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The strongman we know

The alternative to Erdogan could be worse

Artillery Row

Following the second round of voting in Turkey’s recent presidential election, European leaders lined up to offer their congratulations to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I look forward to continuing our work together,” said NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg. “With President Erdogan, we will continue to move forward,” tweeted Emmanuel Macron. President Biden called Erdogan shortly after his victory and expressed his “commitment to continue working together as close partners [and] deepen cooperation”.

These words might all sound like standard political pleasantries, but they represent a complete volte-face on the part of the European establishment, which has tended to treat Erdogan with dismissal if not outright disdain. Biden for one didn’t even bother to speak with Erdogan for the first couple years of his presidency.

For almost a decade, the consensus across the Western media and political scene has been that Erdogan is a borderline tyrannical figure. Overseeing Turkey’s apparent slide into authoritarianism and weakening democratic structures, he has frequently been lumped into the “non-person” category alongside Trump, Orban, Putin, Xi and the rest of the assortment of rogues who are lazily clumped together. In 2020, facing accusations that he was displaying autocratic tendencies in his handling of the pandemic, President Macron replied: “we’re not Turkey!”

What explains Europe and America’s new-found enthusiasm for Erdogan after all this? The reality is that most of the West’s “anti-Erdoganism” was performative. Daglar Ozkan, an economist at a prominent Turkish investment bank, recently told me in Istanbul that such positions have always been a luxury for Western leaders. “Mainstream media outlets in the West, as well as European politicians, displayed anti-Erdogan rhetoric throughout the occasion. But secretly — and for some not so secretly — most of Turkey’s Western partners are glad about his victory,” he said.

There is undoubtedly an Islamic fundamentalist undercurrent in Turkish politics

Part of the reason for this is because, whilst many Western leaders have expressed unease at elements of the Erdogan programme, they know that the alternative could be a lot worse. On the more extreme end of the scale, there is undoubtedly a nasty Islamic fundamentalist undercurrent that bubbles under Turkish politics in some quarters. Erdogan has managed largely to placate this — mainly through leaning into his own Islamist credentials through gestures such as converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque — but there’s no guarantee any potential successor would also be able to do so. It’s worth remembering that a small but significant segment of Turkish society openly sympathised with ISIS. Anybody desperate to oust Erdogan should be mindful of what could end up in his place.

Even politicians who seem more palatable to the Western liberal pallet might not turn out as hoped. Erdogan’s opponent at the last election, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was widely seen as a liberal and described by The Guardian as “the future of Turkish democracy”. Presumably The Guardian was therefore endorsing his pledge to send “ten million refugees home” within two years of his victory? Erdogan would not countenance such a move: partly because he finds Turkey’s refugee population a useful negotiating chip with Europe, but also because he does seem to have a genuine conviction that Syrian refugees are Sunni brothers in need of help.

Ozkan suggested that Western leaders recognise this and, despite all the talk of upholding democratic freedoms, prefer dealing with a strongman who they know and with whom they can do business. “Erdogan is a pragmatic politician open to making deals on a wide range of issues,” he said. “His strong grasp over the executive branch alongside a comfortable, pro-government majority in parliament means he can get things done.”

I’ve often wondered if, to the extent that Western leaders do have a problem with Erdogan, that it’s more about his approach to the economy than anything else, which has often helped to dent the profit margins of European banks. Erdogan has long held the belief that lowering interest rates is the route to combating inflation. This has seen inflation in Turkey soar as high as 85 per cent and the Turkish Lira decline dramatically against major currencies. BBVA, BNP Paribas and ING are just some of the major European banks to have lost money as a result.

There are signs that Erdogan may be prepared to drop parts of this platform though, with the appointment of orthodox figures to the country’s key economic positions. For the post of Finance Minister, Erdogan has picked former Merrill Lynch banker Mehmet Simsek. The Governor of the Central Bank is now a Goldman Sachs graduate, Hafize Gaye Erkan, who has started to bring Turkey’s economic policies in line with the Western world by raising interest rates. Should Turkey get its economic act together and become more accommodative to foreign capital, expect the anti-Erdogan rhetoric to die down further.

For all of Erdogan’s undoubted flaws, it seems most Western leaders are of the opinion that he’s the best placed to lead a complex and important country. No matter how much they enjoy virtue signalling about his transgressions, that is unlikely to change much anytime soon.

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