- - Monday, February 20, 2023

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power 20 years ago after earthquakes created a wave of popular resentment of his predecessors’ failure to deal with the disasters. In May, Mr. Erdogan could be tossed out of office for some of the same reasons and because he is turning Turkey into a dictatorship.

The earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and northwestern Syria on Feb. 6 caused at least 40,000 deaths in Turkey and more than 5,000 in Syria. The number of Syrian deaths will probably never be counted because Syrian dictator Bashar Assad cares only about his military, not Syria’s civilian population.

Mr. Erdogan is increasingly referred to euphemistically as an “autocrat,” a word that is synonymous with “dictator.” The latter label is clearer and more correct for him.
While mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, Mr. Erdogan said, “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” Since he came to power in 2003, Mr. Erdogan has stepped off the tram.

Mr. Erdogan has made a huge mess of his nation’s economy, and the earthquake will further weaken it. Turkey’s inflation rate was 64.3% in December, down from over 84% in November.

As The Economist reports, Mr. Erdogan has imposed a monetary policy on the previously independent central bank that “is flatly bonkers.” That report goes on to say that “his increasingly eccentric beliefs swiftly become public policy.” Economic unrest and his government’s slow and disorganized response to the earthquake are the biggest threats to Mr. Erdogan’s reelection.

From the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Erdogan has been reversing Turkey’s secular government into Islamism. Turkey was always an Islamic country, but the government established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1920 was secular. The Turkish military, by the tradition Ataturk established, was the guardian of secularism.

Mr. Erdogan has weeded the secularists out of the Turkish military and government. Thus, Turkey has become Islamist rather than secularly Islamic. The unsuccessful 2016 coup attempt against his government was organized by discontented military officers and defeated after more than 240 people were killed.

The attempted coup was blamed partly on the military — hundreds of officers were arrested — and partly on Fethullah Gulen, a preacher and businessman who lives in the U.S. Tens of thousands of alleged “Gulenists” were purged from their jobs. Some were imprisoned, and Mr. Erdogan demanded that Mr. Gulen be extradited to Turkey. The U.S. denied his extradition.

At the time of the coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan cut commercial electric power at our important Incirlik Air Base and closed the airspace above it for more than a day. Turkish military commanders at the base were arrested and accused of aiding the coup.

Since then, Mr. Erdogan has steadily marched Turkey toward dictatorship. He has turned the media into spokesmen for state propaganda and eroded checks and balances on his power to the point that they are ineffective. He has also undermined the judiciary’s independence.

Mr. Erdogan, as this column has stated before, is our least reliable NATO ally. He has cozied up to Russia and is still blocking the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland. He has demanded that Kurdish expatriates who have demonstrated against him in Sweden be extradited to Turkey.

Mr. Erdogan faces a May 14 presidential and parliamentary election that he is determined to win one way or the other. His strongest opponent, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, has been sentenced to prison and banned from politics.

Mr. Erdogan is already talking about delaying the election. If — and this is a huge “if” — the election is held and the votes are counted honestly, Mr. Erdogan could and should lose.

Thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed in this month’s earthquake despite building codes that were expected to provide security against such damage. The Erdogan regime has issued more than 110 arrest warrants for architects, contractors and engineers it wants to blame for the devastation. No warrants have been reportedly issued against the many — probably corrupt — government inspectors responsible for enforcing the building codes.

Mr. Erdogan’s regime is being blamed for its sluggish response to the damage. Rescue workers and aid funds are pouring into Turkey from other countries, but Mr. Erdogan’s government is being criticized harshly for the slowness of its relief efforts. That is sure to affect his election prospects.

Mr. Erdogan is not desperate enough yet to take his frustrations out on Europe. He could, if he chose to, allow the 5 million refugees now in Turkey to migrate to Europe. It must be apparent to him that, at this point, he needs Europe more than Europe needs Turkey.

Democracy in Turkey will be destroyed entirely if Mr. Erdogan wins the May election honestly or — far more likely — by imposing a result and calling it a “democratic” election.

President Biden could and should tell the world that democracy in Turkey is key to NATO’s strength. We have no other way to influence Turkish voters. Still, that message needs to be sent to Mr. Erdogan and to European leaders who have, like Mr. Biden, failed to speak out against Mr. Erdogan’s descent into dictatorship.

• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.

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