Erdogan The Unstoppable: Turkey In One Man's Hands

Erdogan saluting supporters in Istanbul late Sunday
Erdogan saluting supporters in Istanbul late Sunday


It's anything but a surprise, given the weakness of the opposition and an election played out in advance: Recep Tayyip Erdogan won after the first round of voting in Sunday's presidential election — the first ever in Turkey by direct universal suffrage.

Erdogan thus perfects a political career marked, for 20 years, by one electoral success after another. Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, prime minister since 2002, there he is now president of a republic he plans to fundamentally remodel. Such longevity make him, already, one of the most influential political leaders of modern Turkey.

If he manages to remain in power until 2023, he can hope to join Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — founder of the republic in 1923 — at the pinnacle of the nation's history.

Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” Lenin said. The “new Turkey” Erdogan calls for is essentially economic growth plus Islam. Since 2002, Turkey’s GDP and income per capita have practically tripled. As for the AKP (Justice and Development Party), of which Erdogan is the absolute ruler, it’s an Islamic-conservative formation which intends to control all of the apparatus of the republic, and replace the previous Kemalist secularism.

Last stop?

Ultimately, Erdogan’s style, booming and populist, helps explain his successes. He never hesitates to provoke, to appeal to their patriotic or religious instincts: Against his former allies turned sworn enemies, like the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, against traitors, Jewish, Armenians, women or journalists ... With his traditional electorate — Anatolian, conservative, nationalist and undereducated — those types of rant hit the mark every time.

But to strengthen his grip on the country, the new Turkish president also preferred rule by political isolation. Within the AKP, dissidents were brushed aside. The restrained cabinet with which he leads is more and more huddled up on itself and troubled by the obsessive fear of plots to undermine the leader. Following the disclosure of the resounding corruption scandals in December 2013, Erdogan now only trusts his children, if even them.

Erdogan’s radical positions have emphasized the polarization within the Turkish society. One in two Turks supports him blindly. For his opponents, he leads the country backwards with an authoritarian government and a police regime, whose 2013 repression against Taksim Square's protesters set the tone.

Erdogan only really speaks to the 20 millions of devoted Turks who follow him with eyes shut. He’s cut off from the liberal, urban and Europe-oriented Turkey which had initially supported him.

“Democracy is like a bus ride. Once I get to my stop I’m getting off,” he once said in the 1990s, back when he was mayor of Istanbul. It remains to be seen if the presidential election actually was that stop.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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