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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Can Erdogan recreate the Ottoman Empire from the existing Turkey?

Links: A. Turkey goes to the polls on 7 July.
           B. Turkey's Prime Minister Davutoglu caught between a rock and a hard space.
           C. Turkish President Erdogan revives the ghosts of Ottoman glory.

If there is one thing that I really appreciate about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is his taste for history.  Erdogan enjoys reminding the Turkish people of the long history of Turkish military conquest, when the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to Oman and up to the gates of Vienna in Europe.  Oddly enough, when I hear the Islamic State ramble on about the creation of an Islamic Caliphate, I can't help but think of the Ottomans.  In reality, the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic Caliphate.  The Sultan wasn't only the head of state for the Empire, he was also the Caliph, or leader of the faithful, with the authority to issue fatwas and declare war not just for the Empire, but for all Muslims.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't this appear to be very similar to what the Islamic State is demanding?  In reality, the Ottomans were nothing like today's terrorist bad-boy of the moment, the Islamic State (IS).  Millions of practicing Christians lived within the Ottoman Empire, and with very few exceptions, enjoyed the protection of the state.  Jews were also welcome in the Empire, as the Ottomans recognized the importance of international trade and banking.  The Ottoman Empire also had close, personal diplomatic relationships with France, England, Austria and the United States.  If it weren't for European banks, the Ottoman Empire would have lived up to its nickname as "the sick man of Europe" and expired long before the actual end came in 1923.  What happened to the Ottomans, that they went from world power to an impoverished state, rife with revolutionaries and anarchists?  In a word, corruption.  And interestingly enough, the word continues to be in vogue a century later.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is a member of President Recep Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and considered a close ally of the President.  Davutoglu had an auspicious start as Prime Minister when he publicly proclaimed that fighting corruption would be a top priority.  Davutoglu hinted that he would support the nation's Supreme Court if it chose to put on trial the four government ministers who were forced to quit in 2013 after a large-scale corruption probe produced evidence of their involvement in bribery and influence peddling.  Davutoglu was even quoted as saying that he "would break off the arm of anyone who gets involved in corruption, even if its my brother."  But timing got in the way, and Davutoglu was forced to eat his words, so to speak.  Erdogan had no intention of allowing the Supreme Court to air the AKP's dirty laundry, and the motion to call for a trial by the Supreme Court was voted down in Parliament by the AKP.  This incident is not the only example of Erdogan's opposition to Davutoglu's stated goal of combatting Turkish political corruption.  Erdogan has no intention of fighting corruption.  It has become the military wing of his political ambitions.  Erdogan can no longer play the game successfully without the use of some phalange of corruption, whether it be bribery or intimidation (a favorite of his).  Davutoglu has been given the crash course in Erdogan politics 101, highlighted by the Jan. 19 meeting of Davutoglu's cabinet.  Erdogan called the meeting, chaired the meeting, and ended the meeting, with Davutoglu having not a word to say.  It was an obvious reminder to Davutoglu that Erdogan was the real Prime Minister.  More importantly, it sent a message that from Erdogan's optic, the actual position of Prime Minister itself was on borrowed time.  Erdogan has been discussing the possibility of Turkey adopting a Presidential system of government that does not include a Prime Minister.  It would consist of an Executive Branch (President and Cabinet), a Legislative Branch (Parliament), and a Judicial Branch (Supreme Court of Turkey).  For someone who is so critical of the United States, he certainly seems to appreciate our style of government.  Be that as it may, Erdogan's idea of a presidential system does not include our checks-and-balances.  Erdogan sees the Executive as having full authority over the other two, which would leave the office of president with increased powers.  And who would be the president in this system?  Why, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  For more than just a couple reasons, it was in Davutoglu's best interest to sit still and keep quiet.

There are times when I see similarities between Erdogan and Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.  Erdogan, like Berlusconi, never gives up; he realizes that in most instances all you have to do is show more staying power than your opponent.  Erdogan uses national ideals to stir up the people, especially near election time, another useful habit of Berlusconi.  The exist some obvious differences between the two, though.  Italy's electoral system is not as easy to manipulate as Turkey's, and its very difficult to bribe or unfairly influence the Italian judiciary.  Also, everywhere Berlusconi goes, his businesses follow like a heavy shadow.  Most of the offenses of which he has been accused have to do with manipulation for the benefit of his companies.  Erdogan has no business obligations to weight him down, at least none that are known to us.  He is a political animal, through and through.  When his political party originally burst onto the scene, I was concerned that he was an Islamic extremist, or at least an ideologue.  I was worried that Turkey, such an important part of NATO, with a large, well-trained and equipped military, would lose its identification as a secular state.  In reality, the AKP and Erdogan approached power with a much more pragmatic, long-term perspective.  Then I became concerned that he was playing up to the nationalist element in Turkish politics (in Turkey, there is a fine-line between the Islamist parties and the Nationalist parties, although they wouldn't agree).  Now, after more than a decade of Erdogan, I think I finally have an accurate assessment.  Erdogan isn't about Islamic domination, nor is he about Turkish nationalism.  Erdogan is about Erdogan.  He is determined to create a new niche in Turkish politics that allows him to govern as a king, but with the title of president.  And he wants his Turkey to be militarily and economically powerful and dominant in the region, a 21st century Ottoman Empire, more or less.  I'm not convinced that he will succeed; a growing number of very brave Turks have become vociferously opposed to Erdogan, led by a few independent journalists.  And I've always wondered if he was completely successful in excising all the military brass who were dedicated to keeping Turkey secular and free.  Maybe the Turkish Military has one coup still left in the pipeline.  Now would be a good time.........

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