Can’t Let Erdogan Get Away with This
By Eli Lake
May 8, 2019
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a
curious new plan for “strengthening our
democracy”: Because the people of Istanbul had voted the wrong party into
power, the city would be holding new elections.
Alleging fraud and irregularities, Erdogan’s AK Party
scheduled a revote of the city’s municipal elections for next month, which the
party lost in
March to a coalition of opposition parties. It’s an untenable situation for
Erdogan’s Islamist party, which relies on the patronage that comes from
controlling local governments.
But a new election is untenable for much of the country,
which erupted in protest after the announcement, and many Turks who had not
previously been critical of Erdogan (including many celebrities)
are taking the opposition’s side. Turkey’s former president and a co-founder
of Erdogan’s party, Abdullah Gul, spoke
out against the decision for a revote. Turkish media is reporting that
Gul, along with former finance minister Ali Babacan, is planning to split from
Erdogan and form a new party.
There has also been strong international
censure of the decision, with condemnations from several European
foreign ministers as well as the European Union.
Absent from this chorus thus far, however, is the Trump
administration. Washington’s silence makes it seem as though the
administration “wants Erdogan to stay in power forever,” says Ilhan Tanir,
the executive editor of Ahval, a Turkish news site. “This is the time for the
Trump administration to make a strong statement.”
The slow reaction from Washington may reflect the need to
pay attention elsewhere. Since December, when President Donald Trump announced a
U.S. withdrawal from
Syria after a phone conversation with Erdogan, U.S. diplomats and generals have
focused on getting Erdogan to promise not to attack the Syrian Kurds, who are a
crucial U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic State. To this day, U.S.
officials tell me, Erdogan has made no such pledge. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is
engaged in a so-far-unsuccessfulcampaign
to persuade Turkey not to go through with the purchase of a Russian air defense
But while it may be understandable that a local election
would not be at the top of the U.S. agenda with Turkey, it’s also inexcusable.
There is currently widespread support within Turkey to
check Erdogan’s consolidation of power. American support for Turks who oppose
the AK Party’s electoral chicanery is a smart bet: Not only would it preserve
credibility with the government that comes after Erdogan, but it would also
weaken a president who has become an unreliable ally.
During the Obama years, Erdogan allowed his territory to
be used by the Islamic State to establish pipelines of new recruits from Europe
into the group’s proto-Caliphate. He has taken a page from Iran’s
playbook and tried to extract concessions from
the West by taking hostages. He is flirting with Russia, buying an air defense
system incompatible with NATO’s weaponry. And he still won’t promise not to
slaughter the Kurds who helped vanquish the Islamic State in Syria.
A Turkey without Erdogan would still present challenges for
U.S. foreign policy. But the main irritant in the relationship will be gone. The
U.S. does not have to intervene in Turkish politics. It only needs to
listen to what millions of Turkish citizens, including Erdogan’s former
allies, are now saying. This is one case where America’s values align with its