Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman are former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative. Blaise Misztal is acting director of foreign policy at the center.
Whatever his achievements over the past decade, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is destroying his country’s parlous democracy. That is a profound problem for Turks and Turkey’s Western allies. Staying silent, out of fear that speaking out would harm some short-term interests, risks Turkey’s longer-term stability.
Last month police arrested more than 50 people close to Erdogan’s government — including prominent business executives and sons of government ministers — on charges of corruption. While graft has long permeated Turkish governments, these allegations are unprecedented. They reach high levels of government and involve not just domestic transgressions but also sizable evasions of Iranian sanctions.
Rather than ensuring a meticulous examination of these charges, Erdogan is burying them. He has removed the case’s lead prosecutors and some 3,000 police officers nationwide, sought to increase government control over a weak judiciary, limited the ability of police to conduct independent investigations, prevented journalists from reporting on the case and mounted a media campaign to destroy his enemies — particularly the followers of powerful religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who were once his strongest allies. And, as he did when protests erupted against his government last summer, Erdogan portrays the events as a massive plot against him. He has also implicated other opposition parties and foreign powers and even threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador.
These are not the actions of a politician simply seeking to stave off scandal. Erdogan is exploiting the allegations to further stifle dissent and strengthen his grip on Turkey.
His tactics are not new. When challenged, Erdogan has sought to destroy his opponents rather than compromise. After effectively sidelining the military’s political influence, Erdogan went after other centers of power: media, business leaders and civil society; now, the Gulenists, a strong, politically effective community. The prime minister has exploited crises — whether real or manufactured — to undermine the rule of law.
The protests in Gezi Park last year and the present scandal are neither isolated domestic disturbances nor simple political infighting. Their occurrence and the government’s reaction are symptomatic of a struggle between an increasingly authoritarian government, which seeks to reduce resistance to its rule, and opposition movements ranging from secular liberals to conservative Gulenists.
That struggle has entered a new phase. Turkey has important local elections at the end of March, followed by presidential and parliamentary campaigns. Erdogan has not yet declared whether he will seek the presidency or reelection as prime minister, but he is intent on continuing to run Turkey. These allegations, and his subsequent actions, could lower his vote tallies; they have given the opposition parties new life.
Turkey’s democratic decline creates a pressing dilemma for the United States. Erdogan’s current course would take Turkey from an imperfect democracy to an autocracy. Such a fate for a close ally and NATO member would have profound implications for our partnership, the United States’ beleaguered credibility and the prospects for democracy in the region. It would also threaten Turkey’s economy.
Secretary of State John Kerry, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in tow, recently made some modest, generalized public references to U.S. devotion to democracy and the rule of law while insisting that the United States would stay out of Turkish domestic politics and rhapsodizing on the bilateral relationship. Not surprisingly, Davutoglu agreed.
Erdogan’s denunciation of supposed U.S. meddling puts Washington in a difficult position: If the United States weighs in on the scandal, it might give his accusations merit and rally more supporters to his side.
Yet for much of Erdogan’s rule, the U.S. approach has been mostly public silence on unfavorable developments, with occasional private rebukes. As we argued in a recent Bipartisan Policy Center report, this strategy has not succeeded. It has not influenced important aspects of Erdogan’s foreign policy, which have often diverged from U.S. policy; moderated his confrontational rhetoric; or led to a less antagonistic domestic policy. Indeed, U.S. silence all these years might have encouraged Erdogan.
U.S. policymakers should lay aside their reluctance to confront the disastrous impact of Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies and remind the Turkish leader of the importance the United States attaches to Turkey’s political stability and democratic vitality. Particularly as their influence is greater than it appears: While Turks do not trust the United States, neither do they like to be at odds with it.
Erdogan has exploited Turkey’s partnership with the United States and his close personal relationship with President Obama to burnish his legitimacy. U.S. condemnation of his recent actions — publicly and even more strongly in private — might temper his posturing. However significant U.S. interests with Turkey are, neither silence nor platitudes will help halt its political descent.
Erdogan is doing great harm to Turkey’s democracy. The United States should make clear, privately and publicly, that his extreme actions and demagoguery are subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.