When I first met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the autumn of 2011, he had just arrived in New York after a triumphant tour of the Middle East. The Arab Spring was then in full bloom, and in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the Turkish prime minister (as he was then) was greeted like a rock star. Young Arabs, heady from having toppled their dictators, saw in Erdogan an ideal of a truly democratic leader. And he sought out potential leaders in all these countries, to lecture them on the Ankara way. “At my meetings, I said… Turkey is a model of democracy, a secular state, a social state with the rule of law upheld,” he told me. “We are not intentionally trying to export a regime—we couldn’t care less. But if they want our help, we’ll provide any assistance they need.”
At home, his star was also at its apogee: Turkey’s economy was surging, his AK Party seemed impregnable, and his decision to sever ties with Israel—in response to the Maavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos killed several Turkish activists on a peace flotilla bound for Gaza—was hugely popular. Erdogan, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, was a leader of the stature of Kemal Ataturk.
When President Erdogan (as he is now) arrives in New Delhi later this month, he will be a pale shadow of the man I met in New York. Although it will be his first trip after a personal triumph— over the weekend, he “won” a referendum giving the president vastly increased powers—it has come at a tremendous political cost, to his country as well as to Erdogan himself. Far from being the ringing endorsement he had hoped for, the vote was desperately close: 51.5%-48.5%, and even that was weakened by charges of vote tampering. The president may be relieved that he didn’t need a two-thirds majority to make so fundamental a change in the way his country is governed, but he would be hard-pressed to argue that 3% amounts to a mandate.
Let’s pause here for a moment to thank the framers of India’s constitution for making such a charade practically impossible here. For one thing, India doesn’t do referendums. For another, any Indian prime minister seeking to pull an Erdogan would find his way blocked, first by Parliament, and then by the judiciary.
The outcome of the referendum is especially embarrassing since Erdogan has spent much of the past two years systematically titling the playing field in his favour, by purging the opposition, and suppressing press freedom. Over 100 media outlets have been shuttered, and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has 81 presspersons in its prisons, the largest number of any country in the world. (China is a distant second, with 38.) This would be shameful under any circumstances, but more so because Turkey is a democracy.
Which brings us to the next blot on Erdogan’s record: his systematic undermining of democratic institutions. This had begun long before an abortive coup attempt against him last July, and accelerated soon after under emergency powers that he now aims to normalize. Not only did Erdogan purge the military—arguably to a much greater degree than justified by the coup attempt—he also identified and removed (or arrested) tens of thousands of people from educational institutions, the police, judiciary and civil service.
All of these would be worrying enough without the fact that Turkey is being buffeted by two wars: one across the border, in Syria; and the other within, in its Kurdish territory. And there’s growing evidence that the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State is putting down roots on Turkish soil. Having crushed secular youth demonstrations in 2013, he has been unable to halt a growing tendency toward radicalization, among ethnic Turks and Kurds alike.
Abroad, Erdogan’s star is now at its perigee. Relations with Europe, already strained by the European Union frustrating Turkey’s efforts to join the grouping, have plummeted precipitously in recent weeks, with Erdogan lambasting the governments of Holland and Germany for “Nazi tendencies,” all because they, in according to their own laws, forbade Erdogan’s ministers from canvassing for votes among Turkish expatriates there. The tone of the condemnation was hysterical, suggesting Erdogan was worried he might lose the referendum—and one wonders what other calumnies he would have heaped on the Dutch and the Germans if he’d actually lost.
Erdogan is no longer the colossus he once was on the Middle Eastern stage. While relations with Israel have softened a little, Turkey’s pretensions of having a major role in the affairs of Arab states have been embarrassingly exposed by its inability to exert much influence on the Arab state on its border. Where Erdogan once regarded Bashar al-Assad as something of a protégé, he is now seeking the downfall of the Syrian dictator—but having very little impact. Nor has Turkey proved especially effective in the fight against the IS: Erdogan’s military seems more interested in stamping down on a homegrown Kurdish insurgency.
Gone, too, is the hero-worship Erdogan once enjoyed among young Arabs. Once, they listened attentively as he lectured them on democracy, now they see that he has become an autocrat, not unlike their own dictators.
So the Erdogan who arrives in New Delhi may be a winner of a referendum—assuming opposition parties are unable to challenge the outcome in the courts. But in every way that matters to his country, Turkey’s President is a loser.
Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.