Turkey’s Ailing Sultan
As Turks struggled to grasp the impact of this summer’s protests in Istanbul and other cities across the country, Yeşim Arat, professor of political science at Bogazici University, pointed to a paradox: “Increasingly, democratisation and authoritarianism are going hand in hand, and not just in Turkey.”
If the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not directly threatened by the protests, the events have implications for the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with three elections due in 2014-2015: local elections in March 2014, presidential that August and parliamentary in June 2015. Erdogan’s ambition to institute an enhanced presidency with himself as a new “sultan” now looks unlikely to succeed after his imperious response to the protests over the development of Gezi Park, a little green area in Istanbul’s treeless centre. There was a sharp drop in the lira immediately after the protests, and questions over his Syria policy increased after car bombings killed at least 50 people in Reyhanli, near the Syrian border, on 11 May.
For the first time, Erdogan, who had confidently steered Turkey through choppy waters, seemed at a loss. Why did he seek a confrontation when the Gezi project was under judicial review and was then turned down in July? Once the crisis began, he could not be seen to have his authority challenged. He needed to shore up support from the 50% of the population who had voted for him in 2011, so he accused protestors of being “agents provocateurs,” said foreign media coverage was biased, and silenced domestic media. His other recent attempts at social control (restrictions on the sale of alcohol or moves to end abortion, which he has described as murder) infuriated secular Turks, but were aimed at winning votes from Muslim conservatives in this still divided society.
Some on the AKP’s liberal wing criticised Erdogan’s handling of Gezi. Nursuna Memecan, a deputy for Istanbul, said: “I was angry at the police tactics at the start; it was a miscalculation. The party needs closer contact with those it has alienated.”
Secular intellectuals regard Gezi as a turning point: In the first major political protests since the 1970s, an apolitical younger generation has become politicised -- not by big ideas like democracy or nationalism, but for their rights. They were joined by activists for Kurdish, Alevi and gay rights -- a coming together of separate causes that is new to Turkey.
Reversal of founding principles
Erdogan is now setting one side of Turkey against the other in a bid for greater power, although the AKP was founded on pragmatism and inclusivity. Its initial landslide on 3 November 2002 -- with almost two thirds of the seats in parliament (363 out of 550) -- included votes from middle-class Turks unemployed after a severe economic crisis in February 2001. Based on this broad support, AKP rule ended weak coalition governments and provided the stability needed to address Turkey’s many problems. As it built its own coalitions at home, it set out internationally to demonstrate that Islam was compatible with democracy. The policy worked. The AKP was re-elected on 22 July 2007, and won a triumphant third term in the 12 June 2011 elections, with 50% of the vote -- the first party since the start of multi-party politics in Turkey in 1946 to win a third consecutive term and to increase its share of the vote.
So a new, confident Turkey has taken its place as a regional power, strong in its economic development, social progress and foreign policy -- a reliable international player and ally for the West. Social reforms in health and infrastructure are undeniable. The AKP, though not democratic, became a democratising force, giving a new sense of belonging and empowerment to a majority of Turks, previously excluded by the old secular elites. Erdogan’s own charisma and can-do attitude won admiration, even adulation, in the Arab world.
His worsening authoritarianism escaped the world’s attention, although in Turkey, there were worries about unaccountability and crony capitalism, the penetration of Fethullah Gulen’s Islamist movement into the police and judiciary, the silencing of the media, and the arrest of many journalists and other critics of the government.
If the AKP’s record, after a decade in power, is mixed, there have been significant achievements. The biggest has been the transition to a civilian-led state, quietly concluded on 29 July 2011 with the resignations of the chief of general staff and heads of the army, air force and navy. This would once have been a major crisis, but was met with general indifference. It followed a 10-year struggle between the military and the AKP. Attempts to ban the AKP for seeking to impose religious rule backfired: Its popularity increased. The military were weakened by charges of involvement in coup attempts against the AKP: The five-year prosecution of the Ergenekon conspiracy ended on 5 August this year with prison sentences for military officers, politicians and journalists, and a life term for former chief of staff, Ilker Basbug. It is clear the justice system is not free of politics and has failed to investigate evidence of wider involvement in criminal activity and human rights abuses, particularly in the southeast. Yet with the verdicts, Turkey’s demilitarisation has been underlined.
Much of the AKP success story was based on the economy, which it opened up, building on structural adjustment reforms by the former economy minister Kemal Derviş (2001-02). The AKP government proved fiscally responsible and good managers; the country seemed to have escaped the global financial crisis as GDP more than doubled over 10 years; the IMF now expects a more modest growth of 3.4% in 2013 and 3.7% in 2014. External debt has reached record levels (51% of GDP) and unemployment is at 9.4%. That threatens Erdogan’s dream of making Turkey one of the world’s 10 biggest economies by 2023.
Gezi emphasised this relative weakness, as the lira plummeted. Şevket Pamuk, professor of economics at Bogazici University, stressed the link between politics and economics: “Until 2005 there were institutional improvements as part of the EU accession process. That process has stopped, and the EU is partly responsible; it’s a pity because the AKP could have done something more constructive.” Since then, the emphasis has been on monetary stability: “The private sector began to take on more debt, risky as the global crisis caught up with Turkey.” Yet Erdogan has blocked all criticism or advice, and begun to tap state resources to pay for continuing growth. His erratic reputation could make Turkey a less reliable place to invest in.
The AKP made its most notable social reforms in the early years. The hope of EU accession pushed Turkey to address the Kurdish, Armenian and Cypriot questions, creating a new openness. The taboo that affected Armenians within Turkey was broken, and relations with Armenia, though complicated by land disputes over Karabakh and other Azerbaijani-occupied territories, pointed to an opening of borders after protocols were signed in October 2009. On Cyprus, there is a sense that the AKP government has done what it can, backing the UN peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan for a federal solution. But while the Turkish Cypriots voted for the project in the referendum of 24 April 2004, the Greek Cypriots voted against. Hopes of federation ended when they separately joined the EU on 1 May 2004.
The AKP government’s biggest achievement so far -- and greatest remaining challenge -- is its attempt at a solution to the Kurdish question. Secret talks with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) to end 35 years of armed resistance and separatist struggle led this March to the announcement of a ceasefire followed a month later by a pledge to withdraw from Turkey to autonomous Kurdistan (northern Iraq). The AKP’s earlier opening to Iraq had already brought social and economic dividends, as well as security to the region. The government’s initiative has brought cultural and social reforms for Kurds within Turkey, under the umbrella of the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party). A moderate Kurdish observer said: “We used to see self-determination as the only solution... Now our Kurds want to look west. Both for economic benefits and because of the regional conjunction, Kurds here see their future in a democratising Turkey that recognises their rights.” Those rights mean an end to ethnic discrimination, full recognition of Kurdish identity with the right to teach Kurdish at school and a decentralisation that will lead to a form of autonomy. For this, constitutional reform is needed.
Greater autonomy in the southeast, if successful, should also have an impact on the situation of Alevis, Greeks and Armenians.
‘A Turkey calling its own shots’
Under AKP foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey opened up to the world diplomatically and commercially: Africa, Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Greece and the Middle East. There was continuity in foreign policy under the AKP, which was overlooked as foreign headlines stressed Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman ambitions.” Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said: “The eastern axis fuss is about the West’s inability to accept a Turkey that is calling its own shots.”
Turkey remains firmly allied to the West, to the United States first, and to Europe, even if its hopes for accession to the EU have been rebuffed in recent years. Ozel points out that the AKP has solid relations with the United States, where there is an appreciation of Turkey: “The AKP’s task was to make Turkey a functional democracy.”
In the Middle East, Davutoglu put in place his “zero problems with neighbours policy,” leading to mediation between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria (terminated by “a negative context” of Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-09). By 2010 he boasted that he had signed over 60 agreements with Syria and 50 with Iraq, and had lifted visa requirements with eight neighbours. There were attempts to mediate with Iran over its nuclear capability. Erdogan was most outspoken with Israel. In January 2009 he told President Shimon Peres: “You are killing people.” Further diplomatic incidents led to Turkey’s suspension of military, though not economic, ties with Israel that October. This made Erdogan the darling of the Arab world and played well with the Turkish public. Washington under Obama was not dissatisfied. Then came the Mavi Mamari affair, when a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza was attacked in international waters on 31 May 2010 and nine Turkish activists killed. This year, after a very public row, the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu apologised.
Have Erdogan and Davutoglu overreached themselves? After the Israeli apology, Erdogan announced his visit to Gaza. But Washington insisted he could not go to Hamas-controlled Gaza without first visiting the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. Meanwhile in Egypt, his close friend Mohammed Morsi was removed from power. On 20 August Erdogan went so far as to suggest that Israel was behind the coup, earning White House condemnation for his “offensive, unsubstantiated and wrong” comments.
There were miscalculations on Syria. After Turkey’s close alliance with President Bashar al-Assad was swiftly reversed at the start of the uprising, Turkey facilitated the rebels, set up refugee camps along the shared border and allowed the opposition Syrian National Council to set up its headquarters in Istanbul. Ordinary Turks welcomed Syria’s refugees but there was no enthusiasm for military involvement, with the risks of unrest among the country’s own Alevi minority and concern at the porous borders that allow infiltration of Al-Qaida-linked jihadists into Turkey. The dangers of the Syrian conflict spilling over the border became clearer with the bombings in Reyhanlı, close to the Syrian border and home to hundreds of thousands of Alevis, for which the Assad regime was held responsible. However, with Hizbullah’s entry into the civil war, then the international furore over the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, alongside that of the West, is set to grow.
The AKP government, which rushed to back each rebellion in the Arab world, has ultimately proved unable to shape outcomes in the region. And within the country, Erdogan is now putting earlier achievements at risk. As he sees his chances of an enhanced presidency decreasing, he needs allies. The Kurds of the BDP are waiting patiently, though it is now harder to cut a deal with the government that was so violent with the young Gezi demonstrators, who could well vote for the BDP since the centre-left opposition CHP (Cumhuriyet ve Halk Partesi) seems unable to profit from the protests. The Kurds’ patience now depends on the AKP’s active pursuit of the halting process to bring peace to the southeast.
Erdogan could call early parliamentary elections in the hope of winning enough seats to change the constitution so as to allow his enhanced presidency, although that tactic doesn’t seems likely to succeed. Or he could introduce a party byelaw allowing him to run for a fourth term as prime minister. But the knives are out in the AKP, and so no one is ruling out a Margaret Thatcher fate, or the Putin scenario, which Erdogan most fears, with President Abdullah Gul as prime minister, putting in his own team. Orhan Pamuk recently likened Erdogan to an ailing sultan. Can the party find a way to restrain him and get back to bridge building?
Wendy Kristianasen is a journalist specializing in Islam and the Middle East. She is the editor of the English edition of Le Monde diplomatique.
Copyright © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global