Turkey under Erdogan – the descent into autocracy

Sultan Erdogan

Soner Cagaptay: The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ISBN 978-1-78453-826-2 A month before the general elections in Turkey it seems timely to review a book about the rise to power of the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan rules Turkey with an iron fist, but the country appears to be split into one half supporting Erdogan and his policies inspired by political Islam while the other half openly rejects it and is in favour of an open, democratic society. The elections were originally scheduled for 2019. However Erdogan’s policies have triggered a domestic and foreign policy crisis that led to the unsuccessful military putsch in 2016, and his “Justice and Development Party” (AKP) sees anticipated elections as a possibility to consolidate its power.

Cagaptay’s book, published in 2017, is an excellent introduction into the ups and downs of contemporary Turkish politics and a hands-on study of the radical shift in Turkey’s political visions from Kemal Ataturk’s ideal of a secular state allied to the United States and Europe towards a country emphasizing religion as the unique reference point for societal values and gradually alienating the US and the EU. The historian begins with a short description of modern Turkey’s early days starting with the death of its founder Ataturk in 1938 and with the birth of political Islam in Turkey. This is interesting for anyone new to Turkish history, at the same time I would like to point out a detailed account of this time that I covered in a previous post: Andrew Mango’s book “The Turks Today”.

An antidote to Communism

One of the key factors helping Erdogan to rise to power was ironically the military that saw itself for decades as the guardian of Ataturk’s secular society model with religion being a strictly private issue. Out of fear that communism might seduce many young people especially in rural areas, the generals jettisoned their hostility against religious ideas in the public sphere by the 1980s. This enabled Erdogan’s predecessor and mentor Necmettin Erbakan to build a grass-root movement inspired by political Islam.

Erbakan set up a network of religious schools that spread his ideas, and the tolerant attitude of the military allowed its students a great degree of upward social mobility. Religious schools had been in existence for many years, but until then their students had been mostly excluded from society life. From now on they would be able to attend higher education, to work in the public sector and to do lucrative business with the government. The former outcasts started a long march towards integration.

Erdogan scored his first political success at a time when economical liberalization had propelled Turkey from being a backward country with an economy dominated by agriculture to a prospering industrial country with a rapidly growing service sector (trade, tourism). He portrayed himself as a leader speaking for “ordinary folks [who] wanted nothing more than to lead a virtous life”, meaning a pious life without being discriminated, and his party as the only one to really care about the grievances of “ordinary folks”.

He also portrayed Turkey as being the victim of perpetual foreign scheming by the US and the EU. Initially he rejected capitalism and communism alike, writes Cagaptay, and espoused a message of national sovereignty. His vision: Islam as an ethical reference point, moving away from the West and courting its Middle Eastern neighbours as well as Russia. This led him to reach out to Iran, the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the PLO and Hamas.

Erdogan exploits a political void

With the right-wing Turkish politicians having been discredited by corruption scandals and left-wing parties having been suppressed by the military, a void opened in the 1990s, and this is where Erdogan came in. In 1994 he was elected mayor of Istanbul. Under his guidance the city delivered better public services and the mayor became a popular figure all over Turkey. The economic prosperity of the country played into his hands. He reaped the benefits of the liberalization his political adversaries had initiated without being mixed up in their corruption scandals. At the same time Erbakan won the general elections in 1995 and formed a coalition government with the Center-Right. It faltered however under the pressure of the military who was alarmed by Erbakan’s radical Islamist ideas and the high degree of support in the population.

Meanwhile Erdogan was biding his time. Having learned from the many tactical mistakes Erbakan had made, e.g. a hard-line attitude in religious questions, he adopted a moderate attitude, placating the military. He embraced free market economy and outlined a pro-Western policy. His undeniable personal charisma, his party’s excellent logistical preparation and Turkey’s economic crisis in 2001 helped him win the elections in 2002 while many of the traditional parties did not pass the electoral threshold of 10 percent.

Courting Europe and rejecting it

Erbakan’s resolution to curb the military’s power in the political arena endeared him to European leaders. He pushed economic reforms making Turkey’s business sector more competitive, translating into a rising standard of living, and pushed for accession to the EU. He promised to improve the human right’s situation in Turkey. He seemed willing to find a compromise with the important Kurdish minority.

All well? Not quite. Nobody can deny the economic success of Erdogan’s governance. But improving human rights meant doing away with the last residues of Ataturk’s concept of a secular state. Admonishments from Brussels and Strasbourg, where the European Court of Human Rights is located, quickly dissipated Erdogan’s appetite for an accession to the EU. The Kurds had to be courted, but only as long as Erdogan needed their support in parliament. One of Erdogan’s great talents is to find the right allies when he needs them and to drop or crush them when they have fulfilled their role.

A crucial moment in the political life of Erdogan is depicted in the chapter “The Silent Revolution”, which describes how Erdogan’s party infiltrated all levels of public service and especially the police with the help of a politician that Erdogan now casts as his arch-enemy, Fetullah Gulen, the head of an Islamic Brotherhood. Edogan and Gulen played each other to rise to the top of the state, each tried to use the other, but Erdogan was smarter than his opponent. After the putsch in 2016, Erdogan would single out Gulen as the chief conspirator, helped by the US and the “Deep State”, a notion that embodies the sum of all Turkish conspiracy theories.

Fighting the liberal society

After Erdogan won the elections in 2011, he rapidly transformed Turkey into an autocratic state, emboldened by a referendum on a revision of Turkey’s constitution. The majority of the voters apparently did not understand the finer details of the revision and the referendum turned out to be a vote of confidence for Erdogan’s leadership. After he had stripped the military of its dominant role, he weakened the judicial system by expanding the number of judges and filling the vacant posts with people loyal to his party. He also gained control of the majority of the media through pressure and purges.

The failed military putsch in 2016 was the weakened opposition’s last attempt to stop Erdogan, and while Western politicians condemned the attempt of a faction of the armed forces to topple an elected government, they were appalled by the brutal repression it set off. Top military officers, journalists, politicians, human rights activists were thrown into jail, relations with the US and Europe dropped to a new low point. Managing the flow of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and the battle against ISIS were the only shared interests between Turkey and the West. Cagaptay points out that “after a decade of increasingly arbitrary foreign policy and domestic political attitudes, Erdogan’s Turkey will be willing to commit to, at best, a transactional relationship with the United States and Europe”. What’s in for Turkey and what is the price?

The outlook is bleak

Is there any hope then for Turkey to return to a liberal democracy? Cagaptay writes that “the AKP [Erdogan’s party] made Turkey’s middle-class society, and for this it enjoys broad support […] But the flip side of this story is that Erdogan rules with an iron fist while a growing number of middle-class Turks conflictingly and increasingly want a free society.” He sketches a number of conditions for a return to an open society. None of those are fulfilled right now. The opposition is split and there seems to be no common, concrete vision for an alternative societal model since a return to Ataturk’s vision is excluded. It will be interesting to see by how big a margin the AKP will win the elections in June and whether the opposition parties can muster the courage to unify.

Erdogan initiated and shaped change in Turkey. Turkey’s civil society, the United States and Europe need to manage this change. Change is painful – the Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich experienced this manifold and reflected it in his Symphony No. 11 in G minor (Op. 103) “The Year 1905”:

Managing change – a matter of life and death