That loudest sound n Ankara these days is the shattering intrusion of hard reality into Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s pretentious dream palace. After a long run of success, the wheel is beginning to turn. The economy, once the strong pillar of support for President Tayyip Erdoğan, is showing major cracks. Domestic tranquility has evaporated with the failed coup, the heavy-handed response of an extended state of emergency, and the near civil war with the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK. Once proud boasts of foreign policy success have turned into mindless military adventures and wild claims to overturn the treaty that created modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago.
Erdoğan used to boast proudly about the strong Turkish economy with its high growth, solid currency, and rising foreign investment. No more. Those days are long gone. Growth is sputtering and the government steadily reduces growth expectations. Hotel vacancies, shuttered holiday resort areas, and empty shopping centers are glaring testimony to the collapse of the once-vibrant tourism industry. Unemployment has leapt up to 11%, and once-gushing foreign direct investment is now just a trickle.
The most obvious indicator of economic malaise in Turkey has always been the hyper-sensitive currency. It is easy for the average citizen to express his unhappiness with the general state of affairs by rapidly selling Turkish Lira and buying foreign currency – usually US dollars. Turkish corporations also move rapidly to dump TL and buy foreign currency to meet their high foreign currency debt obligations. So far this year the value of the Turkish Lira has eroded more than 18% to a record low vs. the USD of 3.44 as citizens and companies scramble to protect themselves against the country’s increasing political and economic instability.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing for ordinary Turks is that the government has absolutely no answers to the growing economic problems. All people hear are platitudes about the ‘underlying’ strength of the economy or the even more frightening “There’s no need to worry. We’ve got things in hand.” Rather than create real, long-lasting solutions to these mounting problems Erdoğan’s usual response is to look for someone to blame – the perfidious West, the so-called ‘interest rate lobby’, or would-be coup plotters. When that doesn’t work, he could well throw one of his own ministers under the bus for ‘failing to do his duty’ The most likely candidate is the hapless Mehmet Şimşek, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for macroeconomic affairs, whose voice of relative economic reason is becoming increasingly isolated.
Citizens are also unnerved by widening social/political divisions within the country as Erdoğan crushes any and all opposition with a draconian state of emergency following the failed coup attempt last summer. Jails are filling up with journalists, editors, opposition politicians, or anyone else deemed insufficiently loyal to Erdoğan. On top of this, people are frightened of bomb attacks carried out by a diverse foreign and domestic collection of the government’s enemies.
Foreign policy dreams of playing a key role in the region and acting as a trusted mediator between Europe and the Middle East have turned into a nightmare of clumsy military adventures, crumbling alliances, and weakening ties with its crucial economic partners in Europe.
The Turkish army blundered into Syria in a thinly disguised effort to keep Kurds from establishing an autonomous zone along Turkey’s southern border. The government acted surprised when the Syrian regime reacted violently and attacked the Turkish forces. The Turkish government was ‘shocked and horrified’ that anyone would dare to attack its forces. One wonders what they expected when marching into another country. Erdoğan is beside himself with impotent fury that the anti-ISIS coalition won’t let his forces join the fight for Mosul. His response is to mutter dark threats about tearing up old treaties and re-capturing what is ‘rightly’ Turkish – i.e. oil-rich northern Iraq. Good luck with that one.
Relations with the European Union have hit a new low as the European Parliament voted to suspend the on-again-off-again membership negotiations with Turkey. Erdoğan was predictably furious at this reaction to his repressive moves at home. “We don’t need you anyway!! We can turn to our good friends in the Shanghai Five.” For those of you not familiar with the Shanghai Five, it is a loose coalition of autocracies including Russia, China and Central Asian states not known for its concerns about human rights.
This might work if it were not for a few glaring problems with his new best friends. Russia backs the Syrian regime that just killed some Turkish soldiers. How do you spin that to the Turkish public? China, for its part, suppresses the Moslem minority Uighurs – a Turkish tribe no less – in the western province of Xinjiang. Also, a tough one for the staunch supporter of Moslem identity to spin to his overwhelmingly Moslem supporters. Furthermore, it’s difficult to see any Shanghai Five members willing or, more importantly, able to support Turkey’s teetering economic structure.
None of this is to say that Erdoğan’s iron grip over Turkish domestic politics is weakening any time soon. His total control of the media severely limits what the public sees and hears. And his never-ending, ear-shattering rhetoric about the ‘glory days’ of the Ottoman Empire continues to resonate with a large part of his voter base. But sooner or later hard reality will break down the walls protecting Erdoğan-world.