Turkey’s once all-powerful prime minister is battling problems both domestic and international that threaten to diminish his popularity ahead of an election cycle next year, analysts say.
With three straight election wins under his belt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for 11 years and enjoyed a free hand in crafting government policy.
But the tough-talking leader known as “the Sultan” who took office promising bold reforms has become an increasingly polarising figure in Turkey, and cracks are emerging in his government ahead of local polls in March.
“Since he took office, the prime minister has gradually shifted from pragmatist tendencies to ideological ones, from team work to personal decisions, from democracy to authoritarianism, from thought-out policies to impulsive ones,” Ilter Turan, professor at Istanbul’s private Bilgi University, told AFP.
Erdogan’s controversial policies have exposed deep fault lines within his Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the government has lost support over its heavy-handed response to mass street protests that rocked the country in June.
He has irritated friends abroad with his defiant stance on regional crises, while the EU has only just resumed accession talks after a three-year freeze.
On the economic front, growth has slowed sharply and the Turkish lira has taken a tumble.
Erdogan’s stature also took a knock when Turkey failed in its bid to host the 2020 Olympics and lost out to Dubai for the World Expo the same year.
At home, Erdogan is on the verge of losing one of his strongest allies over a bitter education dispute that has gripped the domestic political scene for several weeks.
‘Mistake of his life’
The feud with influential Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in US exile, stems from government plans to close down a network of private schools run by Gulen’s religious movement that are seen by the populist Erdogan as giving an unfair advantage to well-off students.
One analyst speculated that Erdogan would “make the mistake of his life” if he dared to challenge the Gulen movement, which wields considerable influence in the state apparatus.
Erdogan faced another confrontation with long-time ally Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister and an AKP co-founder, over his criticism of mixed-sex student accommodation.The former Islamic firebrand has also alienated many middle-class professionals and secular modernists over what they see as a “hidden Islamist agenda” in their predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country.
But Erdogan himself insisted Friday that his government remained as strong as ever.
“We, as brothers, will add a new and meaningful victory to our political history,” he told a boisterous AKP meeting.
Latest opinion polls say the AKP is likely to emerge the clear winner in the muncipal and legislative polls.
Turan said Erdogan’s overwhelming election successes have led to his increasingly authoritarian style.
When he first came to power in 2002, Erdogan had an ambitious reformist agenda to build a “new Turkey” based on strong economic growth after years of military coups and rocky coalition governments.
He first waged war against the once-untouchable military, which fiercely guards the secular republic and has waged three coups.
He has also used the courts to stifle dissent, prompting allegations of the “Putinisation of Erdogan,” in reference to the Russian president’s steamrolling of rivals.
“There is growing unease over prime minister Erdogan’s policies both at home and abroad,” Faruk Logoglu, deputy head of the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told AFP.
“The AKP government has been suffering fatigue after 11 years in power. Democracy and freedoms are being undermined. The price of wrong policies is an isolated and marginalised Turkey in the international arena and growing polarisation at home.”
In the Middle East, Sunni Muslim Turkey has found itself increasingly isolated as it grapples with the spillover of the Syrian civil war and an influx of refugees, and wants to build ties with regional Shiite powers.
Relations with regional heavyweight Egypt soured after Erdogan criticised the military “coup” that ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi, prompting Cairo to kick out the Turkish ambassador.
“If you fail to fine-tune policies, you will narrow your room for manoeuvre in foreign policy and gradually isolate the country, which will in time have a negative impact on national interests,” columnist Hasan Cemal wrote in the independent Internet newspaper T24.
Erdogan has set his sights on becoming president if a new constitution gives the post sweeping US-style executive powers.
AKP bylaws preclude Erdogan from running for a fourth term as premier in 2015, while the current presidency expires in August next year.
But his ambitions may be foiled by parliament’s failure to agree on a new constitution to replace a post-1980 coup charter.
“Strong leaders want to leave a legacy which will always be remembered,” said Turan.
“Mr Prime Minister is constantly on a quest. That’s why he is rushing. This is leading to impatience both on domestic and international fronts.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]