The secret of Erdogan’s success?

turkey2The Turkish government’s ban on access to the Twitter social media site violates citizens’ right to free expression and access should be immediately restored, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled Wednesday, The LA Times reports.

The main opposition party is hopeful an internal recount of votes from Sunday’s local polls will help reverse a victory for the ruling party in the capital Ankara, but a final verdict from electoral authorities is likely to take weeks, according to Reuters (HT: FPI).

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been very successful in associating his personal grievances with those of urban conservative groups with rural family backgrounds, says analyst Ozgur Unluhisarcikli:

In the past, these social strata were openly looked down upon by secular groups. When he came to power, Erdoğan chose to reinforce conservatives’ grievances rather than heal them, and used it to create a very strong bond between himself and his voters. He went one step further, and associated the past grievances of his core constituencies with those of Muslims internationally towards the West. For example he compared last summer’s Gezi Park protests with Egypt‘s Tamarod Movement, suggesting that the Turkey protests were similarly aimed at initiating a coup d’état and implying that both were conspired by some circles in the West.

But by associating his personal grievances with the past grievances of the religious conservative masses in Turkey, Erdoğan has also reinforced the cultural polarization between conservative and secular groups and between his voter base and other political parties, argues Unluhisarcikli, an expert with the German Marshall Fund:

The derogatory language used by some of Erdoğan’s opponents further contributes to Turkey’s cultural polarization, isolating the AKP voter base from outside influences. Thus, it has become very easy for Erdoğan to frame any discussion on his own terms, for consumption by his own constituency. What was a peaceful protest movement for secular Turks became a coup attempt and treason for AKP supporters. What was a graft probe for the opposition became another coup attempt, according to the AKP. What was censorship for secular Turks was, for the AKP and its supporters, an issue of protecting the nation from external enemies and their domestic collaborators.

“Erdoğan’s secret recipe for success, then, appears to be a combination of providing social services, identifying strongly with a voter base, and isolating them from other parties through polarization,” Unluhisarcikli notes. “This has helped him win six parliamentary and local elections and two referenda, and could help him win several more in the future.”


Erdogan set to ‘assault’ Turkey’s civil society, opposition

erdoganPrime Minister Erdogan won the day in Turkey’s municipal elections, but his one-party rule will be even more hotly contested as the August presidential election approaches, analyst Henri J. Barkey writes for The American Interest.

There are four main conclusions that can be drawn from these elections, he argues:

First, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, succeeded in defining the election as a referendum on the Prime Minister. The opposition, buoyed by the allegations, fell into this trap. ….

Second, the AKP also succeeded in making the political opposition seem subservient to the religious leader Fethullah Gülen……… Gülen and his numerous followers, who had been allied with the AKP until recently, had decided to take on Erdogan. The reasons are complex, but fundamentally they take issue with his growing dominance at the expense of all other societal and political forces, and also with the overt and unabashed corruption in his government. ….. The government rebranded itself as victim when all the while it was engaged in a bitter, scorched earth counterattack.

Third, this election undermined the one assurance that had hitherto prevailed in Turkey: that elections (with the exception of the Kurdish areas where the army constantly manipulated the votes in the past) were always fair and clean. … Unless the AKP allows the Supreme Electoral Council to respond in a constitutionally legitimate manner to the voting irregularities, the damage to the system will be enduring. Turkey lacks the wherewithal to deal with such massive challenges.

Finally and most importantly, these elections have polarized the country in an unprecedented manner. Whereas people who disliked Erdogan and his party had accepted his leadership precisely because he had emerged from fair elections, he is increasingly regarded as illegitimate. His authoritarian behavior has alienated many, but especially the urban and tech-savvy professionals. Erdogan and his supporters likewise dismiss their opponents as illegitimate; they are traitors, tools of foreign powers, and deserve prosecution. Turkey resembles Venezuela today.

Gulen’s spokesman, Alp Aslandogdu, said the AKP had shown “blatant disregard” for fair and free elections. “We are disturbed by the prime minister’s apparent pledge to ruthlessly crackdown on those he perceives as his political enemies,” he said. “While we are concerned about crackdowns on individuals, we remain committed to our democratic values.”

“Emerging strongly from the elections, Erdogan will likely run for president during the summer,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute think-tank.

With memories fresh of last June’s violence — when eight people died, thousands were injured and clouds of tear gas wafted through Istanbul’s Gezi Park — many feared further dangerous tensions ahead.

“The government says it will launch a witch-hunt against the media (and) civil society,” said the head of the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

His warnings were echoed by less partisan voices.

“We are about to witness a very broad assault,” said Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based analyst at Global Source Partners, a political risk consultancy. “The key thing to look for would be a mass trial against the Gulen movement as a terror organization—just like they sponsored against the generals. Erdogan doesn’t have much time before the presidential elections so he will want to see quick results.”

Democracy support in Turkey’s foreign policy

turkey2Ankara’s attempts to make democracy promotion a focus of its foreign policy have had only limited success, in part because Turkey is losing credibility as a democratic model, say analysts Senem Aydın-Düzgit and E. Fuat Keyman.

Turkey is a newcomer to democracy promotion. Until the mid-2000s, democracy mainly figured into Turkish foreign policy as part of debates with the West, in particular the European Union, on Turkey’s own democratic transition and consolidation, they write for the Carnegie Endowment.

Ankara’s domestic democratic record was and continues to be an important issue in its relations with Western democracies. The country remains an EU candidate, and ongoing accession negotiations mean that its internal political developments are under close EU scrutiny.

But increasingly, democracy has also become a central issue in Turkish foreign relations with the non-Western world. Turkey has started to focus on democracy promotion at two distinct levels, simultaneously trying to position itself as a model of democracy in its neighborhood and attempting to advance reform in other countries by funding democracy assistance projects.

The period in which the AKP came to power in Turkey was also the time of the Iraq war, which substantially changed dynamics in the Middle East. As the United States in particular came to attach more importance to democratization in the region, the Turkish experience with democratic consolidation under the AKP emerged as a possible model for other Middle Eastern countries. Various AKP policy initiatives sought to promote the idea that Turkey could serve as an example of a successfully democratizing country for other states in the region.

To that end, Turkey increased civil society contacts and exchanges with its neighbors through a liberalized visa regime, enhanced economic and trade relations, and created scholarship programs for students from the Middle East and the Balkans to study in Turkey. The increasingly transnational activities of Turkish civil society organizations and businesses—and even Turkish soap operas, widely watched across the region—further contributed to strengthening Turkey’s soft power and visibility in its neighborhood.

However, the supposed attractiveness of the “Turkish model” masked the reality that the AKP’s initial foreign policy line at the macro political level in fact de-emphasized democratic concerns. The party’s motto, “zero problems with neighbors,” reflected its desire to use Turkey’s Ottoman legacy and its socioeconomic ties to the region to rekindle relations and avert tensions with both democratic and nondemocratic partners in the Middle East. Within this framework, Turkey initiated new dialogues with countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria as well as with the Kurds in Northern Iraq.

This policy was no longer tenable after the onset of the Arab Spring, which radically changed Turkey’s foreign policy calculations. Although Ankara initially hesitated on whether or not to support the burgeoning democracy movements, particularly in Libya and Syria, it eventually aligned itself with the popular revolts.

Still, Turkey continues to enjoy close relations with a number of its nondemocratic neighbors. It refrains from bringing up democracy and human rights concerns with some of these regional partners, including Azerbaijan and the Gulf states.

While Turkey was careful not to project the image of being a sectarian actor in the initial stages of the Syrian conflict, the government abandoned this caution as Assad clung to power. The AKP has also used anti-Shia discourse to discredit its domestic opposition, which has further exacerbated this problem.

The Turkish government’s response to the July 2013 military coup in Egypt that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the country’s Muslim Brotherhood–backed president, also eroded its image as an impartial actor. Turkey was highly critical of the coup and expressed strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood both at home and abroad. Its backing of Morsi’s government and subsequent outrage at his ouster appeared to many to be more an act of solidarity by the AKP with the Muslim Brotherhood than a principled stance in favor of liberal democracy. The AKP seemed to be drawing direct parallels to its own historical struggle against the Turkish military and the secularist establishment. But Turkish citizens who expressed caution about the country’s strong engagement in the Egyptian crisis were quickly branded by the government in Ankara as undemocratic coup supporters.


The question of inclusiveness in democracy promotion policies has also proved problematic for Turkey. The AKP has tended to exclude liberal and secular NGOs from the state’s official democracy promotion efforts, instead privileging organizations with religious values that mirror its own. This pattern is a reflection of Turkey’s own internal tensions between religious and liberal identities.

These tensions are now posing serious challenges for Turkey’s incipient profile in the field of democracy support. While the AKP government has succeeded in making democracy a focus of Turkey’s foreign policy, at least at the micro level, serious issues remain. Until it addresses these shortcomings, Turkey’s efforts at democracy promotion will remain limited.

Senem Aydın-Düzgit is associate professor and Jean Monnet Chair in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. E. Fuat Keyman is director of the Istanbul Policy Center and professor at Sabancı University.

This extract is taken from a substantially longer article. RTWT

Trial by Twitter? Erdogan, Gülenists, and the future of Turkish democracy

TurkeyMiddleClassFlagProtestTaksimRTR22YAE-198x132Last 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.

erdoganFor 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.”



Turkey’s Yavuz Baydar, P24 founder, wins top European Press Prize

yavuz-baydarA leading Turkish journalist and one of the founders of the P24 Platform for Independent Journalism has received the Commentator Award from the prestigious European Press Prize.  

The European Press Prize says it “salutes and encourages the highest achievements in European journalism” with its awards in four categories.

Yavuz Baydar was given the special award in recognition of a series of articles on Turkey’s endangered freedom of the press, for which he was dismissed from his job.

“I am mostly happy because the award highlights, more than ever before, the immense threat and increasing waves of assault the Turkish media have been facing,” he wrote today. “I was given a chance to elaborate on the root causes of the problem and noticed, once more, that Turkey, with its growing social instability and its shackled journalism, is under intense focus, as the audience — mainly professionals — has shown.”

Rights watchdog Freedom House warmly congratulated Baydar on winning the Prize for his defense of media freedom as the ombudsman of Sabah newspaper, where he criticized the paper’s coverage of the Gezi Park protests. Baydar was fired in July 2013, shortly after the paper refused to run two of his columns. He is a founding member of P24, a Turkish media organization and National Endowment for Democracy grantee committed to independent media and freedom of expression.

For background on Turkey’s media, see Freedom House’s special reportDemocracy in Crisis: Media, Corruption, and Power in Turkey.