Turkey’s Erdogan getting off democracy train?


Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) presented itself as a Western, reformist, neo-liberal and secular party, and, as late as 2012, 16 EU foreign ministers drooled that Turkey was “an inspirational example of a secular and democratic country,” The Independent reports. But their perception of the state of affairs ignored the fact that the AKP government pursued an authoritarian policy of gradual Islamisation, leading to the erosion of Turkish democracy and secularism.

Early in his career Mr Erdogan made a telling remark he was later to regret, The Economist notes:

Democracy is like a train, he said; you get off once you have reached your destination. Now many of his party’s critics fear that Turkey’s president may be getting close to that goal……It is not just that Mr Erdogan wants to rewrite the constitution to award himself executive presidential powers. The trouble is that he hardly needs them. Sometimes overtly, but often by stealth and dissimulation, the AK party has spread its tentacles across Turkish society. The courts, the police, the intelligence services, the mosques, the public education and health systems and the media are all, in one way or another, subject to the party’s overweening influence.

After the A.K.P. won its first landslide victory in 2003, suddenly, it was the secularists who seemed stodgy: racist, authoritarian, élitist, and slavishly pro-Western, analyst Elif Batuman writes for The New Yorker:

The Times started referring to them as “the secular elite.” … The Western view of Erdoğan eventually soured, especially after the Gezi protests of 2013; he was criticized for alleged corruption and for increasingly authoritarian tactics toward journalists and opposition parties. But for a number of years all my American liberal friends who had any opinion at all on Turkey were pro-Erdoğan. They thought it had been unsustainable for Turkey to repress and deny its religion for so long—that the people had finally spoken out.

Many spoke warmly of the anthropologist Jenny White, an important scholar of modern Turkey whose book “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks” characterizes the pro-Atatürk Kemalist culture as one of “militarism, hostility, suspicion, and authoritarianism” rooted in “blood-based Turkish ethnicity.” Muslim nationalism, by contrast, has sought to replace “historically embattled Republican borders” with “more flexible Ottoman imperial boundaries” and to “privilege Muslim identity and culture over race.”

“In the A.K.P.-sympathetic world view, the Ottomans, whom Kemalists had blamed for selling Turkey to the British, enjoyed a vogue as models of enlightened Muslim multiculturalism,” Batuman adds. RTWT

Nora Fisher Onar traces the development of AKP’s populism: how and why it emerged, how it has evolved, and the impact it has made over the past decade, In a new Brookings Turkey Project Policy Paper, “The populism/realism gap: Managing uncertainty in Turkey’s politics and foreign policy.” She breaks down the progression of the ruling AKP government into three periods:

  • The first period stretches between 2002 and 2008, when the AKP first came to power and combined its Islamist platform with a modernizing Western, liberal orientation.
  • A Neo-Ottoman footing punctuated the second period, from 2009 to 2012, when the leadership aimed to strengthen historical and religious connections with the countries in the post-Ottoman space and to re-establish Turkey as the region’s de-factoorder-setter.
  • From 2013 onwards, which Fisher Onar marks as the third phase, the AKP’s model of leadership started to lose its traction amid growing regional insecurity. This is the point where a populist domestic policy collides with the geopolitical realities.

As Fisher Onar concludes, “three factors are likely to keep the flame of populism and hence uncertainty alive: leadership style, ideological shift and regional spillover.” RTWT

Erdogan’s foreign policy is also in ruins, says Henri J. Barkey, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The crux of the matter is this: Turkish foreign policy is no longer about Turkey but about Erdogan, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Floundering at home and abroad, the Turkish president has embarked on an illiberal course at home undermining what are admittedly flawed institutions and reconstituting them in his image. His omnipresence and unchallenged position mean that foreign policy is the product of his worldview, whims, and preferences. There is no one who can challenge him. The systematic approach of the early years has given way to indulgence; this more than anything explains the ups and downs of Turkish foreign policy.

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