Nationalism and Islam, Sultan Erdoğan’s tools to control Turkey

The economic and migrant crises cut into his support. The anti-Kurdish offensive in north-eastern Syria brushed up his winning image. From an historic low of 33.7 per cent, support for him now stands at 48 per cent, achieved on the backs of Kurds, refugees, Christians, political opponents and victims of his repression.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used nationalism and Islam to stay in power and ward off the effects of an economic crisis that cost him the control of the country’s two most important cities, the political capital Ankara and the economic capital Istanbul, in last March local elections.

Erdoğan’s leadership seemed to be faltering in recent months under the blows of rising inflation, the collapse of exports and the difficult management of the Syrian refugee crisis. The president had accepted the latter in the name of an Islamic "brotherhood" to ingratiate himself with Islamic extremists after playing the nationalistic card.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, on 6 November ruled that the ancient Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora should be returned "to its initial cult" and be used as a mosque.

Orthodox Christians and Catholics now fear that this decision could be used as a precedent to turn the historic (and disputed) Holy Sophia (Wisdom) Basilica, formerly the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, now a museum, into a mosque. In fact, to please Islamic radicals, Erdoğan had pledged to turn it into a place of Muslim worship.

Religion and nationalism are the two tools the president has used to control the country, boosted by the 2017 referendum that saw 51.4 per cent of voters back his desire of turning the state from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

However, when Turkey seemed to be finally under his thumb, including the military after the crackdown that followed the failed coup of July 2016, the first signs of economic and financial crisis appeared.

These were made worse by US President Donald Trump's decision to penalise Turkish imports following Ankara's decision to buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft defence system.

Turkish companies lost about US$ 700 million dollars, or 40 per cent of their duty-free exports to the United States, creating a pressing need for liquidity, nightmare inflation, interest rates up to 30 per cent and the risk of default, together with the electoral blow in Istanbul and Ankara.

Against this economic and political background, Erdoğan decided to launch an offensive against the Kurds (and Christians) in the north-east of Syria, who had been in his crosshair for a long time.

Now both became an ideal pretext for a vast military operation to seize border areas to send back two million Syrian (Muslim) refugees without provoking the ire of Islamic extremists whilst claiming reconstruction projects for himself.

For Ünal Çeviköz, deputy chairman of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Erdoğan's decision to eliminate Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) is driven by a desire to boost his winning image.

His party’s main foreign policy critic, Çeviköz explains that immediately after Erdoğan’s previous offensives in Syria – Euphrates Shield (August 2016--March 2017) and Olive Branch (early 2018) –Turks voted in favour of constitutional changes towards a presidential republic.

“There is a pattern here,” he explains. “Each [military] operation is followed by a vote. It is therefore a widely-shared view in many circles that even recent Operation Peace Spring is a prelude to yet another snap election in 2020.”

The latest surveys seem to confirm this. The number of Turks who disapprove of Erdoğan’s rule dropped to 33.7 percent, whilst his approval rating rose to 48 per cent last month, the highest since the 2018 presidential election, after the anti-Kurdish offensive.

Now that home front is stable, the ‘Sultan’ can turn his attention to the European Union to get it to pay the billions lost with Trump, by threatening to unleash waves of refugees.