Erdogan’s policy plan hasn’t gone over so well. With attacks coming from terrorists and leaving the Turkish people at risk, will Erdogan be fired from his job?
“The conquest means going beyond the walls that the West thought were impervious,” Mr. Erdogan said as the crowd roared. “The conquest means a 21-year-old sultan bringing Byzantium to heel.”
The spectacle, complete with a fighter-jet sky show and a re-enactment of the conquest with fireworks and strobe lights, projected an image of unity and command, of a nation marching together toward greatness, drawing on the achievements of a glorious past. But that soaring vision is being grounded by sobering realities.
Mr. Erdogan, who long professed a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” now seems to be mired in disputes with just about everybody and just about everywhere. Kurdish and Islamic State militants have struck Turkey 14 times in the past year, killing 280 people and sowing new fears. The economy has suffered, too, as the violence frightens away tourists.
At the same time, Mr. Erdogan has become increasingly isolated, frustrating old allies like the United States by refusing for years to take firm measures against the Islamic State. He has recently gotten serious about the militant group, but that appears to have brought new problems: Turkish officials say they believe that the Islamic State was responsible for the suicide attack that killed 44 people on Tuesday in Istanbul’s main airport, a major artery of Turkey’s strained economy.
He has helped reignite war with Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast, and hundreds of civilians have died in the fighting, which began last summer. He alienated Moscow last fall whenTurkish forces shot down a fighter jet that he said had strayed into Turkish airspace.
He had grown so alone that this past week he moved to make peace deals with Russia over the jet’s downing and with Israel over its killing of several Turkish activists on a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010, after railing against both countries to voters.
“I think this is an indicator of how desperate they are,” said Cengiz Candar, a visiting scholar at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies.
Where Mr. Erdogan once held up Turkey as a model of Muslim democracy, he now frequently attacks democratic institutions. The editor in chief of Turkey’s largest daily has fled the country, and another is on trial on charges of revealing state secrets. The president has grown intolerant of criticism, purging his oldest allies from his inner circle and replacing them with yes men and, in some cases, relatives. (His son-in-law is the energy minister.)
Mr. Erdogan hints darkly in near-daily speeches on Turkish television that foreign powers are plotting to destroy him, and he has moved from a modest house in central Ankara to a grandiose, Persian Gulf-style palace on the edge of the city. Brown and pink buildings for his staff dot meticulously landscaped grounds so enormous that staff members are driven around in minibuses.
Now he has set his sights on a new target: transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system of government into a presidential one, a change his critics say could soon open the door to his seizing the title of president for life. On the night of the airport bombing, the Parliament, which his party controls, worked until 5:45 a.m. to pass sweeping legislation that will help pave the way by purging hundreds of judges from Turkey’s top two courts.
“The ship is going very fast toward the rocks,” said Ergun Ozbudun, a liberal constitutional expert who once defended Mr. Erdogan. “Pray for us.”
The story of how Turkey, a NATO member with the eighth-largest economy in Europe and a population the size of Germany’s, ended up here is as much about Mr. Erdogan as it is about the country’s unlucky geography in a convulsing Middle East. While Mr. Erdogan has seemed to have nine lives, wriggling out of every crisis, he now finds himself cornered by conflicts on many fronts, including deep divisions in his own society that he has helped create.
“Erdogan is still the most popular political leader, but there is unease in the population,” said Soli Ozel, a Turkish columnist and professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “A lot of people are thinking this is an untenable situation.”
Mr. Erdogan, 62, is one of the most talented politicians Turkey has ever known, rising from a poor neighborhood in Istanbul to the heights of power, where he has won election after election since 2002. He succeeded where others had failed in tearing down Turkey’s rigid, classist system of government; sending the meddling military back to its barracks; and opening up the bureaucracy, long deeply suspicious of Turkey’s pious underclass.
In his early years as prime minister, the economy soared and, as incomes rose sharply, so did his popularity. But his critics — and even some of his admirers — say he became so absorbed in battling his enemies, both real and perceived, that he lost his way. He became distracted, they say, by delusions of imperial grandeur and in the process badly damaged institutions critical for a functioning democracy.