Can Turkey Survive Erdogan?

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by Graham E. Fuller

On 7 June Turkey’s democratic system will be deeply tested in a fateful parliamentary election; at stake is preservation of rule of law and liberal democracy against an increasingly authoritarian-minded President.

Bottom line: if President Erdo?an’s AKP party is able to win big, the entire system of separation of powers in Turkey will likely reach breaking point. Erdo?an will have gained the carte blanche he seeks to mold, shape and steer the state any direction he wants in a semi-legal form of one man rule. And this comes at a time when his presidency has become ever more erratic, arbitrary, error-prone, corrupt, vengeful and out of touch.

I find it surprising to be writing this. My book published one year ago, “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East,” examined the extraordinary first decade of the AKP party in Turkey under Prime Minister Erdo?an’s leadership. Up until 2011 it may have been the best government Turkey has ever had since it adopted democratic rule in the 1950s. Erdo?an’s successes can be measured in terms of deeper democratization, astonishing economic growth and prosperity, expansion of social services, the successful removal of the military from politics, the forging of an expansive and visionary foreign policy (with new emphasis on independence from failing US policies in the Middle East), and a modern reconsideration of what an Islamic-leaning government can mean in a democratic order. At that time Turkey became the preeminent model of success for a region that possessed little leadership, vision or progress.

A great degree of the credit for Turkey’s foreign policy successes—a huge expansion of the range of Turkish ties, interests and outreach—belongs to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu, the chief architect of these policies. Under Erdo?an’s AKP Turkey underwent profound, and, I argue, irreversible change in reinventing itself as a major regional power extending its activities and interactions across all of Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa and even into Latin America. Turkey accepted and normalized its Islamic heritage. The AKP had won three successive elections with growing proportion of votes each time—unprecedented in Turkish political history due to broad public satisfaction with the party’s accomplishments.

But it was not to last. After ten years in power, few governments anywhere can remain immune from corruption. By 2011 some degree of dissatisfaction began to crystallize against Erdo?an’s policies. Early protests over a local Istanbul environmental issue were treated by Erdo?an with haughty arrogance and excessive force that helped expand the protests around the country. It was the first major sign that he had grown increasingly isolated from the real world around him. Erdogan has now built a lavish palace for himself, this time as President, and reflecting delusions of grandeur. He now persecutes opposition voices within the political order with harsh, extralegal, and even illegal means.

Strikingly, Erdo?an also turned on the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gülen, a massive civic Islamic movement that preaches tolerance and dialog between religions and emphasizes secular education as the key to the future advancement of the Muslim world. It has established highly regarded schools in over 100 countries including in Europe and the US—a key element of Turkey’s soft power abroad. The Hizmet movement is also rich and powerful, with a formidable media empire with a substantial following in the bureaucracy. The once-good relations between Hizmet and Erdo?an began to fray sometime around 2011 as Hizmet began to be critical of some of Erdo?an’s policies and style; Erdo?an feared its clout and perceived it as a rival voice for Islamic values in society. He began to show genuine paranoia about the ability of Hizmet to criticize him and his policies on the level of both secular and Islamic values. Erdo?an now conducts an obsessive witch hunt against Hizmet, even accusing it of “terrorism”—an absurd charge in the face of Hizmet’s total rejection of violence.

Erdo?an has considerably intimidated or muzzled the press, fired journalists, and forced the expulsion of other critics from their jobs via political pressure; he now brooks no opposition. He has purged the judiciary, politicized it, blocked its ability to investigate him, and hobbled its powers to act independently. He has transformed the office of the presidency—constitutionally required to be above politics—into an overwhelmingly politicized office. He has arrogated the de facto powers of the Prime Minister (former foreign minister Davuto?lu) to himself, stripped him of his independence and humiliated the office itself in treating it as his own appendage. Davuto?lu, an intellectual and foreign policy visionary and activist, is now regrettably perceived as little more than a puppet of Erdo?an; Davuto?lu’s reputation has been much demeaned—a sad end to his distinguished career.

Meanwhile Erdo?an’s ruling style has become increasingly erratic, even quixotic, almost out of touch with reality. His remarkable economic accomplishments are beginning to wane. In foreign policy he has abandoned the successful precepts of his earlier years to now cripple Turkish foreign policy through his obsession to remove (former ally) Bashar al-Asad from power in Syria—a policy that is now distorting Turkey’s policies and credibility.

Yet, Turkey remains a nominal democracy. The elections coming up this week are real, and have traditionally been honest. Erdo?an’s dictatorial style – some compare him to Putin (although his control of the state is far from absolute)—has been bolstered by legitimate victory in three honest elections in the past.

No one doubts that the AKP will win this election—at least in the sense of gaining a plurality. But that is not enough for Erdo?an. He is determined to gain an absolute majority which would enable him to change the constitution in order to legitimize the sweeping new presidential powers that he seeks to exercise. The key hope for those seeking the restoration of checks and balances to Turkish politics is to deny Erdo?an a sizeable majority. In that case a coalition government might emerge that would severely constrain Erdo?an’s ambitions to exercise what are now extra-legal or even illegal powers and the crushing of all criticism.

Ironically, it is a rising Kurdish party, the HDP, that now represents the best hope for blocking Erdo?an’s unlimited ambitions; the HDP is now appealing to a broad range of Turkish voters who have come to fear Erdo?an. If the HDP can garner enough votes to cross the 10% threshold, Erdo?an’s supreme—indeed dangerous—ambitions, may be contained.

It is extraordinary—and saddening—to see such a record of accomplishment and change that the AKP demonstrated in earlier years, now being squandered due to its leader’s emerging loss of touch, loss of self-control, and loss of vision.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com. This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.

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4 Comments

  1. Hezmat is very much anti Shia movement and preach against it

  2. Excellent analysis. Yet, there is a religious aspect to Erdogan that is inherent to his political ambition. He has seen the Arab spring as a chance for him to transform the Arab Middle East countries into a Sunni economical power with the help of a Moslem Brotherhood leadership that he has tried to impose in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia , Gaza, and Libya. He was supported by Qatar in this strategy. His ambition was to be the architect and leader of a Sunni revival in the Arab world .
    As he failed in all of these countries, he became bitter and frustrated. To keep up his self image and ego intact, he has shifted his energy on fulfilling this ambition in becoming the neo-ottoman ‘sultan’ of Turkey with exclusive power.
    Another failure could be fatal to his sanity.

  3. I agree with the article’s description of the increasingly erratic nature of Erdogan’s rule. He has exhibited a great degree of skill in reaching this point of power. He is today probably the most skillful statesman in the Middle East and the envy of Netanyahu. He has also shown how susceptible he is to corruption. It is hard to be a Turk and not reminisce about the glory of the lost Ottoman empire and lament how it was wrestled away from them by the European imperial powers whose own empires crumbled afterward as well. Up to now he has been able to neutralize the four major forces within the country: the military, the Islamic institutions, the secular strata and the Kurdish minority. I see no challengers, no alternatives and no change in trajectory of his rule, and the last item is key. Erdogan is safe for now. His trajectory of more power grab, more corruption, more erratic decisions will continue and he still has room for all of that because the economy has been doing so well. What Turkey wanted badly at some point and didn’t get (to join the EU) actually worked out to her advantage as EU wasn’t able to destroy the Turkish economy the way it has with its lesser members like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Because we don’t see anything checking Erdogan’s path toward absolute power this trajectory will continue. But that’s a road to the abyss. At some point his hubris will make him trip himself and Turkey will dearly pay the price. What Erdogan did right in the first half of his rule was to not overestimate his reach, to not miscalculate the way others like Saddam, the Shah, the Ayatollah, Ghaddafi, etc. had, and to contain his ambitions. His power grab was not sudden. It was very gradual and calculated. He did not antagonize the four major power centers and instead coerced them and used them as a ladder. But now he’s not as careful. During his second half he has been making more and more of those same historic miscalculations as the late tyrants. One of those is the way he is playing with fire, making a pact with the devil, trying to harness ISIS’s power to his advantage. But there could be other gotchas. The economy faltering could be the thing that’ll trip him. The secular strata is increasingly unhappy with his dangerous power grab. The military, though impotent today, is unhappy. The Kurds are restless. Below the happy surface unrest and gloom stir. Erdogan may not get his coveted revival of the Ottoman empire after all. His dream of reaching or surpassing the stature of Ataturk may never be realized. The trajectory of history is not with him unless he makes a major (and unlikely) course correction.

  4. Erdogan indeed may inflict grave damage to democracy etc in Turkey.

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