The 2020 Olympic Games should have been Turkey’s to lose. A win for the city of Istanbul, in its fifth bid to host the Olympics, would have seen the games take place for the first time in a predominantly Muslim country, in a majestic and storied city spanning Europe and Asia. Yet on September 7, the International Olympic Committee’s delegates in Buenos Aires opted 60-36 for Tokyo over Istanbul in the final round of voting. Many called Tokyo the “secure” or “safer” option.
For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the decision marks a bitter disappointment. Recent doping and match fixing scandals have tarnished Turkey’s sporting image, and may have hurt the bid, as may have the country’s increasingly shaky economic prospects and concern as to how the $19.2 billion infrastructure budget for the games would be met. Yet above all is the sense that the defeat in many ways reflects, and to a degree is likely a result of, the many troubles Turkey is facing both at home and abroad.
The two faces of Istanbul were clearly on display the night the Olympic Committee made its decision. The shock and dejection shown by supporters of the bid in the heart of the city’s conservative Sultanahmet district seemed light years away from the jubilation in liberal Taksim, where for three weeks in June running street battles took place between authorities and anti-government demonstrators. One reveler notably tweeted, “Tokyo won, Tayyip lost !” Ankara’s AKP mayor, Melih Gokcek, for his part blamed the loss on the “traitors from Gezi.”
“Peace at home, peace in the world,” is one of the best-known maxims of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. However, today Turkey is emerging from a tumultuous summer of domestic unrest in a world at which it is increasingly ill at peace, and more divided and partisan than at any point in recent years.
Since winning his first of three successive terms as prime minister in 2002, Erdogan has overseen a decade of growth and prosperity in Turkey, brought about through much needed economic and political reforms. However, recent years have seen the prime minister adopt an increasingly authoritarian style of leadership, while the country has dropped in international indices ranking everything from human rights protection to press freedoms. In applauding police brutality against the June protesters, and condemning them as “terrorists” and “vandals,” Erdogan appeared at every turn the kind of illiberal figure he had promised to vanquish from Turkish politics.
A series of high-profile court cases aimed at cleansing Turkey’s alleged “deep state” have further divided the country. Few would dispute that one of the most important accomplishments of Erdogan’s tenure as prime minister has been to rein in the Turkish military, which intervened in the country’s politics in 1960, 1971, 1980, and most recently 1997. But last year’s conviction of more than 300 military officers and this August’s conclusion of the five-year Ergenekon case against some 275 generals, lawyers, academics, opposition politicians, and journalists for plots against Turkish democracy, have left many asking whether he seeks justice or revenge. Many in Europe and the United States initially supported the cases as efforts to put an end to the era of military coups. But by 2012 the European Commission, in a progress report on Turkey’s bid to join the EU, said that the cases had raised “real concerns about their wide scope and the shortcomings in judicial proceedings.”
Abroad, the lofty Turkish dream of “zero problems with the neighbors” has long since unraveled. Turkey’s ties with Israel began to break down following the latter’s war with Gaza in 2008-2009. While Ankara was once viewed as an honest broker and constructive partner in regional disputes, it now increasingly forges a partisan path vis-à-vis its troubled neighbors, from Iraq, to Egypt, to Syria. In Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world, Erdogan’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood compelled him to stand by ousted President Mohammed Morsi, even as this cost him dearly in his relations and leverage with the interim government in Cairo. And throughout its dealings with its neighbors, particularly in the Syria crisis, Turkey has increasingly assumed the role of a partisan Sunni player in an ever-more sectarian Middle East. This can be seen even at home when, following the May 2013 bombings in Reyhanli, Erdogan publicly lamented the “53 Sunni citizens” killed, causing ripples of unease among Turkey’s 20 million non-Sunni Alevis.
Despite the country’s troubles at home and abroad, Erdogan’s approval ratings remain around 50 percent, and the AKP still appears on track to do well in the March 2014 parliamentary elections. But as resurgent anti-government protests in numerous cities over the past week have shown, being the prime minister of the 50 percent is no longer enough for an increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse public hungry for a more liberal democracy. An effort to reinsert inclusiveness and pragmatism into the heart of Turkish domestic and foreign policy will be the country’s best hope to again live up to Atatürk’s famous dictum. It will also help ensure that, in some future decision on the Olympic Games, Istanbul might be considered the safe choice.