Turkey's new Caliph: understanding Erdoğan's hegemony

Erdoğan’s authoritarian and arrogant response to protests confirms his opponents’ fears that he is seeking to make himself a strongman ruler in the mould of Vladimir Putin, who also swapped being Prime Minister for President.

John Lubbock
13 August 2014

On August 10, Turks went to the polls in the first presidential election since the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923. As expected, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the contest comfortably with over 50% of the vote. Meanwhile, tensions on the border with Syria are increasingly creating pressures on Turkey in the form of a huge refugee crisis, and the threat that extremist Islamic groups could turn their attention to Turkey after taking over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Erdoğan and his AK Party have been the strongest force in Turkish politics for over 10 years, and his popularity has not diminished despite widespread allegations of corruption and his authoritarian attitude to the 2013 Gezi Park protests. What are the reasons for this remarkable political success, considering that previous Turkish Prime Ministers tended to last for much shorter periods?

The chief reason for Turkey’s political stability and Erdoğan’s success has been a favourable economic situation. Turkey has been able to reassert the economic potential of its 80m strong population and geopolitical position straddling Europe and the Middle East. It is a rapidly emerging economy with a burgeoning private sector. Its growth rates are impressive:

Turkey became economically and politically more stable as the AKP ruled a majority government, compared to previous coalition governments. The purchasing power of the average Turkish citizen increased dramatically. Ten years ago, far fewer people were able to travel by plane, but now it is affordable for many more. It has become much easier for people to afford white goods, which used to be bought in instalments over many months. Due to this increasing purchasing power, people can allocate more money for their cultural and leisure needs.

AKP reform of the health and education systems have also been seen as successful. The government provides free lecture books for all students up to age eighteen. The state is now starting to provide tablet computers for many students and supporting a digital education system (even though it’s not that effective yet, the effort is recognised and appreciated). Similarly, the healthcare system was a mess before AKP and with the Health Transition Program (HTP) started in 2003, Turkish people have started to receive better health services.

The state remains in control of industry, transport, banking and communications, allowing it to push huge infrastructure projects which form the core of Erdoğan’s development drive as expressed in its ‘Target 2023’ propaganda.

These projects sometimes go too far for some sectors of the population, resulting in protests over the project planned to replace Gezi Park in Istanbul, and environmental concerns over a new airport. This sometimes reckless development drive can also create the conditions for disasters like the recent Soma mine disaster, where 301 miners died in an explosion, weeks after the AKP government had blocked an opposition demand to investigate working conditions in the mine. Erdoğan’s authoritarian and arrogant response to protests about these issues confirms his opponents’ fears that he is seeking to make himself a strongman ruler in the mould of Vladimir Putin, who also swapped being Prime Minister for President.

Many of these infrastructure projects, such as the extensions to the Istanbul Metro, are long overdue for a country whose old infrastructure lags behind its modernising economy. Not all of this development is welcomed by the public, such as the explosion of shopping malls in Istanbul, and visible corruption is starting to make some people disillusioned with the optimistic economic vision of the future which Erdogan’s AK Party is promoting.

The next factor is the weakness of the opposition CHP socialist party. They seem unable to put forward any strong, charismatic leaders who can pose an effective challenge to AKP dominance. Their campaigns are seen as based on criticising AKP, rather than having any positive policies of their own. During the recent municipal elections, they tried to use the corruption leaks to criticise Erdoğan, but failed to put forward a serious governing manifesto themselves. In contrast to this, AKP can point to achievements in development, especially in infrastructure projects.

There are real cultural and social divisions in Turkish society which contribute to the success of Erdoğan and his party. The cultural difference between the metropolitan, coastal areas closest to Europe, and the rural, central areas is a clear dividing line which can be seen in the electoral results.

Preliminary Presidential results: Erdoğan (orange), İhsanoğlu (red) and Demirtaş (blue)

Coastal areas rely more on tourism and the populations will have more frequent interactions with European people and culture. Clearly the central Turkish population feels more nationalistic about their identity, and are more conservative and religious in general. AKP’s success in uniting all moderate conservative parties under their umbrella means that he effectively straddles the centre and right wings of Turkish politics, while the left wing is squeezed by their inability to produce leaders or policies which appeal to the centre ground.

Turkey has one of the lowest levels of interpersonal trust of any society. This translates into a widespread nationalist feeling that Turkey has been victimised by other powerful nations. Historically, many Turks feel that the Ottoman Empire was betrayed by both European nations and elements within the Empire, like Armenians.

On a recent demonstration against Israel’s bombing of Gaza in London, I saw a Turkish man with two big Erdoğan banners get into an argument with some other Turks who didn’t think he should be bringing domestic politics into the Palestinian situation. Erdogan is clearly seen by many Turks as a moral leader of the Islamic world (see this Facebook page calling him the leader of the Middle East and Davos) in the mould of the Ottoman Caliphs, even if in truth Turkey continues to have ongoing military cooperation agreements with Israel.

An AKP supporter at #Erdogan's rally told me he came from another city for rally, belives int'l dark powers are behind #gezipark protests.

— Zeynep Erdim (@zeynep_erdim) June 16, 2013

During the 2009 Davos Economical Forum Erdoğan angrily criticised Shimon Peres over Israel’s attacks on Gaza in his famous ‘One Minute’ speech. This created a huge excitement among his supporters who talked of him as a ‘world leader’. It increased Erdogan’s popularity both in Turkey and some other Muslim countries. Judging from the way his supporters talk about him as a strong leader, even as their ‘daddy’, you get the impression he has managed to tap into a powerful, latent subconscious desire among many for a paternalistic leader who protects and supports them.

But of course, not everybody has benefited from AKP’s policies, like the residents of Okmeydanı featured in this Vice film:

Erdoğan’s leadership over the ‘Kurdish question’ positions him, at least in the eyes of his supporters, as a regional authority in any re-drawn Middle-Eastern map. Erdoğan was the first to negotiate and talk with Kurdish leaders, and violence has reduced considerably. Even some Kurds vote AKP:

#Turkey votes: Erdogan is "our spiritual father" and allegations of graft "are complete lies" a Kurdish AKP supporter in Fatih says.

— Emre Peker (@wsjemre) March 30, 2014

Like a lot of Muslim countries since 2001, Turkey has become more religious, and the AKP, supported by the Cemaat group run by Fethullah Gulen, contributed to mainstreaming a more religious brand of education. As Erdoğan has withdrawn his support for Cemaat, he is now seeking to raise a ‘pious generation’ through government control of public education. Turkey came to be seen as a positive example of a democratic Muslim state, and won respect from Muslims living under dictatorships in many countries. Erdoğan’s role as head of a democratic and religiously based party allowed him to support religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while most authoritarian governments in the Middle East looked at the Arab Spring with suspicion or horror.

Transparency International has raised questions about the advantage Erdoğan receives as a political incumbent through his access to state resources: “in one recent three-day period, the Institution of Turkey Radio and Television (TRT) allocated 533 minutes to Erdoğan, 3 minutes to İhsanoğlu and 45 seconds to Demirtaş”.

There are many reasons why Turkey is being culturally polarised and why Erdoğan has been able to take advantage of these trends. On a global level, western power seems to have reached its zenith and is retreating slowly as Asian economies emerge and different political formations become more attractive. Turkey doesn’t want to join the Middle Eastern political mess, but after cosying up to Europe for a long time, Erdoğan seems to be leaning towards a more Russian or Chinese autocratic style of governance.

But there is a danger inherent in Erdoğan’s appeal to the conservative, blue collar Turkish population. In demonising those he considers elitist, snobby urbanites, he risks creating the conditions for social unrest, as seen in the 2013 protests. This threatens to undermine the economic power which is at the heart of Erdoğan’s success. This success has undoubtedly made him arrogant and egotistical, and if he cannot easily let go of his power, or abuses it more than he is already accused of doing, then it could lead to political instability.

Since Ataturk’s attempt to forge a Turkish identity based on nationalism rather than religion, the Turkish state has often looked unkindly on minority groups like Kurds, Alevis or communists. If the national interest is defined too narrowly as identical to the AKP’s political programme, there will be many people who do not conform to the same beliefs or identity who could suffer if the government decides that the ends justify the means.

Still, many are happy to strike an even-handed view of Erdoğan’s Presidency.

Erdogan is not perfect but he changed alot in Turkey. I was not able to say that I was a Kurd in Turkey freely before Erdogan's government.

— Freelance Journalist (@Fixer_Turkey) August 10, 2014

As Adam Curtis has pointed out in his 1995 series The Living Dead, politicians are able to invoke conservative nostalgia for past glories, but in doing so, they conjure up a genie which cannot easily be controlled or put back in the bottle. In Istanbul, Erdoğan’s political posters look forward to ‘Target 2023’, the 100th year of the Turkish Republic. Like Churchill and Thatcher’s attempts to inspire Britain with a romantic vision of the past in order to regain former glories, Erdoğan is attempting to use a conservative nationalist identity to regain Turkey’s economic and political importance within its geopolitical region.

The question remains, can a party animated by such an ideology survive the man who has been responsible for its creation and success? Can the AKP deal fairly with its political opponents, or does it risk becoming more authoritarian? Turkey is already a country known as one of the worst places to be a journalist, and the attempts by Erdoğan to block Twitter and Youtube access are not a good sign of a leader who can respond appropriately to criticism.

Still, this draconian streak will not put off his core supporters. It’s likely that only economic unrest will make them think twice, and that does not look like happening soon. Paradoxically, the person likely to be the biggest threat to Erdoğan’s popularity is Erdoğan himself.

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