Controversial Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayap Erdogan appears to have crossed the 50% threshold in Sunday’s national election, which, if confirmed, would enable him to avoid a runoff in his quest to become his country’s first directly elected president.
An announcement on the Twitter account of Turkey’s Justice minister Bekir Bozdag read, “The chairman of the AK Party and the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has become the first president elected by the people.”
Turkish television claims the Islamist Prime Minister was leading several opposition candidates with more than 52% of the vote, more than twelve points in front of his main opponent, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
Turnout, however, in this widely watched poll was far lower than had been hoped by Erdogan and predicted by the Turkish establishment.
Interest in Sunday’s election was huge due to Erdogan’s campaign to turn the largely ceremonial office into the seat of primary national power. Not only was Erdogan widely expected to win, it had become an accepted article of faith in Turkey that even if Erdogan didn’t win, his autocratic instincts would still somehow find him ensconced in the Presidential palace from where people seemed just as confident he would find a way to increase his control over the rapidly Islamizing nation of 90 million.
“When you look at our Constitution,” the Turkish strong man recently told a New York Times reporter, “there is no article that limits actions of a president. It names the president as the head of state, that’s it,” he said.
Erdogan’s attempt to strengthen his control over Turkish national life, this time as Turkey’s president, has compelled many to compare Erdogan’s quest to that of the man leading Turkey’s menacing northern neighbor, Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Like Putin, Erdogan seeks to control Turkey’s politics as both Prime Minister and now as President.
Erdogan is certainly the most powerful Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of the modern Turkish Republic. If victorious, Erdogan says he hopes to lead his nation at least until 2023 in order to preside as president when the Turkish Republic celebrates its 100th anniversary.
For most in the West, Erdogan’s legacy is far from positive. He has decapitated and sidelined the once strong and pro-Western secular military, empowered by Ataturk with final responsibility to protect the secular constitution to insure the development of a modern, secular, and Western-leaning Turkey, free from the coercive and anti-democratic pressure of radical Islam.
By playing to the country’s rapidly rising Islamist lower and peasant classes, Erdogan has effectively eliminated legal and social restrictions on public Islamic expression. He is widely popular with his Islamist, anti-Western, and viscerally anti-Israeli voter base, who credits him with being able to combine Islamism and economic populism.
Erdogan’s campaign theme was “Allah is Enough for Us, Turkey is Enough for Us.”
Turkey’s foreign policy under Erdogan’s stewardship has veered wildly off its traditional pro-Western course. Turkey, the central NATO member state and longtime strategic ally of the United States, has turned its gaze and attention markedly eastward. Erdogan has tried to showcase his mix of Islamism and populism as a kind of model to the Muslim and Arab worlds. Turkey was an early and aggressive supporter of Egypt’s ousted hardcore Muslim Brotherhood and continues to be the world’s biggest state supporter of the Hamas terrorist movement.
Erdogan’s biggest foreign policy failure appears clearly to have been his decision to back Syrian rebels fighting to oust longtime tyrant President Bashar al-Assad. Many in Istanbul, Ankara, and across the region are blaming Turkey, perhaps even more than the United States itself, for the emergence of the terrorist ISIS army that now controls roughly 70,000 square miles of Middle East real estate.
It was Turkey’s open border policies, these people say, that allowed or even encouraged ISIS to proliferate by using Turkey as a safe haven to move arms, men, and material into and out of Syria.
President Obama used to regularly boast of his close personal relationship with Turkey’s demagogic leader. That “friendship” has markedly cooled following Erdogan’s accusation that the United States was secretly behind a corruption investigation targeting him and his inner circle.
Erdogan’s rule has bitterly divided and deeply polarized Turkish society. If exit polls hold up, it will reaffirm what most people already accept: that Turkey is almost split in perfect halves between those who love and revere Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, and those who revile them.