The politics of the current moment represent the biggest challenge Erdogan has faced since his leadership of the country formally began in March 2003. Almost everything that Erdogan cares about is at stake—the executive presidency he desires, the future of the AKP and his legacy of peace.
For the second year in a row, Turkey has made Eurasia Groups list of the top ten geopolitical risks in 2015. Lower oil prices have been good news for this country, but that’s about all that’s going well.
Heavy-handed rule, short-sighted political decisions, and bad foreign policy bets will all conspire against Turkey. At home, Erdogan has used election victories in 2014 to ensure decisive defeat of his political enemies (of which there are many) while remaking the country’s political system to tighten his hold on power. Erdogan is unlikely to win the powers he wants, forcing him to rely on soft influence instead–a recipe for more disputes with his prime minister, less policy coherence, and more political unpredictability. A diverse population is becoming a divided one, as is the case in politics, business, the media, police and the military, and the judiciary. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be caught on the wrong side.
On foreign policy, Erdogan has made nearly every bad bet available. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt blew up in his face as the military ousted its government and set up a stable new government now hostile to Erdogan’s interests. He backed Hamas before last year’s conflict in Gaza left Hamas isolated and the Israeli government strengthened. He aligned with Qatar before the Saudis forced the Qataris back into line within the GCC. He got cozier with Putin just as Russia’s government was becoming a pariah and its economy began sliding into recession. He pushed hard for the removal of Syria’s Assad, a man whom the United States can no longer afford to fight and who will be around to create trouble for Turkey for many years to come. Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies have never been more troubled.
Given the instability in the region, it’s not the best time to pick the wrong friends. Refugees are bringing more radicalism into Turkey and adding to the country’s economic hardship. Lasting peace with the Kurds, who want political reform and for Erdogan to fight the Islamic State, is becoming less likely. And Turkey’s troubles also contribute to the political vacuum in the Middle East, at a time when sectarian fights and proxy wars are growing.
Turkey has too many advantages to become a disaster–a large, urbanized, well-educated, and growing population; a strong business and banking community; a competent bureaucracy. Erdogan has an authoritarian bent, but he’s not Putin. Yet Turkey’s troubled politics poses problems that aren’t going away.