan’s leadership. What is most important is to recognize that while he seeks the religious and political ties that Islam derives from the Middle East, it is the West that will have the modernization and sophistication that is the future for Turkey.