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Trump and Erdogan: the new populists

Istanbul

The most dramatic part of President Erdogan’s visit to Washington this week was the punch-up between his security guards and Kurdish demonstrators on the lawn outside the Turkish embassy. 

The protest was nothing unusual for a president who seems to provoke adoration and disgust in equal measure wherever he goes. Neither was the violent scuffle a surprise; Erdogan’s bodyguards did the same last time he was in the States. The news barely touched the Turkish press, and not only because there are few titles left on the news stands which offer opposition to Erdogan. When similar fights break out in the Turkish parliament, as they have done regularly over the past year, such scenes are barely worth writing about. 

Meanwhile, the fact that the scrap generated far more headlines in the western press than the actual meeting between Erdogan and Donald Trump shows how anodyne the latter was, despite the hype that preceded it. We do not know many of the the details of Erdogan’s meetings with Trump, the first of which was just 20 minutes long and can presumably have extended little beyond mutual niceties. In a similarly short press conference after it, the US president praised Erdogan’s ‘historic victory’ in a referendum last month, which hands him almost unchallenged power and has been criticised as flawed by internal opponents and international monitors. 


The two men have a lot in common – indeed, Erdogan can claim to have forged the mould for the type of authoritarian populism that Trump seized the US elections with. Both rely heavily on the poor, conservative masses for their support. Both are despised by liberals and seem to relish and thrive on it. I will wager they got on well.  

But Erdogan had gone to Washington with big complaints. He has still not convinced the US to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the man he accuses of organising last summer’s coup attempt. More seriously, Trump has announced he is to send heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, which the US is using as its main ground ally in the fight against Isis but which is also linked to the Turkish-Kurdish militia the PKK. That group, designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU, is fighting a violent insurgency in eastern Turkey which has killed almost 3,000 people since a ceasefire broke down two years ago.

Those who misunderstand Turkey often think that the country is entirely under Erdogan’s dictatorial sway and that many, if not the majority, of the population disagree with all he says. On the PKK issue, this is not so. Distaste for the group is widespread amongst all sections of Turkish society, apart from those Kurds and the few hard-leftists who support them. If anything, many Turks feel that Erdogan was too lenient on the PKK during the peace process, allowing them to gather strength and arms and restart the violence. Following the US announcement, it was Sozcu – a secular opposition newspaper – which raised the loudest complaints, running a front page demanding that US forces be kicked out of a Turkish air base. 

Ankara had hoped that it could forge new ties with the US under Donald Trump. Those hopes may, it now seems, have been based around the former security advisor Michael Flynn, who had been hired as a lobbyist by a Turkish businessman and is alleged to have held back the arming of the YPG. Flynn has since been sacked and it seems unlikely that Erdogan will return to Turkey with anything he can present as a solid victory, at least this time. 

But keeping good relations is important to both men, and those searching for signs of cordiality found it in the final handshake. ‘Trump didn’t shake Angela Merkel’s hand, and he held on to Shinzo Abe’s for too long,’ said a former Turkish minister the day after the meeting. ‘But he shook our president’s hand three times. That is perfect.’

Hannah Lucinda Smith is Istanbul correspondent for the Times 

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