I nominate Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, as the most inconsistent, mysterious, and therefore most unpredictable politician in the world. His victory in a referendum April 16 formally bestows him with near-dictatorial powers that leave Turkey, the Middle East, and beyond in a greater state of uncertainty than ever.
Here are some of the puzzles:
Mystery #1: Holding the referendum
The Turkish electorate voted April 16 to embrace fundamental constitutional changes affecting the very nature of its government: Should the country continue with the flawed democracy of the past 65 years, or centralize political power in the presidency? Under the new system, the prime minister vaporizes and the president holds vast power over parliament, the judiciary, the budget, and the military.
Famed novelist Elif Safak spoke for most when she wrote that Turkey’s referendum “could alter the country’s destiny for generations to come.”
Erdogan’s fixation on officially imbuing the office of the presidency with the vast powers he already had in practice prompted him to steal an election, fire a prime minister, start a near-civil war, and provoke a crisis with Europe. Why did he bother with all this for a mere superfluity?
Mystery #2: The referendum results
Erdogan brought enormous pressure to bear for a momentous victory in the referendum. He made full use of his control of most media. Mosques were mobilized. In the words of one international organization, in several cases, “no” supporters “have faced police interventions while campaigning; a number were also arrested on charges of insulting the president or organizing unlawful public events.” Opponents also lost their jobs, met with media boycotts, faced electricity outages, and been beaten up.
Despite this, the referendum passed by a meager 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent. If the referendum was fixed, why was the affirmative vote so low and not a more imposing 60, 80, or – why not – 99 percent?
Mystery #3: Gülen
Erdogan wantonly ended a key alliance with fellow-Islamist Fethullah Gülen, transforming a stalwart ally into a determined domestic opponent who challenged Erdogan’s primacy and revealed his corruption. In his political war with Gülen, an elderly Muslim cleric living in rural Pennsylvania, Erdogan implausibly claimed that Gülen’s movement had planned and led an alleged coup attempt in July 2016; then he cracked down on Gülen’s followers and thousands more, leading to 47,000 arrests, 113,000 detainments, 135,000 firings or suspensions from jobs, and many more entering the shadows of “social death.”
Erdogan went further, demanding that Washington extradite Gülen to Turkey and threatening a rupture if he did not get his way: “Sooner or later the US will make a choice. Either Turkey or [Gülen].”
Why did Erdogan pick a fight with Gülen, creating turmoil within Turkish Islamist ranks and jeopardizing relations with the US?
Mystery #4: Semantic purism
The European Union reluctantly agreed to visa-free travel for 75 million Turks to 26 member countries, a benefit that would potentially allow Erdogan to push out unwanted Kurds and Syrian refugees. But the EU made this access contingent on Turkey “revising the legislation and practices on terrorism in line with European standards.” Erdogan could have made this concession and arrested anyone he wanted on other charges, but he refused and declined an extraordinary opportunity.
Mystery #5: Canny or megalomaniacal?
Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and for eight years governed cautiously, overseeing remarkable economic growth, mollifying the military leadership that held the country’s ultimate power, and successfully pursuing a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Erdogan timed his moves with such deftness that, for example, hardly anyone noticed in July 2011 when he subdued the military.
That was then. Since, Erdogan has turned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from his favorite foreign leader into a mortal enemy. He shot down a Russian fighter plane, then abjectly had to apologize. He lost out on a pipeline transporting eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.
In a particularly ignoble farce, Erdogan showed up at the funeral of American boxer Muhammad Ali to give a speech, deliver presents, and have his picture taken with family members, only to be rejected on all these requests and slink back home.
What happened to the cunning leader of a decade back?
Erdogan’s Islamist supporters sometimes suggest that he’s on his way to declaring himself caliph, the successor of Muhammad. Depending on whether he uses the Islamic or Christian calendar, that could happen, respectively, on either March 10, 2021 or March 4, 2024. You heard it here first.
Daniel Pipes (danielpipes.org, @danielpipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.