Beyond the Gallipoli centenary

Fear is that Erdogan will remain well-backed by Turkish public, even if economy runs aground.

Building bridges with West

2015/05/08 Issue: 4 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wel­comed dozens of world leaders to Gallipoli to mark the centenary of the ill-fated Allied landings during World War I. Erdogan has rarely been far from controversy of late with the Justice and Development (AK) Party-led government pulling several ambassadors from posts overseas over statements related to the Armenian genocide.

Conversely, almost 20 years af­ter the battle for Gallipoli in 1915, Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish state who took the name “Ataturk”’ or “Father of Turks”, is attributed as having said of the Australian and New Zea­lander forces who died in Gallipoli: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

It made him, and Turkey, many friends abroad, something the country’s leaders could badly do with today as Turkey’s government and Erdogan appear hell-bent on seeking conflict, inside Turkey and abroad, at almost every turn.

This was not always the case. During the first four years of the AK Party’s rule it excelled in taking on and overcoming Turkey’s various ingrained difficulties. It reined in rampant inflation and revalued the Turkish lira in 2005. It embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects, the result of which saw it white­wash all comers at election time over the past 13 years. Residents of Istanbul and in rural towns could find — and afford — Western cloth­ing and cars for the first time; banks offered cheap credit. Erdogan, the mayor of Istanbul during the 1990s, had rebuilt Turkey as he wished.

But since 2007, the former prime minister now president has sur­rounded himself with yes-men possessing little political nous and questionable economic acumen. The individuals who built Turkey into a modern economic power have been forced out when their professional advice contravened Erdogan’s political legacy. A cult of invincibility fed by overt paranoia towards any and all criticism now pervades. Observers say a single independent keystone remains inside the government sphere of influence: Central Bank Governor Erdem Basci.

Erdogan has expressed his de­sire to see Turkey become a top ten world economy (currently 18th, ac­cording to International Monetary Fund figures) in time for the repub­lic’s centenary in 2023, but with the Turkish lira losing 30% of its value against the US dollar over the past 12 months, the economy is likely to decline.

That is why opposition figures are quietly confident they may be in a position to upset the AK Party election locomotive in June’s gen­eral elections.

Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to the United States and a leading figure within the op­position Republican People’s Party (CHP), says the time is ripe for change.

“It may not take much to defeat AKP in the June elections because much of the job is being done by President Erdogan and Prime Min­ister [Ahmet] Davutoglu them­selves. The economy is down, de­mocracy gone, foreign policy in shatters and society polarised,” he said.

Logoglu said the CHP and Kurd­ish-aligned People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have come up with in­spiring election platforms promis­ing better economic management “with an emphasis on social justice and respect for fundamental free­doms and human rights”.

He may have a point. In March, a Japanese firm involved in the building of an undersea train tun­nel in Istanbul came looking for the $200 million it sunk into the project. Developers famed for their close links to the government ap­pear on television nightly pleading with the public to buy property in the latest tower block. Annual in­flation is at 7.5%.

In reality though, the AK Party is still a well-oiled, savvy electoral machine. Erdogan’s oratory is as emotive as it is inciting. His com­bination of evoking God, Turkish nationalism and defiance reso­nates well with many Turks. The fear, however, is that Erdogan will remain well-backed by the Turkish public, even if the economy runs aground. Were that to happen, Turkey would look more like its neighbours to the south, a land of conflict and divisions.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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