Turkey and Erdoğan: Rise and Fall?

Commentary No. 430, August 1, 2016

Turkey is presently governed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish initials). The AKP was co-founded in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He became Prime Minister in 2003 and served until 2014, when he became Turkey’s 12th president.

The stories of Turkey, Erdoğan, and the AKP were closely linked during the past fifteen years. They all remarkably strengthened their position in every possible way for the first ten of these past fifteen years. Then they all ran into increasing difficulty, culminating in an attempted coup d’état that began on the evening of July 15, 2016. Although the coup was crushed within two days, it is not clear that Turkey, the AKP, and Erdoğan have been able to stem their growing difficulties.

To understand what has risen and fallen we need to look first at Turkey’s situation in 2001. Turkey had become a republic in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as its first president. He was the leader of a military group that sought to replace the long-declining Ottoman Empire with a modern republic.

The Atatürk regime abolished the governing military role of the Sultan and the religious role of the Caliph. In the following years, they changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin letters and forbade the wearing of the fez, which they considered a symbol of the old regime. They granted political rights to women and proclaimed their equality with men. They closed religious institutions. In short, they secularized the country.

Until 1946, Turkey was governed by a single party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP in its Turkish initials). Atatürk, founder of the CHP, died in 1938. In 1946, his successor as president and leader of the CHP, İsmet İnönü, allowed multi-party elections. After that, Turkey’s government alternated between the CHP (considered center-left or social-democrat) and the rightwing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). There were during this time repeated attempts to establish a Muslim or Islamist party. Whenever such a party seemed to grow strong, the armed forces launched (or threatened to launch) a coup, seeking to defend secularism against Islamist parties.

It was therefore a great shock to the armed forces, the CHP, and the MHP when the newly-formed Islamist AKP of Erdoğan won by a landslide in the 2002 elections. The AKP government did not however feel very strong. They feared a coup. The only practical support at this time came from another Islamic group, led by Fethullah Gülen, a theologian currently residing in the United States. This group has no name but is often called Cemaat (“Community”).

In 2002, The Turkish economy was in very parlous shape, with a low GDP and GDP per capita and a high rate of inflation. Turkey’s relations with the Arab countries was overladen by powerful anti-Turkish sentiments derived from the Arab world’s previous subjection to the Ottoman Empire. Although Turkey was a member of NATO, its attempts to join the European Union (EU) met with great resistance because of EU fears about Muslim migrants to EU countries. And, not least, Turkey was low on the foreign policy priority list of the United States.

When the AKP assumed power, Erdoğan could not be named to any office because of a previous conviction that included an exclusion from political life. Abdullah Gül became Prime Minister and revoked the exclusion, permitting Erdoğan to become the prime minister in 2003.

The AKP under Erdoğan’s leadership was remarkably successful in transforming Turkey’s situation in its first decade in power. By judicious appointments to a politically-weakened armed forces, the threat of a coup seemed to have been removed. The AKP went on to win the elections again in 2007 and 2012. It turned Turkey’s economy into one that boomed, and was able to liquidate its IMF loans. It used the new resources to improve economic and social conditions inside the country, notably in education and health services. It sought new ways to overcome long-standing ethnonational divisions with the Kurds and the Armenians. It reentered Middle East politics as a friend to everyone while still being a friend to Israel. It reopened negotiations with the EU for future entry. And it alleviated constraints on Islamic practice without alarming secularist groups. Turkey thus became the “model” Islamist movement in power.

Suddenly this all seemed to fall apart. The economy began to go downhill. Like all the other so-called emerging economies, Turkey was able to sell less on the world market and for reduced prices. The economic well-being of Turkish citizens declined. The magnificent gesture of Erdoğan to open negotiations with the Kurdish militants, including the possible liberation of their leader Abdullah Öcalan, was terminated. Erdoğan returned to the old policy of repression. The symbolic gestures to the Armenians were revoked. The EU seemed to close off discussions about a possible entry for Turkey.

Turkey ceased being everyone’s friend in the Arab world. Instead, it entered into an unlimited struggle with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. It defied Israel’s ban on direct delivery of aid to the Gaza strip. Israel’s response led to multiple Turkish deaths and Turkey severed diplomatic ties. It was furious at the United States for its endorsement of the military coup against Mohamed Morsi, whose regime was in Turkish eyes its equivalent. Turkey waffled on fighting ISIS, considering action again al-Assad and the Kurdish movement more urgent.

At the same time, the alliance with Gülen’s movement ended. On the surface, there seemed to be little difference between the objectives of AKP and Gülen. Actually they were profound. Gülen advocated a policy of infiltrating all Turkish institutions. He was ready to pretend not to require Islamist social conservatism. His members dressed in Western style. His long-run objective, however, was to be proclaimed the hidden imam, the Mahdi or messiah. Erdoğan’s long-run objective was to be proclaimed the incarnation of Turkish nationalism, essentially a more secularist policy.

When Erdoğan says that Gülen had long plotted the coup, his arguments seem plausible. It is for this reason that all the opposition parties – CHP, NMH, and HDP (left party with a strong base in Kurdish areas) – went into the streets to oppose the coup. When, however, the CHP and HDP plus commentators in Turkey and elsewhere say that Erdoğan seemed prepared to use the excuse of the coup to purge the country of every conceivable possible opponent, these arguments also seem plausible. In particular, his proposal to change the constitution to create an “executive presidency” is considered as leading to a dictatorship.

Despite the incredibly vast numbers of persons being arrested, are Erdoğan and the AKP really strong today? They hold two powerful weapons in dealing with the United States and the EU. The United States needs Turkey’s cooperation if it is to fight effectively against ISIS. And Europe needs Turkey’s cooperation if it is to stem the flow of Syrian (and other) migrants to Europe. But these strengths may be illusory. It seems unlikely that Turkey can stem a bubbling up of internal opposition, which might lead to a total collapse of the regime. If that happens, it is anyone’s guess what might take its place.

Turkey, the AKP, and Erdoğan all rose spectacularly by pursuing a shrewd policy in a favorable world context of which they took advantage. Turkey has fallen as a result of a changed world context. And Erdoğan may have overplayed his hand in his response to a no longer favorable world context.