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In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a make-or-break year

Adnan R. Khan: For more than a decade and a half, Turkey has aggressively pursued a more prominent role in the world. In 2019, it will pay the price.
Protesters spread a large banner depicting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alongside another of a Turkish flag as they walk in a demonstration outside the offices of Turkish Cypriot weekly newspaper "Afrika Gazetesi", on January 22, 2018. (Birol Bebek/AFP/Getty Images)

The goal was unity. At least, that’s what Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, claimed about his campaign to transform Turkey’s fractious parliamentary democracy into a highly centralized presidency. When his “yes” side prevailed in an April 2017 constitutional referendum, the ambitious and polarizing leader promised that the new system would eliminate all the ugly partisan battles of the past. Turkey, he exulted, had embarked on a “historic” journey; at the end of it would be the respect and admiration it deserved.

More than a year and a half later, that unity has not materialized.

In early elections last June, Erdogan’s AK Party only managed a little over 40 per cent support, relying on ultra-nationalists to form a majority alliance in Parliament. Erdogan managed a more respectable 52.59 per cent to win the presidency, but he now governs over an increasingly divided nation, with an economy in the throes of an inflation and foreign-debt crisis, as a potential recession looms for next year.

Meanwhile, its decision to back Islamist forces in Syria against the Bashar al-Assad regime has put it in strategic conflict with Russia and Iran. Its obsession with the dangers posed by Kurdish militants in northern Syria has put it in direct conflict with the U.S., which backs the Kurds. Its mishandling of the fallout from a failed coup attempt in 2016 has ratcheted up tensions with Europe, and stripped its own institutions of capable bureaucrats. This year has been a rude awakening for Turkey, and 2019 is shaping up to be disastrous.

With so much on the table, from the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system—which threatens to widen the breach between Turkey and its NATO allies—to local elections in March, which are increasingly being viewed as a referendum on the AK Party’s handling of the economy, the chances of Turkey coming out of the year unscathed look slim indeed. And of course, there is the escalating fallout with Saudi Arabia after the Oct. 2 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist who was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, strangled to death and then dismembered. What the Turkish government knew, and how it obtained its information, including audio recordings of the killing, has exposed the extent to which it was monitoring the Saudis, who pose a challenge to Erdogan’s ambitions to rebrand Turkey as the dominant regional power in the Middle East.

The gambit it is now playing—slowly releasing information in an attempt to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and extract concessions over various issues, including the future of the Assad regime in Syria, which the Saudis increasingly back—may backfire next year. With Saudi Arabia mulling over dismantling OPEC, rising oil prices could very well push Turkey’s economy over the edge. And if Erdogan believes he can stare down Salman, who appears to have the backing of the U.S., he might be in for a very rude awakening.

If there’s an overarching lesson Turkey appears not to have learned it is that concentrating power in a single individual never ends well. Erdogan was the first iteration of the new millennium’s neo-authoritarian—democratic in name but more aligned with a view that power is dictated rather than debated—and he may also be the first to see his quest for power become his own worst enemy.

His quest to reclaim Turkey’s Ottoman-era prestige has crashed head-on with the 21st century realities of the Middle East. Ironically, perhaps even naively, in the mid-2000s, Erdogan promoted a “zero problems with neighbours” foreign policy; today, Turkey faces problems on virtually every front.

But even as his Quixotic visions show signs of crumbling, Erdogan has refused to back down. As 2018 draws to a close, Turkey is going all in on extracting as much as it can from the instability that now surrounds it. Rather than bite the bullet and institute the austerity it needs to weather the current economic storm, it has cranked up incentive programs, including tax amnesties and price controls, and announced even more mega-projects to keep economic activity humming.

Increasingly, Erdogan’s strategy appears now to be more survivalist than visionary. It looks likely that his Turkey will enter the new year roaring but leave it badly bruised, and that does not bode well for the world. For a NATO ally and once reliable democratic partner sitting smack in the middle of an international crisis zone, its failures send tremors well beyond its borders. And 2019 will be a year of failures.