Neo-Ottoman foreign policies combined with a singular, egotistical attitude have earned Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the nickname ‘Sultan’ and even ‘Mad Sultan’.
In terms of his policies, he certainly is mad in respect of his overzealous ambition and he is very much like an Ottoman Sultan in the sense that he wants to reconquer former Ottoman territories, most notably in Syria and Iraq but also in the Balkans and the wider Hellenic world. His intransigence over Turkey’s continued illegal occupation of Cyprus also reinforces this reality. His open disdain for Ataturk’s secular reforms, is yet another reason that many refer to him ‘Sultan’.
But it terms of Erdogan’s political style, personal style and perhaps most interestingly, the way western countries have attempted to exploit him, Erdogan is reminiscent of a political trend far more recent than the last of the Ottoman Sultans, whose rule was terminated by Ataturk in 1922.
Erdogan is in many ways, a Turkish version of the far-right South American dictators of the latter half of the 20th century.
The military dictators who ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 and moreover the notorious dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile between 1974 and 1990 represented strong man authoritarian rule where press freedoms were suppressed, opposition figures were hounded, jailed or killed, left-wing politics was fiercely resisted and the economy was generally considered modern and stable compared to regional rivals, the latter was particularly true of Pinochet’s Chile which was considered a model of monetarist capitalism in a region that many worried would ‘fall’ to communism.
As with Turkey, both Chile and Argentina had experiences with real democratic elections prior to the dictatorships. The elections were at times flawed and the CIA didn’t often like the results (to put it mildly), but both countries had literate, educated populations who were fully capable of engaging in a normal democratic process. The same is true of Turkey prior to Erdogan. Turkish and South American journalists and intellectuals always had a lot to say about these processes.
Like his South American counterparts Erdogan is a strong man, he is deeply militant. Specifically, like Argentina’s ultimately failed attempt to reconquer the Malvinas Island under Leopoldo Galtieri (called the Falkland Islands by Britain) Turkey’s attempts to re-Ottomanise Iraq and Syria are in the midst of failing.
Of course there are differences. In trying to subdue Syria and Iraq and in occupying Northern Cyprus (something which began in 1974, long before Erdogan), Erdogan’s Turkey is molesting the sovereignty of independent states. Galtieri by contrast was attempting to re-conquer some small islands under British neo-colonial rule that according to some is democratic because of the pro-British population of the islands, but according to others is a relic of a British Imperial past which by the 1980s was an international anomaly. Nevertheless, both represented a quest to achieve glory through military adventurism. One failed the other is failing at this very moment.
The similarities don’t end there. As with his South American counterparts, Erdogan promised economic reforms and political stability. It soon became clear that this was to be at the expense of genuine democracy and social pluralism.
In both cases, self-appointed ‘guardians of democracy’ in the US and much of western Europe looked the other way. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain had a kind of love affair with Pinochet’s Chile where by his economic model and apparent stability was championed in Britain as a ‘success story’. Pinochet’s human rights abuses, appalling treatment of opposition politicians and total lack of real democracy was ignored in the most caviller manner imaginable. The United States also supported both the Chilean and Argentine dictatorial regimes without questioning anything. Britain and America still have virtually no harsh words for Erdogan.
Erdogan’s rise to power on a promise of economic reform, political stability and opposition to corruption was once praised throughout Europe and the US. They shamelessly bought the Erdogan narrative (as did many Turkish intellectuals who have grown to detest Erdogan).
The reality is that old style functional Turkish corruption has given way to an iron-fisted regime where easily bribed local officials plaguing Turkey, have been replaced by a state at war with its secular past, which stands on the verge of internal crises due to the flourishing of violent Islamist groups.
Turkey’s economy has stagnated since the successes of Erdogan’s early years and Turkey has gone from a real but imperfect democracy to a country where a single man, Erdogan can pass Presidential decrees at whim over a Parliament that has been rendered effectively useless by the recent Presidential Power’s Referendum which Erdogan says he won and his opposition say he rigged.
Britain and the US still look the other way as all of this goes on, just as they did in South America.
Likewise, while some are quick to say that Erdogan’s Islamist tendencies are the Islamic Brotherhood or worse,only with a Turkish rather than Arabic tongue, the reality is that Erdogan’s relationship to political Islam, isn’t greatly different than the dictators of South America and their relationship with political Catholicism.
Neither the South America far-right nor Erdogan were/are fully interested in created anything close to a full theocracy. Instead, both leaders seek to use religion as a literally ‘holier than thou’ justification for polices which are otherwise those of a brutish, far-right secular strong-man dictator. Erdogan is far more like Pinochet in this sense than he is like Egypt’s failed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi who ruled the country from 2012-2013.
The South American dictators hid behind the cross and Erdogan hides behind Islam. It’s an easy way to escape scrutiny in many cases. In South America, they said that the cross helped to resist communism. In Turkey’s case, Erdogan’s Islamism is said to help Turkey resist succumbing to al-Qaeda style Salafism. The fact that Turkey is actively promoting Salafism in Syria is no more ironic than Chile approving of Britain’s war on Argentina in the name of ‘democracy’, as Argentina’s was a government as right-wing and dictatorial as Chile’s.
But so long as Erdgoan promises to ‘keep ISIS out of Europe’ all is well in the west, just as it was when the South America dictatorships promised to ‘keep communism out of the Americans’.
There is however a happy ending, in spite of their dictatorships, both Argentina and Chile transitioned back to democracy peacefully and on the whole successfully. Today, South American nations are ruled by either left-wing governments or centre-right governments. The age of far-right military dictatorship belongs to a 20th century that will likely not come back.
Turkey too has the opportunity to transition back to a post-Erdogan democratic, secular, moderate political reality so long as the damage he does is not too great. Much of this depends on how long he is in power and how he copes with his many internal crises, internal crises which to be fair have a more internationalised element than those facing South American dictatorships in the 1980s.
While Erdogan’s Kemalist opposition is in many ways making the same demands that leftist and democratic centrist opposition activists made in Chile and Argentina, Erdogan’s problem with Salafist terrorism and Kurdish separatism are unique issues to Turkey and to Turkey’s wider region.
How he handles these crises could determine how long or short he remains in power and also how quickly Turkey can return to normalcy after the dictator leaves office. Sultans fall with a cataclysmic bang, South America dictators tend to fall quietly, often to the click of champagne glasses, the kind that have often clicked in secular, Kemalist Turkey.