One of the most popular words used to describe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan these days is “dictator.” That really doesn’t come as much of a shock. What is surprising, though, is that Erdogan doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seems to be embracing it as a title.
“Dictator Erdogan: Where does it all end?” a headline blared Nov. 4 in German newspaper Bild.
Erdogan’s response? “It goes in one ear and out the other.” He doesn’t care if the West calls him a dictator, and said he will not back off his controversial decisions, like arresting Kurdish politicians, because of international pressure.
On Nov. 16, Erdogan again made headlines, this time when one of his female senior advisers posted a petty, sexist and offensive tweet to a French journalist.
“Your mama is a dictator,” the public official told Jean-Paul Ney, who had dared use the word to describe Erdogan.
But Erdogan is smarter than the aggressive adviser and the troll army working on his behalf. On Nov. 22, speaking at the opening ceremony of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Erdogan again was the center of attention with the D-word. He said, “The West rolls out a red carpet for tyrants, [yet] labels its critics dictators. So if the West calls someone a dictator, in my view that is a good thing.”
The press was perplexed. Prominent columnist Levent Gultekin tweeted, “He really lost it. It is a pity, a real pity. So [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] is a good person in [his] view?” Several other people on a forum website ridiculed Erdogan’s statement, saying it is not just the West who sees him as a dictator.
For almost a decade, domestic and international observers have been debating whether to call Erdogan a dictator and, if anyone should dare, what would be the most appropriate method of doing so without landing in jail or being deported from Turkey.
Now the dilemma has been answered, as Erdogan, intriguingly, accepts the title. On Nov. 25, he lashed out against the European Parliament’s recommendation to freeze European Union talks with Turkey. Facing a cheering crowd and referring to himself in third person, he said, “There is an Erdogan you refer to as a dictator. This Erdogan is a dictator against such a mentality [of excluding Turkey from the EU]. But against those who are sincere, he is generous and merciful.”
Erdogan has a habit of repeating himself frequently and developing his views further as he speaks about the same theme to different audiences within the same day or week. In his speeches after mid-November, another common theme was US President-elect Donald Trump. Erdogan complained that the West was calling Trump a dictator and Europeans were refusing to accept the results of the election. He repeatedly asked, “Are you not Democrats? Then respect the ballot box.” Those who would not accept the vote must be fake Democrats, he concluded. The international press picked up on Erdogan’s efforts to defend Trump.
Considering Erdogan once suggested removing Trump’s name from the high-rise towers in Istanbul — to counter Trump’s threats during his presidential campaign of starting a Muslim registry and banning Muslims from entering the United States — this newfound affection for Trump is noteworthy. However, we need to see that Erdogan is just trying to shield himself from harsh and valid criticisms of his implacable efforts to consolidate power. Turkey is now seen as being in the last stage of sliding into a dictatorship, with Erdogan and his men removing one obstacle at a time in their path.
Timur Kuran, an economics and political science professor at Duke University, told Al-Monitor, “Many of Erdogan’s supporters admire him for the strength he projects. When he bullies rivals, demeans them and questions their patriotism, he pleases these supporters, who see the aggression as evidence that he is fighting for the masses. They infer that he will not accept unreasonable foreign demands or easily fall under the control of dark internal forces.”
He added, “Erdogan thus draws power from the very trait that accounts substantially for the success of Trump, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, [Philippines President Rodrigo] Duterte and various other popular politicians with an authoritarian streak. Each of these leaders projects power precisely because he is able to displease powerful rivals and still remain standing.”
Those calling Erdogan a dictator include Westernized Turks, Gulenists, Americans, EU leaders and the liberal global media — all groups viewed as very powerful.
“By saying, ‘If the West calls me a dictator, that is good,’ Erdogan is signaling that he would rather have these groups call him names than bend to their will,” Kuran said. “A weak leader’s response would be to take steps meant to please these groups; for instance, to make a point of releasing jailed journalists or relaxing restrictions on [nongovernmental organizations]. A strong leader, he is saying, does not back down even when powerful rivals and enemies try to scare him into backing down.”
Kerem Efe Sozeri, an analyst who researches the media, emphasized there is a strong correlation between increasing populist rhetoric and a country’s deepening isolation.
“This kind of populism pumps the ego of the people by demeaning usually local elites; however, after 14 years of AKP [Justice and Development Party] rule, there are no more elites to blame in the country, so the best way out is to hold on to rhetoric like Trump’s anti-establishment [talk] and blame the West,” Sozeri told Al-Monitor.
Sozeri does not view this method as a way of bragging. He added, “Erdogan is a dictator by international standards. Instead of changing his ways, he criticizes these standards. It is a step toward warming up to the dictatorship.” Sozeri is right, as crowds in different settings throughout November have been cheering Erdogan’s newfound dictatorship rhetoric.
Are the crowds happy with a dictatorship, then? How did Erdogan not only come to accept the term but also find a way to get the masses to cheer him into the position? Kuran provides valuable insights to these questions.
“Over the past year, Erdogan’s surrogates have repeatedly blamed many of Turkey’s problems on weak and divided leadership. Centralizing power in the hands of a single leader with vision, they have been saying, will prevent mistakes in governance,” he said.
He added, “By reminding Turks with increasing frequency that Turkey’s internal and external enemies consider him a dictator, he draws attention to a simple fact: that Erdogan’s favored new political regime is a fait accompli. It thus signals to anyone who might think of opposing him that he already commands formidable powers. Vast numbers of Turks are consumed by fears of persecution. Making them believe that opposition would be futile turns the claim that Erdogan is establishing a dictatorship into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Erdogan has taken a leap from “if I were a dictator” to “I am a dictator and if the West calls one a dictator, it is good.” We can expect him to oscillate between those two approaches in the coming months, as crowds in Turkey keep cheering him on.
Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.