If we regard history as a stage, on which the drama of human existence is played, we may pay heed to a piece of advice to actors by Max Reinhardt, the legendary German theater director: How and when you leave the stage is as important as when and how you enter it!
Imagine Julius Caesar bowing out of the stage just a year before his assassination in 44 BC. He would have been remembered as the leader who healed the wounds of Rome’s bloodiest civil war, and laid the foundations of an empire destined to dominate the world for centuries. And, what about Winston Churchill? Had he retired in 1945 after leading Great Britain to victory over Nazi Germany he would have avoided a humiliating defeat in the first post-war general election. Other putative timely exits could be cited: General Charles De Gaulle, handing in the keys to the Elysee in 1967 instead of 1968. Iran’s Muhammad-Reza Shah stepping down in 1977. And, to return to present-time, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2015.
The problem is that Erdogan may have already missed the ideal when and how of his eventual exit. But, one thing is certain: the sandglass of his career has started flowing down faster.
As in other cases of leaders missing the exit time, Erdogan is a man of remarkable achievements. It would be no exaggeration to claim that, leaving Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) aside, he is the leader who has most affected modern Turkey’s destiny. Some of Erdogan’s achievements are too well known to need detailing here. Among these are the almost doubling of the size of the Turkish economy in just two decades is one. The partial end to a generation long internal war with ethnic Kurds is another. Despite recent turmoil, especially the abortive coup of 2016, Turkey today is more prosperous and more at peace than almost any other time since the creation of the republic in the 1920s.
However, I think the most significant event during the Erdogan’s era is the firm establishment of the ballot box as the ultimate source of power in Turkey. This may have happened in spite of Erdogan’s wishes as seen in the recent municipal election in Istanbul that he tried hard to twist and turn to his party’s advantage.
The republic that Ataturk established without securing grass-root understanding let alone active support was more of an autocracy with a democratic veneer than a functioning pluralist system. In the first quarter of a century of its existence, the Turkish Republic was a one-party state with Ataturk’s People’s Republican Party winning four-fifth of seats in successive general elections. In those elections, rural and still religious Turkey was all but marginalized in favor of the growing urban and increasingly secular half of the nation. “Backward” Turkey managed to stage a dramatic entry center stage in the 1950 general election when the Democrat Party won four-fifth of the seats in the Grand National Assembly (parliament) and, for the first time, formed the national government.
“Backward” Turkey repeated that spectacular success in 1954 by increasing its majority and in 1957, fomenting fears in the top brass and many Turkey-watchers that the modernizing Kemalist would never return to power. Those fears inspired the military coup of 1960, General Cemal Gursel, the Chief of Staff, against President Celal Bayar’s government.
The top brass had already agreed on the formation of an interim government sanctioned by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) before the tanks were ordered to roll in Ankara.
A similar pattern was observed in 1971 when the coup leader, General Memduh Tagmac, in effect ordered the politicians, in a pronunciamento, to form a new government under the military’s supervision. The 1980 coup, led by General Evren produced a largely technocratic government but enjoyed significant political support nonetheless.
The Turkish military always avoided direct rule, claiming only the presidency of the republic that remained a largely ceremonial position until Erdogan gave it executive power.
The events of 1960 to 1980 created the impression that Turkey’s modernizing forces, largely led by the CHP, would never win power without the backing of the military.
The recent mayoral election in Istanbul, the nation’s largest city, cultural capital and home to almost a quarter of the population, may help change that perception. For the first time in a long while, leading an opposition alliance, the CHP’s mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won a convincing electoral victory without as much as a nod and a wink from the military. Also, that victory was secured with a theme of hope, reconciliation and reform rather than despair, revenge and conspiratorial fantasies so common in recent Turkish elections. More importantly, perhaps, Erdogan managed, or forced to, contain take his chagrin and eventually accept his Justice and Development Party’s(AKP) defeat.
Erdogan’s opponents insist that he had to swallow defeat in Istanbul because he lacked the strength to continue challenging the results.
They may be right. But, what if Erdogan has converted to the idea of alternation of power through elections?
Erdogan may be intelligent enough to understand that things do not always go the way one likes. He led a remarkable economic resurgence in Turkey but is now presiding over what looks like an economic meltdown with rampant inflation, falling productivity and shrinking job opportunities. Rather than calming things down, his authoritarian moves, including the sacking of the Central Bank Governor, have intensified the crisis. His trademark “no-enemies” foreign policy has been replaced by a policy that seems designed to turn everyone, including NATO allies and European Union partners not to mention Arab states, against Turkey. Another of his signature successes, cooling down the Kurdish cauldron, seems to be a thing of the past.
His party’s claim of being “whiter than white” is hard to sustain as his entourage sinks deeper in the grey of corruption. More importantly, his success in persuading the “backward” half of Turkey that it could gain power through elections no longer enjoys the same level of support it once did even in deep Anatolia.
Good or bad, the once successful Erdogan recipe seems not to be working anymore. The bashkhan has read his text, played his part and has nothing new to utter. The play has to go on but, for him, the finger may be pointing to exit.
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