Erdogan's first term as Turkish president: 4 things to watch for

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's first directly elected president, faces civil wars on his borders, a possible economic slowing, and accusations of authoritarianism.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Turkey's new president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, takes oath of office today at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey. Mr. Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey's first popularly elected president, a position that will keep him in the nation's driving seat for at least another five years.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already been proclaimed Turkey’s most powerful leader since its founder and first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

But while Mr. Erdogan, who was inaugurated today as Turkey’s 12th president, appears to have the country at his feet, his administration may face its share of turbulence.

In 11 years as prime minister, the former Islamist has overseen a decade of growth and investment that has helped earn him broad popular support – earlier this month, he won Turkey's first direct presidential election with 52 percent. And he has successfully faced down the old military and bureaucratic elites that had meddled undemocratically in Turkish politics for decades.

But he has also evoked fear and hostility among the secular middle class, who accuse him of pursuing a conservative Sunni Islamic agenda.

Erdogan says he wants to build a “New Turkey.” To his supporters, this means a broader democracy where conservative values are respected; to his opponents, it means populist authoritarianism with Islamist overtones.

Here are four issues likely to dominate the Erdogan presidency:

1. Syria and Iraq

Turkey’s two southern neighbors are embroiled in civil wars likely to continue for years, and with serious consequences for the country.

More than 1 million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey, some in camps, but most homeless or working in big cities. Erdogan has yet to outline a long-term strategy for dealing with the burden of caring for them or easing the growing social tension their presence has created.

Meanwhile, as many as 1,000 Turks have gone to fight in the self-described Islamic State, formerly ISIS, a hardline Al Qaeda offshoot that has consolidated control over a large chunk of eastern Syria and central Iraq, including areas abutting the Turkish border. The group is currently holding hostage 49 Turkish citizens, including consular staff and their families, whom it seized during its capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

Turkey has designated the Islamic State a terrorist organization, but if it is forced to confront it more directly, many observers fear the group could wreak havoc in Turkey, a major destination for Western tourists.

2. Kurdish peace process

Last year, Erdogan’s government embarked on an effort to end the country’s three-decade long Kurdish insurgency by starting direct peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Erdogan has said that solving the conflict, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives, will be a defining issue of his presidency. A cease-fire has held since March last year, despite occasional breaches.

To solve the conflict, however, Erdogan will have to devolve significant powers away from Ankara, the capital, in order to address Kurdish demands for greater autonomy.

It remains to be seen whether he has the political will to take such steps, which are likely to generate a significant backlash from a strongly nationalist Turkish public.

3. The economy

A solid economic team has guided Turkey through a decade of strong growth, in which per capita income has swelled from $4,000 in 2002 to $11,000 last year.

Rockier times may be in store, however. Much of that growth was fueled by cheap foreign capital that flooded in due to the US Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, an economic stimulus effort that is now being wound down. And a leading economic figure in the government, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, is due to retire next year.

The credit rating agency Moody’s last month estimated annual growth of 2.5 to 3.5 percent over a year to the end of 2015, below the government’s 4 percent target.

4. One-man rule?

Erdogan’s critics fear that his rise to the presidency will further cement his dominance of Turkey’s political system, in which large sections of the media, business world, and bureaucracy sit firmly in his grip.

His authoritarian side came to the fore during mass antigovernment protests last summer, when he stridently backed a police crackdown in which eight people died.

In December, when a series of police graft investigations alleged multibillion-dollar corruption at the heart of his inner circle, he responded with a comprehensive purge of the judiciary and police, after which the probes were shelved.

Erdogan said he was ridding the bureaucracy of the followers of an erstwhile ally, Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he said was using the corruption allegations to overthrow him. Doubts remain over whether he will rebuild the institutions along impartial and independent lines, however.

Erdogan’s next goal is to amend Turkey’s Constitution to grant the presidency itself broader executive powers. To achieve that, his supporters will need to win big, securing a two-thirds parliamentary majority in general elections next June.

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