Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dominates his country’s politics like no other leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who led it to independence after the first World War. Having won eight successive national elections, three local elections and two referendums he is now to stand in Turkey’s first directly-elected presidential poll next month. Traditionally this is a ceremonial rather than an executive role, and the constitution has not been changed to alter that, but Mr Erdogan evidently intends to make the office a new centre of political power if he wins. Many Turks are worried this would exacerbate his growing authoritarianism since he was last elected in 2011.
Mr Erdogan’s achievements since coming to power in 2002 are many. Turkey’s economy has tripled in size since then in dollar terms, transforming its major cities and physical infrastructure and financed by huge flows of foreign and domestic credit. Much of the economic surplus has helped create employment, social services, transfers and healthcare for the masses of Anatolian poor people who are his main supporters. Previous Turkish regimes dominated by a secular metropolitan elite put in place by Ataturk disadvantaged them and scorned their Islamic piety. Asserting their political, cultural and religious rights forced Erdogan and his party to face down and tame the military and other forces who controlled the state and to endorse Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union. He has taken a courageous initiative to end the conflict with the country’s 15 million Kurdish minority.
Erdogan now says he wants to put an end to “the era of tutelage” represented by these elites and that he intends to use the presidency to see that through. His charisma and power still sustain a politics of resentment directed against them. But in the past three years his exercise of power has become more personalised and fitful. Reacting to allegations of corruption from his close association with the large-scale construction companies, he has pursued and arrested critics, jailed opponents, shifted judges, banned online services, attacked media and protected close associates from public scrutiny.
These disturbing traits could be reinforced if he is elected in the first round of the presidential vote next month. A slowing economy and an increasingly uncertain foreign policy in a turbulent region may encourage those who say Turkey needs autonomous institutions, a separation of powers, stronger economic regulation, an independent media and an effective opposition at this stage of its development, not a lurch towards more authoritarianism. Turkey’s future has become so closely bound up with Erdogan’s that it would be better for both that changes like these should flow from its forthcoming electoral cycle.