Time for Prime Minister Erdogan to think about his legacy

As Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's Justice and Development Party celebrates one decade of power, Turkey looks back with satisfaction on the journey travelled. But big mountains still loom ahead for Erdogan and his government.

Aslan Amani
7 November 2012
Turkish PM Recep Erdogan on a state visit in Germany. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved.

Turkish PM Recep Erdogan on a state visit in Germany. Demotix/Theo Schneider. All rights reserved.

Turkey's resurgence as an international actor has won the country friends as well as foes. However, the country's rising importance in the geopolitical map of the Middle East is hard to dispute. This week, the party credited with revitalizing Turkey from its economically depressed and politically unstable days in the early 2000s celebrates its first decade in power. Despite the success Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has had in overcoming economic crises and demilitarising the country's political system, he needs to treat this milestone not just as an occasion for celebration, but also for sober reflection on the legacy of his decade in power.

The reason is Erdogan has been offered something no other Turkish leader in recent history was – three back to back parliamentary majorities with an unprecedented degree of constitution-making powers. His legacy will in consequence be subjected to a stricter success test than those of his predecessors, as students of Turkish politics may want to judge him not just by what he has done in comparison to previous governments (which were either halted by a coup, the passing of their leader, or some natural or economic calamity), but also by the proportion of opportunities that he has been able to seize over those that were let go.

Whether Erdogan and his team of moderately Islamic politicians are going to be remembered as great reformers or not, depends on the progress the country makes on three groups of issues – overcoming social-economic underdevelopment, democratic consolidation, and minority rights.  All three goals, however, currently appear sidelined by the buzz Erdogan's foreign policy – mainly his outbursts against Israel and more recent tirades targeting the dictators caught in the Arab Spring – has created at home.

AKP's narrative of development will make more sense if Turkey manages to translate improved economic performance (e.g., declining national debt and inflation levels) into higher welfare standards for its citizens, particularly for the rural areas that need it the most. The country continues to suffer from a significant rural poverty and chronically high levels of youth unemployment. Erdogan's focus on population growth is a troubling indicator of how detached he is from the goal of social and economic development. 

While the issue of socioeconomic underdevelopment has long been a traditional object of electoral politics in Turkey, Erdogan's earlier terms gave the impression that his government was unique in its earnestness with respect to the latter two areas of reform. However, their records of democratisation and minority rights do not appear encouraging either. Given that dictatorships are the rule rather than exception in its neighborhood, Turkey rightly boasts an important degree of democracy. But the recent deteriorations along important marks of democratic quality gives one reasons to be concerned about prospects of democratic consolidation and the possibility of a relapse into authoritarian rule. Problems related to the independence of judiciary, freedom of press, and local autonomy daunt Erdogan's Turkey in no less significant way than they did a decade ago. Particularly worrisome is the jailing of journalists known for criticising Erdogan's ties to the more radical strands in the Islamist movement, as well as his links to business magnates. 

Last but not least, Turkey has yet to make progress on the decades-old issue of Kurdish uprising. It is shocking that Erdogan's Kurdish initiative – his party's plan to democratically resolve the conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives –appears abandoned as the war between the Kurdish militias and the Turkish army continues to escalate. A commitment to a military solution has won Erdogan more nationalist votes, but hurts prospects of a genuinely democratic and peaceful resolution to the conflict that AKP espoused as a goal in their earlier years in power.

The social dynamics of Erdogan's Turkey cast light on the disappointingly slow pace of progress on these three issues. A secular, statist establishment, a predominantly Muslim population, dreams of EU membership that have run into a humiliating stalemate, and a powerful government that defines itself as economically pragmatic and socially conservative are all pieces of a puzzle that can not easily be glued together. The AKP has tried to overcome their government's identity crisis by devising novel goals such as resuscitating the empire and strategic realignment. Perhaps the lack of a concrete and coherent roadmap was less problematic when the government was trying to stop the economic downturn than it is now. Erdogan's government increasingly looks like someone who has been successful in climbing out of a deep well, but now lacks an idea on where to go next.

Perhaps, a concern with his legacy could provide Erdogan with a better sense of direction.  If Erdogan wants to take his cue from Suleiman the Magnificent, as a popular Turkish soap opera seems to portray, he may continue for some more time to gather joyful, supportive crowds at home and abroad. But given that in democracies forceful mandates are intended to improve citizens' living standards, it is likely that history books will not picture Erdogan as a great reformer that delivered what Turkey so badly needed.

This is not to say that a proactive foreign policy is unimportant. Perhaps, the Middle East too needs the role model of Turkey. But the success in the latter role hinges on the former. If Turkey wants to stand as an even more appealing model in its neighborhood, it has to strive to make gains along the three axes. An enhanced democracy, a more socially just welfare state, and a country where members of minority ethnic groups thrive together with members of the numerically dominant ethnos will go farther in promoting Turkey as a brand in the region than archaic references to history, culture, and empire.

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