Last week’s attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “wipe out” Twitter was rightly decried as a sign of his creeping authoritarianism and an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors, says Halil Karavelli, a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
The country’s democrats have yet again “failed to stand on their own feet,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “Turkey’s pro-democratic forces, and liberals in particular, have a history of putting faith in illiberal forces to advance or protect democracy,” Karavelli observes:
In the 1990s, as the Islamists’ popularity grew, many in the left looked to the military as a savior. When the military grew too powerful, the influential liberal intelligentsia rallied to the Islamic conservative AKP, whom they expected to stand up for democracy once the generals had been emasculated. To that end, the liberals were willing to turn a blind eye toward many of Erdogan’s abuses of power. With Erdogan now proving autocratic, it seems that the liberals have turned toward a new ally. Even though Gülen says all the right things about democracy and the rule of law, however, the way his followers have used their positions in the bureaucracy to put in place a Big Brother state indicates his true intentions.
For Erdogan, the timing of the recent scandals could not be worse, says Svante E. Cornell, the editor-in-chief of The Turkey Analystand Karavelli’s SAIS colleague.
On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local, he writes for the Middle East Forum:
Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gülenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen who have been locked in a showdown with Erdogan, their onetime ally, since last December. The tapes are apparently meant to hurt Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections, laying the groundwork for his eventual downfall. But in addition to exposing the prime minister’s abuses of power, the tapes also reveal the Gülenists’ own dirty dealings.
“As alliances have been struck and dissolved, Turkey’s pro-democrats have tended to focus on one enemy — whether the generals in the past or Erdogan now,” Karavelli writes:
It is telling that Cengiz Çandar, one of Turkey’s leading liberal pundits recently wrote in the daily Radikal that, if the country were a real democracy, Erdogan would have had to resign after the recordings of him first started to leak. The irony that a prime minister of a democratic country had been wiretapped by his own bureaucratic apparatus apparently did not give Çandar pause. Indeed, Turkish democratic intellectuals and pundits demonstrate intellectual laziness when they reduce their country’s democratic crisis to an Erdogan problem. RTWT
Erdoğan is a talented politician and may yet find ways to survive this crisis as a weakened leader, argues Cornell:
His main asset is the sense of unity within the core AKP that provides a strong antidote to an overt split….Even the Gülenists appear to see a united AKP—but without Erdoğan—as the ideal outcome. But even if Erdoğan succeeds in staying in power, his chances of achieving one-man rule are now largely illusory. He could change party rules and seek a fourth term or, more likely, open an escape hatch and seek to be elected president under the current constitution. This would lead to his gradual loss of influence over day-to-day politics. In any case, it is more than likely that the Islamist movement that he led to unprecedented dominance over Turkish politics will soon conclude that Erdoğan has done his part. ….
What, then, would a post-Erdoğan Turkey look like? This will be the moment of truth for Turkish “moderate” Islam. At first sight, Turkey’s trajectory over the past several years suggests that even in the best possible circumstances, political Islam will be unable to shake its undemocratic, authoritarian, and intolerant characteristics. Even Turkey’s largest Islamist community, the Gülen movement, now implicitly acknowledges this, opposing the very notion of political Islam.
“Islamists have been able to say with some justification that the problem is not political Islam but Erdoğan as a person,” Cornell notes. “The track record of Erdoğan’s successors will determine whether political Islam can redeem itself.”