In March, Erdogan scored a huge victory when Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, announced that his rebels were renouncing violence after a three-decade guerrilla war that cost at least 40,000 lives.
While many are skeptical that the cease-fire will hold, the peace deal was a remarkable achievement for Erdogan that was welcomed by Washington as a victory against terrorism.
The same week, Erdogan won another unlikely coup: an apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the nine lives lost when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship as it attempted to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010. Netanyahu made the call to Erdogan from an Israeli airport while visiting Obama was standing by.
The deaths had been a huge thorn in relations between Turkey and Israel, which was especially troubling to Washington, which needs its democratic allies in the region to work together.
“Israel never bent down before anyone, but they did for him — at least, that is the perception among the Turkish public,” said Cengiz Candar, one of Turkey’s leading political commentators.
At home, Erdogan has gradually expanded his power over every aspect of government and society. While opinion polls show that his popularity is high, they also show deep skepticism about many issues, including his aggressive Syria policy and a human rights record that has been widely criticized.
Recent surveys by MetroPOLL, an Ankara firm, show that only 28 percent of Turks approve of Erdogan’s approach to Syria and that his job approval fell to 59 percent in December from 71 percent a year earlier. Ozer Sencar, the firm’s head, said the drop in popularity was largely due to Erdogan’s Syria policies.
To his supporters, Erdogan is a visionary who has inspired Turks to “think positively about tomorrow and the future,” according to Saban Disli, a senior member of parliament from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and close adviser to the prime minister.
In the decade since he took office, Turkey’s economic growth has averaged more than 5 percent and per-capita GDP has tripled to more than $10,000. The growth has largely been led by exports, which have increased fivefold in the past 10 years, reaching $154 billion last year. Turkey now has 43 billionaires, up from six in 2002, according to Forbes magazine.
To consolidate those gains, Erdogan talks constantly about his dreams of a “Great Turkey.” By 2023, the 100th anniversary of modern Turkey’s founding, he vows to make it one of the world’s top 10 economies — now it ranks the 17th largest, according to the Foreign Ministry. In his mind’s eye, Turkey will have a brand-new Panama Canal-style waterway, a Turkish car brand, a vastly expanded network of highways and rails, millions of new houses — and its coming-out party will be the 2020 Summer Olympics in Istanbul.