What Turkey’s Authoritarian Shift Means for the Rest of the World
On 24 June 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected. However, the terms “president” and “reelected” are used loosely in discussions of the nation’s current state of affairs. Erdoğan, through his sixteen years in office, has gradually transformed the Turkish government into an entity where these terms do not, or soon will not, exist.
To understand this power shift, one must look at Turkey’s recent history. As a result of the assassination attempt and military coup of 2016, the president has tightened his grip on power in numerous arenas to ensure that an event such as this will never occur again. Erdoğan’s techniques to substantially increase his power include his unjust imprisonment of thousands of journalists, bureaucrats, scholars, and citizens allegedly involved in the coup. He has also since prohibited homeschooling, implemented a highly religious and nationalistic curriculum, published scores of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) propaganda, and mandated the use of “Geliyoo,” a national Turkish search engine funded by the government as a substitute for Google. These efforts not only undo the pro-democracy measures of past leaders, but have also informally shifted the parliamentary republic to a proto-fascist government.
Erdoğan’s grand plan of authoritarian transition was met with considerable blowback, for obvious reasons. Attempting to garner the most public support he can, the president is pressuring, and possibly even threatening, the governor of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey, the TCMB, to keep interest rates, specifically the one-week repo rate, as low as possible, which has resulted in Turkey’s current dismal economic situation.
As a consequence of the artificial and inappropriately low interest rates, the lira crashed less than two months after the election, which Erdoğan himself pushed up more than a year to ensure a victory before the opposition grew too strong. The nation’s currency is presently equal to .18 USD and .16 EUR. This hyperinflation brings about its own host of consequences; government, corporate, and household debt, the cost of living, unemployment, and importing costs are skyrocketing, while real GDP (already smaller than the bankrupted Illinois), purchasing power, government tax revenue, and foreign direct investment are plummeting.
As unfortunate as this is for Turkish citizens, a significant portion of whom are fleeing to nations such as Germany and Spain, what does this mean for the rest of the world, not only economically but also politically?
This rampant hyperinflation has significant repercussions for other countries’ export markets. The United States, Germany, and Russia produce the majority of Turkey’s imports, including scrap metal used as inputs in manufactured goods, vehicle parts, and refined petroleum, respectively. Erdoğan finally noticed the large loss of export revenue in these countries brought about by the extreme weakness of the lira only recently. Although he has a tendency to shift the blame for any economic, or political, trouble to anyone but him, in an effort to repair trade relations, the president visited Germany on 27 September 2018. Protestors gave him a less than warm welcome, lining the tarmac and demanding the release of detained journalists and academics. Trade relations and the effect of “Erdoganomics” were barely discussed at talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, where he instead urged the German government to classify Fethullah Gulen, the man who Erdoğan believes plotted the 2016 coup, as a terrorist and also proudly displayed his plans for a new mosque on German soil. Merkel as well as German citizens were none too pleased with these meetings due to Erdoğan’s refusal to discuss human rights issues and his nationalistic agenda.
Like Germany, other nations and international organizations are now looking upon his ways with extreme disdain and relationships with Turkey are crumbling. A prime example of this is the Andrew Brunson situation and America’s response. After the unjust imprisonment of the American Presbyterian minister in 2016, who, like thousands of others, Erdoğan charged with involvement in the coup, the Trump administration threatened, and later imposed, sanctions on high-ranking members of the Turkish government and tariffs on Turkey’s exported steel and aluminum. These tariffs heavily contributed to the destruction of the lira, as President Trump hoped. When Erdoğan called for their repeal, Trump argued that the Turkish president’s own unjust displays of power landed him in this position in the first place. Seeing the pastor’s case as a bargaining opportunity, Erdoğan offered the release of Brunson in exchange for the ease of tariffs. Although the pastor was released in mid-October of this year and President Trump claims that relations with Turkey are on the path to being “good, perhaps great,” Erdoğan, given precedent, will most likely continue his authoritarian demonstrations at the expense of innocent individuals.
Further, given the Brunson case, Erdoğan’s past human rights violations, and other questionable political moves, NATO and Turkey are currently at odds. Turkey possesses the alliance’s second largest armed forces and is also strategically located as a link between the East and the West, but NATO could only turn a blind eye to his practices for so long. This limit was reached when NATO gained knowledge of Erdoğan’s planned purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia, as it is widely believed within the alliance that the president is too unpredictable to handle the missiles responsibly. Moreover, NATO and Erdoğan have conflicting interests in Syria; Turkey does not support the Kurdish fighters while various other members do. Additionally, within the past year, more than 400 Turkish military envoys to NATO were forcibly removed from their positions under suspicion of holding pro-Western views, which Erdoğan translates into disloyalty within his new system of governance. These envoys were replaced by less educated and less experienced Erdoğan loyalists, who, via presidential command, are hostile to the alliance and difficult to work with. NATO officials, including the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Curtis Scaparrotti, have since grown frustrated with the Turkish delegation’s decline in quality and willingness to cooperate.
To further his anti-West agenda, Erdoğan has developed his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This friendship is Erdoğan’s demonstration to NATO that his nation can find an ally elsewhere, and Putin admires this gall, as it pushes his own anti-NATO and anti-West agenda. Because of this friendship, it is likely that Erdoğan will adhere to Putin’s list of disliked nations, and the international community, especially NATO, cannot predict what consequences this will bring about.
Moreover, Turkey’s dream to gain accession to the European Union, which it applied for in 1999, has died. Earlier in October of this year, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok addressed the progress of Turkey’s bid in light of the authoritarian shift. He argued that Erdoğan must restore the rule of law and reverse the large-scale human rights issues brought about by this shift for the Union to take his accession bid seriously again. However, Erdoğan continues to violate the rule of law and human rights, indicating that he has accepted that his country will not gain entry into the Union. This is a further move away from Western democratic ideals and provides him yet another reason to cozy up to Putin. As previously noted, this could bring about a plethora of consequences, especially for those nations which already have less than adequate relations with Russia, including the U.S., the U.K., France, Japan, Germany, and Poland.
Erdoğan has some serious rethinking to do if he wants to turn Turkey into the superpower he hopes for. This is only possible through accountability, restoration of the rule of law, bolstering of democratic ideals, and restored relationships with other powerful nations and NATO. If he continues his current demonstrations, lives will be threatened and lost, the rule of law will become nonexistent, and Turkey’s democracy that is cherished so much by its citizens will become a thing of the past. If this becomes reality, other nations, especially Western nations, will most definitely get sucked into Erdoğan’s drama and will be forced to deal with the consequences of Turkey’s instability and unpredictability more so than they already have.