Erdogan’s yearning for the empire

Friday 05/06/2015

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to revive the legacy, power and lustre of the Ottoman Empire can be put down to two things. First, Erdog­an’s appetite for grandeur and his ambition for Turkey to be identi­fied as a major mover and shaker in the Middle East.

Second, the blame for Turkey to­day trying to regurgitate the ghosts of past glories under the banner of the Sublime Porte can also be di­rected at Brussels and the countries that blocked Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Ankara would have followed a very different path had Turkey been admitted into the EU.

Having failed to bring his country forward into modern Europe, Erdogan now intends to take his country backwards into the past glories of the Ottoman Empire. To do this however, Erdogan needs to rewrite Tur­key’s constitution. In other words Erdogan wants to re-write history.

Given the region’s current chal­lenges, the region does not need a resurrection of an empire as much as it needs a model of society that ensures progress and modernity.

Yet Erdogan intends to give it a try on June 7th when Turkey votes in parliamentary elections with his Islamic-rooted ruling party facing the biggest poll challenge of its 13 years in power.

Erdogan, who served as prime minister for over a decade before becoming president in August last year, wants the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he co-founded to secure a three-fifths majority to change the constitution and transform the parliamentary democracy into an executive presi­dential system.

Erdogan may be blinded by his previous electoral landslide victo­ries in general elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011, but today there are a number of signs that his win­ning streak may be fading and that all those victories are starting to become overshadowed by a weak­ened and slowing economy as well as mounting accusations of what many people see as the president’s authoritarian tendencies.

Despite Erdogan’s tireless campaigning where he and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have travelled the length and breadth of the country to reach out the 56 mil­lion electorate, the polls appear far from being a shoe-in for the AKP. The biggest uncertainty is over the performance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a mainly Kurdish party that has also reached out to liberal Turks and appealed to those who want to block Erdogan’s ambitions.

Should the HDP get more than the 10 percent of the national vote it needs to gain any seats in parlia­ment, it could thwart the AKP aim of winning the three-fifths major­ity the governing party needs to change the constitution and make Erdogan a president with real rul­ing powers.

There is also a possibility that the main opposition party, the Republi­can People’s Party (CHP), could win enough votes to prevent the AKP forming a majority government.

As is often the case when one happens to be on the receiving end of not very good news, tradi­tion calls for the messenger to be slayed. And what is Erdogan if not a traditionalist?

The most recent target of Erdog­an’s anger is the messenger – in this case warning the editor-in-chief of the secular Cumhuriyet daily Can Dundar that he will “pay a heavy price” for a story alleging Turkey tried to deliver arms to Islamists in Syria.

Stung also by an editorial in the New York Times that there were “dark clouds” over Turkey under his rule, Erdogan denounced the newspaper as “trash”.

Win or lose, what matters is that Turkey plays the role of a bridge to the world and to the future and not to fan the flames of nostalgia to the past. There are enough anach­ronistic forces in the Middle East already.