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Turkey’s Elected Dictator

It is high time for the United States and EU to condemn the unruly way in which Erdogan exercised his power.

Credit: kisa kuyruk


  • The time has come for the EU and the United States to reassess their relations with Turkey.
  • It's not the 1950s. The US cannot afford any member of NATO to squash all democratic rules with no consequence.
  • Erdogan has demonstrated time and again a lack of loyalty and commitment as a NATO member.
  • ISIS constitutes an even greater threat to Turkey than to Western interests.

Even before the failed military coup, Turkey’s President Erdogan governed like a dictator who had the last word on all state matters.

The botched coup was nothing but, as he put it, “a gift from God.” He is using it to purge what is left of Turkey’s democracy and “cleanse” the army and judiciary in order to ensure the total subordination of all institutions to his whims.

For Erdogan, being elected was akin to being granted a license to trample and dismantle all democratic tenets to consolidate his powers and promote his Islamic agenda.

The roots of his power

His staying power rests on his uncanny ability to appeal to the underclass and his success in delivering the “goods” that nearly half of the population was in dire need of.

This includes access to health care, improved infrastructure, job opportunities and the promotion of Islamic values (in a manner that was unacceptable in the past) with which ordinary Turks could identify.

Nearly 50% of Turkey’s population benefited directly from these reforms and thus became ardent supporters of Erdogan. They are not concerned about the trampling of democratic rule, even though he has systematically robbed them of any rights that a democracy provides.

Shredding Atatürk’s legacy

One of the main reasons behind the coup was to stop Erdogan from completely destroying Turkey’s remaining secular and democratic pillars. These were established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Affecting regime change through a military coup is certainly not the preferred method. However, given how Erdogan gradually and successfully pillaged the country of all its democratic substance, a segment of the military felt it had little choice but to stage a coup to change the perilous path that Erdogan is pursuing.

This entire tragic episode might have been prevented if the Western powers, led by the United States, had been more outspoken in condemning the unruly way in which Erdogan exercised his power, especially in the past several years.

Instead, they kept emphasizing Turkey’s strategic importance, which played into Erdogan’s hands and which he fully exploited to his advantage.

Turkey’s role in hosting nearly 2.5 million Syrian refugees — and its ability to either stem the flow or open up the gates to allow refugees to flood European cities — further strengthened Erdogan’s hand.

He successfully exploited the EU’s deep concerns over the refugee crisis by making a deal that provides Turkey several major benefits that outweighed its obligations.

Totally unrestrained

Those who had hopes that Erdogan might just take heed of the coup and show some restraint in dealing with those suspected of being involved in it had those hopes quickly dashed.

He wasted no time in initiating a massive witch-hunt. Nearly 9,500 are currently facing legal proceedings, and around 50,000 soldiers, judges, civil servants and teachers have been suspended or detained.

Hundreds if not thousands will languish in jail under emergency laws that permit indefinite administrative detention without formal charges.

More ominously, Erdogan ‘raided’ higher learning institutions by barring all academics from any foreign travel even for scholarly purposes, while the state education council demanded the resignation of over 1,500 university deans.

Too well prepared

The vast number of people rounded up so quickly raises suspicions that these individuals had already been blacklisted. Erdogan was able to do so with a nearly 200,000-strong internal police force and intelligence units, who are extremely loyal to him.

Leave it now to Erdogan, who has emerged stronger than before the coup, to further intensify his brutal war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurds, who are the U.S.’s allies no less.

Count on Erdogan as well to continue to refuse resuming negotiations with Turkey’s significant Kurdish community.

Perhaps the time has come for the EU and the United States to reassess their relations with Turkey. Their stance so far has enabled Erdogan to exercise free reign, even though his behavior has a direct and indirect impact on Western interests, both domestically and in the Middle East.

This is not the 1950s any longer

The United States cannot afford any member of NATO to squash all democratic rules with no consequences.

Moreover, Erdogan has demonstrated time and again a lack of loyalty and commitment as a NATO member. As so many other things, he uses it mostly in a cynical fashion, as a tool when it serves his purposes.

Turkey should be put on notice, as Secretary of State John Kerry recently stated, that NATO has a “requirement with respect to democracy… Obviously, a lot of people have been arrested very quickly.” He grimly added, “Hopefully we can work in a constructive way to prevent backsliding.”

Moreover, Erdogan should be warned that Turkey’s prospect of becoming an EU member will be a thing of the past if he continues to grossly undermine the principles of democratic governance, including the complete subordination of the judiciary to his political agenda.

Turkey on the shorter end of the stick

Though the US and the EU need Turkey in the fight against ISIS, Erdogan should be reminded that ISIS constitutes an even greater threat to Turkey than to Western interests.

Finally, Turkey should be pressured to resume negotiations with its Kurdish minority and bring an end to the war against the PKK. Not doing so further destabilizes the region at a time when the focus must be on defeating ISIS.

In that regard, Erdogan must understand that there will be serious consequences if he does not end his assault against the Syrian Kurds under the pretext of fighting terrorism (he conveniently accuses their military wing, the PYD, of working in conjunction with the PKK).

Whereas Erdogan viewed the failed coup as a God-sent opportunity to wipe out whoever is perceived to be his enemy, the United States and the EU must use this occasion to put Erdogan on notice.

History has shown time and again that totalitarian regimes come to a bitter end, and that, having removed virtually any and all restraints that remained on his exercise of power, he too will not be spared his day in court.

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About Alon Ben-Meir

Dr. Alon Ben Meir is a professor and Retired Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.

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