Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suffered a major political defeat, including but reaching well beyond the election involved. On June 23, the voters of Istanbul sent the autocrat a courageous message of defiance.
A sizable majority has elected opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu mayor. This is a repeat of the mayoral election held on March 31. Imamoglu won that one by a narrow margin, spurring the ruling party arrogantly to invalidate the result and schedule the rerun
Erdogan, a committed political gambler, no longer is the predictable winner. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was victorious in a presidential election last June, but lost a parliamentary majority. Holding both elections at the same time was a gamble.
Three years ago, he dramatically and personally turned back an attempted military coup, using social media to urge the people of Turkey to resist. That showed courage as well as cleverness. Turkey has been in a declared state of emergency since. Police arrested citizens before the national elections for publicly criticizing Erdogan.
In April 2017, a referendum gave expanded powers to the president. Erdogan and allies quickly declared victory after the voting, but the vote margin was narrow and there were accusations of irregularities.
Turkey has great potential strategic importance. First, the nation geographically spans Europe and Central Asia. Turkey can be a diplomatic bridge between Islam and the West. Turkey possesses important sea and land shipping routes, including the Bosphorus Strait that channels Black Sea access.
Second, long-term since World War II, Turkey has maintained good relations with European nations and the United States. Current tensions overshadow this important history.
Third, Turkey represents a unique marriage of firmly-rooted Muslim religious and cultural attitudes with Western-style governmental and commercial institutions and practices. This draws on the nation’s Ottoman history, which combined religious and firmly secular outlooks.
In “Lords of the Horizon - A History of the Ottoman Empire,” Jason Goodwin notes that he writes “about a people who do not exist. The word ‘Ottoman’ does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks their language. Only a few professors can begin to understand their poetry ... (Yet) For 600 years the Ottoman empire swelled and declined.”
Over the past four decades, Turkey’s economy has enjoyed reform and expansion. Growth was strong until recently, corruption and inflation were reduced, and government red tape and bottlenecks eliminated.
Much of the credit belongs to reform Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal, who held office from 1983 to 1993. He was a close friend of President George H.W. Bush.
While Turkey has had rocky relations with the European Union, the NATO alliance benefits from the nation’s highly effective military. In the Korean and First Gulf Wars, Turkey was a significant military coalition partner. In Korea, Turkey’s military reconfirmed once again their well-deserved reputation for combat effectiveness. In Afghanistan, Turkey has had top command responsibilities over the years.
Erdogan’s autocratic behavior presents a challenge, yet modernization remains important in Turkey. Opposition parties have gained in parliament. Current economic weakness provides the political opposition opportunities, and undercuts regime support. As in other parts of the world, public pressure grows for a satisfactory modern way of life.
During the Cold War, Washington worked with unattractive governments for good practical reasons. Similar considerations apply today.
Turgut Özal along with G.H.W. Bush deserves respect for mature leadership. Both had executive skill and personal integrity. In future, their example can guide Turkey’s voting public.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact email@example.com.