Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Republic of Turkey's brilliant if evil president, so dominates his country's political scene that he can afford a bit of self-indulgence. And so he does just that. Consider the two dominant themes of Turkish public life at present:
- Refusing to change the anti-terrorism laws to comply with demands by the European Union: If Erdoğan would make this meaningless semantic concession (he could still arrest anyone he wants, just on a different charge), he would win the gigantic benefit of visa-free travel for 75 million Turks to the EU's Schengen Zone, a benefit that would potentially solve everything from his Kurdish to his Syrian refugee problem.
- Changing the constitution to change a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system: Erdoğan has been obsessed with this transformation for years even though, already enjoying all the powers the constitution might grant him, and more, he has no need for it.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) welcomes Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
One watches with morbid fascination as a skilled, once-restrained politician loses all sense of proportion as his power grows, reaching the point where vanity drives his demand for these constitutional and anti-terrorism baubles.
This is no minor matter but points to Erdoğan's likely political demise as he edges toward making one error and one enemy too many. (May 20, 2016)
Aug. 11, 2016 update: Add a third indulgence. Erdoğan blamed the July 15 coup attempt against him on his arch-rival, the exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen, and exploited the failed coup to arrest or jail tens of thousands of political opponents. Not content with this, Erdoğan demanded that the U.S. government extradite Gülen to Turkey and threatened a rupture in relations if Washington fails to comply with his wishes: "Sooner or later the U.S. will make a choice. Either Turkey or FETÖ" (FETÖ being his neologism for the supposed "Fethullah Terror Organization"). In fact, the Gülen organization in Turkey has been crushed; getting his hands on Gülen himself represents another bauble.
Jan. 20, 2017 update: It took a while and it was not as clean as Erdoğan, 62, probably would have liked, but Turkey's parliament has passed the bill making him officially a tyrant by a 339-142 vote. Next up: the electorate gets to endorse this array of constitutional changes.
Mar. 13, 2017 update: Erdoğan plays dirty in elections so, of course, he will win the April 16 referendum that expands his powers as president of Turkey. Assuming the outcome is assured, his sending politicians to rally Europe's 4.6 million Turks to vote "yes" in the referendum amounts to a maraschino cherry on the top of a giant confection of indulgence. Erdoğan does not need the referendum to rule as a tyrant and he even less does he need the votes of his compatriots in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
But when the governments of those four democracies objected to rallies in their countries (in part because the "no" side is barred from holding rallies in Turkey), Erdoğan lashed out against them, calling them variously "Islamophobic," a "banana republic," and "Nazis." He also threatening to retaliate against them. In other words, Erdoğan has gratuitously harmed relations with several vital governments for no reason at all – or just because he can because he is the all-powerful reis.
Apr. 16, 2017 update: Of course, the referendum passed, though by a puzzlingly meager 51.4 to 48.6 percent.