Erdogan’s decline


IT is sad to see one of the more remarkable politicians of recent times decline into folly. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered his people a change from the corruption and vicious political infighting — one legislator shot another dead in parliament — that characterized politics after the 1980 end of the country’s third military intervention.

From being a successful mayor of Istanbul — the city his Justice and Development Party (AKP) just lost humiliatingly after a controversial re-run of the March mayoral election — Erdogan moved to national politics with an overwhelming electoral mandate. The belief that he would follow a moderate foreign policy, building on Turkey’s already strong ties with the Arab world and the European Union were bolstered by his acclaimed accommodation with the rebellious Kurds of the PKK. In a ceasefire brokered with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the terrorist group, Erdogan ended decades of insurrection. Though Ocalan himself remained in jail, Erdogan recognized the cultural rights of the country’s large Kurdish minority, permitted the teaching of its language and the formation of political parties, including the HDP.

Meanwhile, foreign investors encouraged by what was seen as a stable administration poured money into the country to fuel an already strongly-performing business sector. For a while Turkey was the darling on the international community. Then it all began to go wrong. When Assad set about crushing his own rebellious people, Turkey quietly facilitated the movement of insurgent arms and fighters. Unfortunately, knowingly or not, Erdogan also allowed fanatical members of Daesh (the so-called IS) and its terrorist satraps to channel across Turkish-Syrian border. When Turkey itself became a victim of terror attacks, he tore up this truce with the PKK and more ominously came out in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political arm of much of international terrorism.

Meanwhile, the country’s over-borrowed economy began to tank. It was high inflation and soaring food prices that cost him electoral support in the spring municipal elections. Erdogan, the once accomplished and thoughtful politician, was losing his way. Under his new constitution, his presidency enjoys considerable executive powers and parliament has been reduced to a talking shop. Worse, the president, ever more sure of his own judgement, has dispensed with cabinet government. If he takes any advice it is from a coterie of courtiers, among them his son-in-law whom he has appointed finance minister.

Erdogan has long argued, in the face of sound economics, that high interest rates were the source of Turkey’s inflation, rather than a symptom of its financial malaise. He had been pressuring a reluctant Central Bank governor Murat Cetinkaya to slash them. At the weekend Erdogan’s patience finally ran out and he fired Cetinkaya and appointed, Murat Uysal widely seen as place-man. Immediately the markets opened on Monday morning, the Turkish lira lost 2.5 percent of its value against the dollar. Worse is likely to follow. Once-dynamic local companies borrowed heavily abroad. The weaker the lira, the harder it becomes for them to service their debts. Erdogan’s last recourse is the still relatively-healthy domestic banking system. But even that is not proof against a severe economic downturn and already carries a rising burden on non-performing loans. Unfortunately, the president is digging a financial as well as a political hole for himself and for his country.