Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

Erdogan’s ‘Big Man politics’ harmful to Turkey

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When Turkey was hit by a massive earthquake in February, killing tens of thousands of people, one question that arose was the effect on the electoral fortunes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated political life in his country for two decades.

In the first round of the presidential election this month, Erdogan performed better than polling predicted. In particular, he carried most of the provinces hardest hit by the disaster, on his way to victory in Sunday’s second round.

Like his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Erdogan has been prime minister and president, with effective power resting in the man and not the offices. Turks call Erdogan the reis, or chief, harking back to when Turkey was the heart of an empire spanning three continents.

But unlike Putin, Erdogan still has to win genuine elections. His opponents rightly complain that he has used the apparatus of the state to hound and silence opposition and media criticism, but they cannot deny that a significant plurality of Turks support Erdogan, just as a cohort of Indian voters can be relied upon to return Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Hungarians to vote for Viktor Orban.

In a 2018 interview with The Age, Syrian researcher Zaki Mehchy argued that “we Arabs need to confront our need for paternalism, for the big man.” But as we can see, this challenge looms far beyond the Arab world. The rise of “Big Man politics” in democracies is exemplified by Donald Trump, who accepted his 2016 nomination for the presidency by telling Republicans he was the voice of “the forgotten men and women of our country … Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

Erdogan built his election-winning machine from similar parts. Turkey’s forgotten men and women were the so-called “black Turks”, conservative Muslim voters from the Anatolian heartland who had been sidelined for decades as Turkey’s ruling class tried to make it a European nation in manners, dress and language. Even in moments of economic crisis and natural disaster, these most fervent supporters look across the aisle at Turkey’s opposition and cannot see any reflection of themselves.

Erdogan has also successfully portrayed himself as the guardian of the nation’s interests in an increasingly complex world. In this, he has been aided by Turkey’s location at the junction of the Middle East and Europe, and at the gateway to the Black Sea, which meant congratulations on his re-election from both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The European Union has paid him to absorb refugees from the Syrian conflict. NATO needs his approval to admit new members. His opponents in this election had loudly objected to the continued presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey, sending a shiver down European spines. As has been the case with Modi, questions over Erdogan’s domestic conduct have been suppressed by foreign leaders in the name of addressing larger geopolitical worries.

Yet the damage that results from the cult of the Big Man is clear enough. It corrodes the pillars of governance, hollowing out parliaments and deforming the judiciary, ultimately destroying the ability of different sections of society to even speak to, far less trust, one another. Those who resist the Big Man’s definition of the “national will” are also put in fear of losing their most basic rights.

As he begins a third decade of primacy, Erdogan’s opponents in Turkey must now realise that old-fashioned coalitions of convenience, held together solely by the desire to see the Big Man ousted, are not a sufficiently compelling alternative. What is needed is a complete re-imagining of what it is to be a Turkish citizen, one that works to include secular and religious communities, minorities and the majority, and that strives to reopen dialogue with the country’s Kurdish population over a lasting political settlement. Only then can “I alone can fix it” be replaced with “all of us together”.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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