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Turkey’s Approaching Crossroads

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has resorted to public spectacles to distract attention from his slipping support and economic mismanagement. But one way or another, fundamental change has become inevitable.

By reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and holding celebratory prayers there for the cameras, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems keen to divert attention from the fact that his country is entering a new phase of acute political and financial turmoil.

The Hagia Sophia dates to the sixth century, and for almost a millennium was one of the Christian world’s most magnificent and well-known churches, carrying forward the traditions of both the Roman and the Byzantine Empires. It was first converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, but was then fashioned into a museum by modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Atatürk, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Atatürk sought to create a secular Turkey that could flourish in the modern world. That required bridging historical divisions, which meant that the Hagia Sophia would be neither a church nor a mosque. As a museum, it would attract visitors from around the world, serving as both an embodiment of Turkish history and a symbol of forward-looking cosmopolitanism.

By overturning Atatürk’s founding vision in this respect, Erdoğan is trying to signal a fundamental change in direction for the country. After all, it is not as though Istanbul suffers from a scarcity of massive, magnificent, historically significant mosques. Those designed by the Ottoman master architect Sinan reside just nearby.

For more than a decade, Turkey was on track to adopt democratic reforms and align itself with the rest of Europe, even overhauling its constitution and beginning formal accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. The country’s transformation at the time was both impressive and deeply inspiring to those of us watching from the outside.

But those hopeful days are gone. Instead of modernizing and moving closer to the rest of Europe, Turkey under Erdoğan has been sinking into the mire of the Middle East. This fundamental change has many causes, and cannot be placed at the feet of one man. The country’s official dialogue around the Kurdish question has collapsed, and in the summer of 2016, segments of the military, part of the secretive Gülen movement, attempted to stage a coup.

Once a key ally to Erdoğan, the Gülenists’ attempted power grab tilted the country in a decidedly more authoritarian direction. Erdoğan quickly started centralizing government functions and consolidating his own power with a widespread purge of the state and society, followed by a constitutional amendment establishing a presidential political system. Complicating matters further, the civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011 increasingly spilled over the border, dragging Turkey into the conflict in numerous destructive ways.

But, for all its faults and recent disappointments, Turkey is still a country where elections matter, and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has gradually suffered a loss of popular support. In last year’s municipal elections, the party lost control of all the country’s major cities. And respected political leaders whom Erdoğan once could count as allies – including former President Abdullah Gül, former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – have all abandoned him and set up new political parties to challenge the AKP.

With his support eroding, it is unlikely that Erdoğan could survive another election, even with the aid of the AKP’s current coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Shoring up the religiously conservative nationalist base with gambits like Hagia Sophia’s reconversion is unlikely to help much. Nor are further incursions into Syria or adventures in Libya, all of which have a limited shelf life for bolstering popular support. Urban and younger voters have left, or are leaving, the AKP in droves.

The upshot is that a political break has become inevitable. That could mean a smooth transition to a less centralized governance arrangement and a return to the path of modernization and alignment with Europe, which is what Turkey’s friends should be rooting for. But, now that Erdoğan knows his regime’s days are numbered, Turkey could also be heading for a more dramatic and disturbing scenario. One cannot rule out the possibility that Erdoğan simply refuses to accept an unfavorable verdict by the electorate.

In addition to growing political tensions, Turkey has a brewing economic crisis, owing to rising fiscal and external deficits, which are being sustained with massive amounts of credit from state-owned banks. The debt burden was already a big problem before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is sure to become worse now. A recent $15 billion loan from Turkey’s sometime-ally Qatar will help for a while. But the current situation cannot – and therefore will not – last.

In addition to these immediate sources of instability, the EU accession process remains in a deep freeze, and Turkey’s relations with the United States have become increasingly strained as the two countries stumble from one diplomatic crisis to the next. Nonetheless, it is clear that Turkish society is ready for a change, and a major, dramatic shift would not be unprecedented in the country’s modern history.

Turkey is still a society with immense human potential. And no one can ignore its geopolitical importance, given its position straddling Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For now, it is obvious that the country is heading for a political and financial bust-up. Against the backdrop of recent years, that is essentially good news. Sooner or later, something will set Turkey’s politics on a better course.

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