It would be better for Turkey if the presidency remained mainly ceremonial
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey’s prime minister, certainly knows how to win elections. Since he helped to found the Justice and Development (AK) party 13 years ago, he has scored eight victories in a row. On August 10th he made it nine, winning Turkey’s first direct election to the presidency, with a crushing 52% of the vote. Given what have been broadly fair polls, with mostly high turnouts, nobody can seriously challenge Mr Erdogan’s democratic credentials.
His achievements in over 11 years as prime minister are equally impressive. Since AK came to power in November 2002, economic growth has averaged some 5%. Inflation has been tamed. The army has been brought under greater civilian control. Mr Erdogan has made more progress than any previous political leader in giving Turkey’s Kurds greater rights. In 2005 he achieved something that had eluded all his predecessors: the start of membership talks with the European Union.
Yet there are reasons to worry about Mr Erdogan’s ascendancy to Ankara’s Cankaya palace. With the army, the secular establishment and the political opposition all cowed, he has grown more autocratic. When Turks took to the streets in last summer’s Gezi Park protests, his reaction was to send in riot police with tear gas. After a corruption scandal erupted last year, engulfing even his own family, he took firmer control of the judiciary. He has responded to criticism with assaults on free media and on individual journalists (including virulent public attacks on The Economist’s long-serving Turkey correspondent), and with attempts to censor the internet.
What makes this more troubling are Mr Erdogan’s plans to give the presidency, hitherto a ceremonial job, far more power. He wants to turn it into an executive position, as in France. To do this he must change the constitution, which usually needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. AK is unlikely to achieve that on its own, but it could secure enough votes by doing a deal with the Kurdish party. That would put Mr Erdogan in sight of his goal of an enhanced presidency, backed by a pliable prime minister, in which he could stay up to and beyond 2023, the centenary of Ataturk’s republic.
Such an outcome is unappealing to those who believe in political pluralism. Powerful presidencies can work, but they need to be constrained by strong institutions of a sort Turkey still lacks. Mr Erdogan’s own autocratic tendencies compound this problem. But why should he pay any heed? There are two answers: a vulnerable economy and his own legacy.
The biggest reason for Mr Erdogan’s poll victories is his delivery of rapidly rising living standards. But the economy is slowing. A gaping current-account deficit makes the country highly dependent on capital inflows; when global interest rates rise, Turkey could suffer. And it is caught in a “middle-income trap”, losing competitiveness in the basic goods it produces, but unable to move up to higher-tech ones. To keep growing, Turkey needs both liberalising reforms and foreign capital. Mr Erdogan has shown scant interest in reform. And although foreign investors stomach autocratic regimes around the world, they don’t much care for social instability of the sort that Mr Erdogan’s type of polarising politics usually portends.
The hope that Turkey will one day join the EU has also kept investors interested. This is where Mr Erdogan ought to think of his legacy. Building giant infrastructure projects is all very well, but if he is to underpin Turkey’s modernisation he needs to pull it back onto its European course. EU membership is a remote prospect just now, but moving away from Europe’s liberal democratic norms will make it an impossibility.
Gul, not Putin
The first test of Mr Erdogan’s intentions will be the choice of prime minister. This week Turkey’s outgoing president, Abdullah Gul, threw his hat into the ring (see article). Not only is Mr Gul widely respected, both at home and abroad, but he has also briefly held the job before. Moreover, as a co-founder of the AK party, he has enough political clout of his own to stand up to Mr Erdogan. Mr Erdogan should accept that a strong prime minister would be better for Turkey. If he insists on having a puppet instead, people may start to compare him not to Ataturk but to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
THE ECONOMIST Aug 16th 2014