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Harry Sterling: Harper, Erdogan have much in common

Although separated by thousands of kilometres, Canada and Turkey share one thing — both have political leaders who, by their highly personal policies, have undermined their own countries’ international standing.

Although separated by thousands of kilometres, Canada and Turkey share one thing — both have political leaders who, by their highly personal policies, have undermined their own countries’ international standing.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan obviously come from different backgrounds, both managed to not only polarize their populations and undermine national unity, but also have damaged their nations’ international standing in the process.

In Harper’s case, he not only has polarized the Canadian population by his divisive policies, he’s also alienated foreign nations, some of whom traditionally had positive views of Canada and its international policies.

Whereas previous Canadian governments were often viewed positively by other governments, especially Canada’s attempts to pursue well-thought-out and balanced policies, this changed dramatically under Harper.

Unlike previous Canadian leaders, both Liberal and Conservative, Harper made a point of openly criticizing some other governments for their alleged human-rights shortcomings.

His gratuitous criticism of China eventually resulted in the Canadian business community and others warning he was endangering important economic interests with China, Canada’s second-largest export market.

The prime minister’s confrontational performance on the world stage reached the point where other countries alienated by his often-negative role on global affairs reached the point where, for the first time, Canada’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council failed to obtain enough votes.

It was a direct rebuke of his government’s controversial international policies, including his unquestioning support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, major cutbacks in aid to African nations, plus obstruction of international co-operation on global climate change.

Interestingly, the recent failure of Turkey to become a temporary member of the UN Security Council also turned out to be a direct result of Erdogan’s highly personal and dubious policies both at home and abroad.

Like Harper, Erdogan — recently elected president — has never suffered from lack of self-esteem. He, too, has difficulty accepting criticism or the idea that others might also have views worthy of respect.

When Erdogan was first elected as prime minister a decade ago, many Western countries portrayed him as proof that the leader of an avowedly Muslim-based party could govern with the same commitment to concepts of democracy and respect for fundamental human rights as political parties in Western nations.

And for a while, due to a lack of a majority in parliament, coupled with major economic advances in Turkey, Erdogan seemed to justify the positive view of himself by outside countries.

However, that view slowly began to be undermined. Once he enjoyed an actual majority, Erdogan became increasingly intolerant of anyone questioning his views or policies. Journalists daring to criticize him were quickly taken to court on spurious charges, numerous imprisoned. Media owners were threatened with dubious tax audits.

In recent months, Erdogan has arrested numerous law-enforcement and judicial officials for exposing his involvement in alleged illegal kickbacks when prime minister.

Interestingly, it was in the foreign-policy field where Erdogan alienated many other countries, particularly Middle East neighbours.

Although his blunt criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory initially made him popular in the Middle East, his subsequent strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially following its controversial role in destabilizing Egypt, alienated authoritarian neighbours, who feared the dangers posed by the Brotherhood.

Despite their diminished international standing, both leaders seemingly have managed to prove the widespread view that, in the final analysis, most political elections are ultimately determined by local considerations and not significantly affected by international issues.

Erdogan seemingly proved that by winning the presidency in April.

And despite his dubious foreign-policy image, Harper apparently expects his Conservatives to win again during Canada’s forthcoming election.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in Turkey.