Get ready for the next Erdogan decade

turkey2If Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can realize the transformation to the presidential system that his advisers have been advocating, it would amount to the most significant Turkish revolution since Kemal Ataturk’s, says Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse and a columnist for Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and Star:

Erdogan, in fact, would be as powerful as Ataturk, controlling the executive and legislative branches. He would gradually prevail upon the judiciary as well, because the president has the power to appoint members to the Constitutional Court and other key institutions. He would even be able to appoint all the presidents of Turkey’s universities, because the universities are controlled by the Supreme Education Board, an institution that a military junta created in the 1980s. (Turkey’s generals, who devised a centralized and overarching state, naively believed this huge body would always remain in their hands.) Meanwhile, the media will probably feel the need to become more supportive of, or at least amenable to, the all-powerful president.

In short, it seems to be Erdogan’s game plan to rule Turkey for at least 10 more years under a very centralized, if not personalized, presidential system, he writes for Al-Monitor. Of course, whether he will be able to do that is another question. He is not a dictator, so he needs to win votes. First, he needs to win the presidential elections in August and then consolidate power as president and win again five years later.


The Arab 1848?

The Arab upheaval has been the cause of profound bewilderment in the developed world and among policy makers, not least in Washington. Great enthusiasm for the Arab Spring was quickly replaced by confusion and concern regarding Islamic democracy or an Islamist Winter, depending on one’s perspective, analyst Azar Gat writes for The National Interest.

The European revolutions of 1848, the ‘Spring of Nations’, with their great hopes and dashed dreams, have often been cited as an analog. But what can the European experience of modernization and regime change teach us about the contemporary Arab world?

What makes nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the current Middle East similar is their relative position on the road to modernization. According to the most authoritative estimates, real GDP per capita in non-oil producing Arab countries is in the same range as mid- to late-nineteenth-century Europe. Urbanization rates in Egypt and Syria are, respectively, just below and above 50 percent, a level crossed by the United Kingdom around 1850 and by Germany around 1900. Illiteracy in the major Arab countries still hovers between 20 to 30 percent, again in the same range as in mid-nineteenth century Europe….

While these major indicators are of fundamental significance, differences remain that should also be factored in. Whereas nineteenth-century Europe and the West were the world’s pioneers and world leaders in modernization, today’s Arab countries are among the world’s strugglers, with only Africa trailing behind. Because of this, the Arab world enjoys many of the fruits of modernization as imports from outside—in communications, household appliances, computers, medicine and the like. This also means that the Arab world is susceptible to pressures from the hegemonic developed world – most notably economic, partly military, and, more ambivalently, intellectual – even if the efficacy of such pressures is inherently limited. Finally, there are all the differences of culture and historical traditions, for, as we know, the process of modernization, while most powerful and deeply transformative, is far from being linear.

In comparison and analysis, certain key concepts serve as prisms, Gat suggests: democracy, liberalism, development, nationalism, religion, and stability.


The call for democracy has reigned supreme in the enthusiasm that surrounded the Arab Spring and the fall of the Old Regimes throughout much of the Middle East. It remains the strong expectation of Western opinion and the official demand by Western governments, most notably that of the United States. In today’s West, democracy is perceived as the ultimate ideal and political norm, unconditioned by extraneous circumstances. But in reality, rather than democracy being an abstract, timeless idea waiting to be recognized and adopted by right-minded people, its successful implementation has always depended on and closely correlated with a number of developmental factors variably embedded in the process of modernization.


Liberals everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe were deeply concerned that democracy would jeopardize liberal rights, such as respect for human life, free speech, freedom of religion, toleration for a diversity of opinion and identity, and, above all, the right to property. They feared that the masses would place little value on these hard-won sociopolitical norms, or else would be swayed by non-liberal creeds, whether traditionalist-conservative or revolutionary. ….

The Muslim Brotherhood’s reign in Egypt was too brief to offer conclusive evidence, but the omens were not very good. The Brotherhood in power were relatively restrained, for the reasons mentioned. Nonetheless, they were ideologically and politically intolerant towards the large Christian minority, the Copts, and failed to respond to widespread incidences of violence against them. ….

Western opinion and policy makers wish to see democracy installed and maintained, while also wishing that liberal values and norms be protected. They naturally tend to regard democracy and liberalism as inseparable, as the two have become in liberal democracies during the twentieth century. However, when the two sets of cherished values and norms conflict, which of them is to be given precedent? This question has long been absent from the script of Western and liberal democratic discourse. Moreover, liberal parliamentary regimes that were not democratic but later grew to become fully so were very much the norm in nineteenth-century Europe. But their opposite, the recently posited concept of ‘illiberal democracy’, has rarely if ever materialized anywhere. The reason for this is that liberal values seem to be essential for a deep respect for a democratic system, as opposed to an opportunistic or instrumental attitude towards it. Illiberal democracies do not only infringe on liberal values and norms, but are also ever in danger of turning undemocratic too.


In some ways, political and social Islam resembles political and social Catholicism in nineteenth century Europe. Catholicism organized itself politically in reaction against the forces of secularism, modernity, liberalism and democracy, preached nonworldly virtue and social justice, and practiced social work for the poor. The most significant political party that exemplified the movement was the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), which was consolidated to defend Catholic rights in Protestant-dominated unified Germany after 1871. ….

Can political Islam travel the same road and be transformed into the Arab and Muslim equivalent of the Zentrum and Christian Democrats? …..

Such a development might take time and require a preliminary semiauthoritarian phase, as it did in Turkey. The apocalyptic violent streak that Islamism has developed in recent decades is a major obstacle. So also is Islamic universalism and its challenge to the Arab states. Whereas militant violence was practically absent in nineteenth century political Catholicism (though not in other, revolutionary creeds), Catholic universalism was a much stronger reality. It nonetheless receded before the European nation-states, which were far more deeply rooted than their supposed counterparts in the Middle East.

Azar Gat is currently the Ezer Weizman Professor of National Security and was twice Chair of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.


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