Jan 3rd 2015
“I DON’T order you to fight, I order you to die” With those words Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, rallied his troops against the British-led forces fighting for the Dardanelles in 1915 during the First World War, when Turkey was allied to Germany. Ataturk’s men won the battle for the straits, but the Ottoman Empire lost the war. As millions of Turks prepare to mark the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli—the bloodiest of the campaign—on April 25th, many will hail it as the moment when the seeds of Ataturk’s secular republic were planted.
But what remains of his legacy? The question is more urgent as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s first popularly elected president, presses for constitutional changes that would endow him with executive power. He then hopes to fulfil his dream of a new and assertive Turkey, where Sunni Islam prevails and the glories of the old empire are revived. Others are less enthusiastic. “Turkey will become a Middle East-style dictatorship,” predicts Levent Gultekin, a prominent pundit.
That may be an exaggeration. But Mr Erdogan certainly has grandiose ambitions. At Ataturk’s farm near Ankara, he has built a garish new presidential complex with 1,150 rooms at a cost of $615m. He has decreed that the old Ottoman language and script, which Ataturk replaced with a roman one in 1928, be mandatory in the imam hatip schools for Muslim clergy that have nearly quadrupled in number since his conservative Justice and Development party (AK) came to power in 2002.
To realise Mr Erdogan’s plans, AK will have to win a fourth general election in a row. One is due by June. Few doubt that AK will come first. The main opposition, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), is a shambles. Still, AK must bag at least two-thirds of the seats in the 550-member parliament if it is unilaterally to replace the constitution drawn up by the generals after they seized power in 1980. It is unlikely to manage that.
Indeed, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president faces several serious challenges in 2015. The first is to maintain his grip on AK. Signs of internal dissent recently appeared when Binali Yildirim, one of Mr Erdogan’s trusties, declared that the president would chair a cabinet meeting on January 5th. This irked Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister, handpicked by Mr Erdogan to succeed him when he switched to the presidency in August. “Matters that concern me and our president can only be announced by him and me,” harrumphed Mr Davutoglu. “No such meeting will take place.” Rumours swirl of a rival “shadow cabinet” of Mr Erdogan’s sycophants. Moreover, the president is said to want to decide who should be on AK’s list of candidates in the forthcoming election.
Another big issue is corruption. A small but growing group in AK feel uneasy about the charges that have been levelled against Mr Erdogan and his inner circle. The government’s response of shifting the prosecutors and police concerned raised eyebrows. A 16-year-old student was briefly detained for calling Mr Erdogan a “thief”.
Mr Erdogan says that Fethullah Gülen, an ambitious Sunni cleric and former ally who lives in Pennsylvania, was behind calls to investigate alleged corruption at the top, in cahoots with “higher minds”, meaning Israel and the United States, with the aim of toppling the government. Thousands of alleged Gulenists, who deny these claims, have been purged from the police and the judiciary. Journalists from newspapers and television channels affiliated to Mr Gülen have been detained on terrorist charges with scant evidence. America’s likely refusal to extradite Mr Gülen will add to strains between the two NATO allies that had already risen because of Turkey’s reluctance to play a bigger part in the coalition against the jihadists of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
A third headache for Mr Erdogan, perhaps his biggest, is the economy. Sagging oil prices have boosted it. The current-account deficit is expected to shrink and inflation to fall this year. Yet growth needs to exceed 3% if living standards are to be maintained, and Turkey shows few signs of managing that without a politically testing programme of liberalising reforms. Some 2m refugees from Syria are also straining the state’s coffers.
More hopeful are Mr Erdogan’s relations with his Kurds. Their main political group in Turkey, known as the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), says it will contest this year’s election as a party, instead of as independents. Should it fail to cross the threshold of 10% of the vote needed to enter parliament, AK might then sweep up most of the seats in the mainly Kurdish south-east. That could give Mr Erdogan the two-thirds of seats he must have to alter the constitution without a referendum.
Why would the Kurds risk this? Some speculate that there is a secret deal between their imprisoned rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and Mr Erdogan. The Kurds say the HDP block will get enough votes to enter parliament. But if it does not, they will set up an informal parliament. A ceasefire between the government and Mr Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been holding shakily for two years. The PKK is bogged down in the battle with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and cannot afford to resume fighting within Turkey. But if AK fails to keep its promises to improve the lot of Kurds, it would be only a matter of time before the PKK rebels again. And that could knock many of Mr Erdogan’s plans for glory askew.