Turkey’s prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan, a man whose self-aggrandising style of leadership has already been coming in for increasing criticism, outdid himself in his victory speech following Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Sometimes public figures push themselves to a place beyond parody. This was one of those occasions.
Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that this is not to begrudge Mr Erdoğan his general air of jubilation. He was a convincing victor in Sunday’s election, demonstrating once again his easy dominance of the political scene and copper-fastening his position as Turkey’s most significant leader since Atatürk.
Much in Mr Erdoğan’s speech was to be expected. His avowed commitment to a collaborative process of constitution-making was particularly welcome, even if its sincerity can’t be complacently assumed given some of his words and deeds in office. But what are we to make of the following sentence? What do we make of a national leader who responds to domestic victory with words like these, invoking the international scene in quite this way?
“Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as İzmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakır.”
At times, Mr Erdoğan is derided somewhat unfairly for his egomania and his delusions of grandeur. There’s no doubt that he’s possessed of these traits, but to focus on them alone is to ignore unfairly the political astuteness that’s required to build and sustain the kind of success that he has enjoyed. But with this sentence, he really does seem to have conformed to the stereotype and lost the run of himself.
If one wanted to go out of one’s way to interpret his words charitably, one would suggest that all Mr Erdoğan meant was that Turkey’s neighbours should take succour from Turkey’s combination of (relative) strength and (relatively) democratic institutions. This is the by-now-familiar narrative of Turkey as a model for the nascent moves towards increased democracy in the middle east.
But of course the words are more loaded than that. It’s hard to put one’s finger on quite what animates them, but there is certainly a large degree of condescension at work—as if the states (and the Palestinian non-state) he mentions should be grateful to be offered crumbs from the table of Turkish democracy. Lest we forget, Mr Erdoğan speaks as the leader of the state that succeeded the region’s imperial power.
More troubling still, however, is the mounting enthusiasm with which Mr Erdoğan seems to want to insert Turkey into the flow of events in the middle east. Pursuing an assertive foreign policy is one thing (and I believe that a Turkish government of any stripe would be aggressively expanding its non-European trade and diplomatic ties). But throwing oneself in such a feet first fashion into perhaps the world’s most protractedly poisonous geopolitical cauldron smacks of strategic folly.
One starts to wonder where this might lead and exactly what Mr Erdoğan understands his own position in the region and the world to be. It is not unreasonable for him to take personal gratification from his sustained domestic electoral success. The AKP’s dominance in Turkey is down in large measure to his individual magnetism, to the comfortable sway that he personally holds over much of the country.
In Turkey, Mr Erdoğan is simply untouchable at this point in time. But to project that sense of personal invincibility beyond the borders of the Turkish state and into the wider world? That strikes me as one of the more worrying developments in Turkey in recent months and years.