Understanding Erdoğan’s toxic recrimination in Turkey

It is fair to say that Turkey's government has no particular ideas and vision, no systematic critique of anything, no attachment to any particular text. That is why it has been going nowhere in particular.

Umit Cizre
13 February 2014

In the latest turn of the most serious crisis that has shaken Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government to its core, a huge corruption scandal last month implicated three cabinet ministers and some trusted bureaucrats. Erdoğan hit back in ways that speak volumes about the nature and substance of his politics: he reacted by radically purging the police — which he once regarded as a counter-power to the military — on the basis that it prepared the groundwork for a graft investigation, without “permission”.

Northern Forest Defence activists with two young children at forefront in forest colours holding banners

Activists rally against corruption & planned construction in Istanbul, Dec 2013/Demotix/Fulya Atalay/All rights reserved

More significantly, the Prime Minister said that he would favour retrials for hundreds of military officers including former force commanders and one chief of general staff who were convicted in 2013 for coup plotting against his government. Last but not least, to add insult to injury, he asked his staff to draft legislation expanding the government’s power in appointing judges and prosecutors to keep the judicial process for the corruption investigation under the control of the executive – a move that affirms his choice of 'saturation', not 'separation' of powers in his administration.

Erdoğan’s move should be understood against the background of his ruling AKP party being locked in a bitter fallout with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Muslim leader who wields tremendous influence in the country and supported the AKP in its three consecutive election victories since 2002. Gulen's movement is believed to have facilitated bringing the planners of the coup in the army to trial. This development played a huge part in significantly curtailing if not completely eroding the political aspirations of the infamous Turkish military. The government’s latest move for a review of the trials of the coup planners is quite rightly interpreted as a de-facto alliance between Erdoğan and the army against the Gulen movement, representing a colossal reversal of his army policy.

Ostensibly, Gulenists have been at odds with Erdoğan over the government’s hawkish policy towards Israel, its stalling of EU reforms, its search for a compromise with the Kurdish movement and its plans to shut down the Gulenist network of schools. As a result, the movement is known to have colonized the police force as a Gulenist enclave together with some parts of the judiciary. With the help of these two organs, it orchestrated the graft probe. But it is safe to say that the battle between the sides is not ideological, nor about their distinct understandings of Islam and its role. In fact, the real aims and motives of the Gulen faithfuls have been to jockey fiercely for positions of power in the AKP administration to safeguard their vast internal and global political and economic networks.

The truth and the myths of the AKP

The regressive and anti-democratic nature of Erdoğan’s “recrimination” package against the Gulen movement highlights something disguised by the AKP's glittering success in promoting politically hazardous reforms. It is true that initially, the AKP leadership did reshape the structures of Kemalist power centres led by the military and judiciary, establishing a sense of confidence for elected civilians; it delivered enviable economic growth and stability and made the country an influential player in the region and globe. The government led the way to an open public debate on the need for a more democratic constitution, cultural rights for non-Turkish identities and non-Muslim minorities, and a normal public life for head-scarved women.

Yet, contrary to those who argue that the AKP government has “made a U-turn” through an increased sense of empowerment after the 2010 referendum and 2011 elections, I would claim that right from the very beginning, simultaneously with its democratic discourse, the AKP  has always embraced a unitarian state discourse mixed with militarist and non-pluralist positions.

It is quite accurate to claim that its multiple discourses, mixing enticing ones with dark, undemocratic ones, have managed to appeal to different audiences even on the same day. This said, I am not reiterating the Kemalist claims that the party has always had this discourse as part of its so-called “Islamist hidden agenda”.

The critical distinction I am making is twofold: first of all, the divisive and undemocratic rhetoric we witness is not an aberration of an otherwise moderate, centrist and popular government. It is part and parcel of the same existence. Secondly, not unlike the Kemalist, non-Kemalist or centrist politics since the very beginning (of the republic), the troubling features of Erdoğan’s AKP are rooted not in “Islamism,” but in some fundamental structural and cultural flaws and deep-seated undemocratic habits and traditions of the regime entrenched in the decades since independence.

The dark discourse which Erdoğan’s recrimination package against Gulenists contains is symptomatic of the regime’s DNA marked by an absence of a democratic propensity to accept diversity and differences morally as well as legally. This has made deep inroads into almost all individual minds and political platforms through formal and informal patterns of learning and socialization at all levels of life. Coupled with a political tradition which allows for few true meeting points and consensus-seeking mechanisms between the opposing parties, all political actors are boxed into a “white or black” demagoguery, resulting in an authoritarian stance, a kind of “pragmatism” as a disguise for a distinct poverty of ideas together with an isolation from reality.

The AKP is no different. The government’s encroachment on the media; its absolute intolerance of any opposition; its refusal to accept blame for the armed forces bombing and killing 34 civilians in the Kurdish region of Uludere in December 2011; allowing the police to exhibit the worst excesses of violence in the July 2013 Gezi Park protests and yet not “purging” a single police official then; detaining and arresting dissenting groups, be they students or Kurdish activists; and the prime minister’s euphemistic and evasive discourse about issues regarding the armed forces and the high command are almost predictable and typical of my generation. These political acts are rooted in the power concept of the Republic rather than representing a symptom of a break with a democratic tradition or an anomaly.

Politics of anxiety

To be fair, however, there are some novel sources of the AKP’s anti-statist reforms that we have not really experienced before. Let’s take the curtailment of the military’s political muscle: although as part of its republican conditioning, the party leadership would prefer to abdicate its duty to reshape the role and missions of the military, leaving them to the officers themselves and leading a cosy coexistence with them. But this time it was compelled to do something about it.

The party undertook the unprecedented step of establishing some modicum of civilian supremacy, not because it was fully committed to democratic civilian control, but because it was pushed into action by a relentlessly aggressive and potentially hostile secular establishment (the military, the judiciary and the then president Sezer) that treated Erdoğan’s administration with contempt and disdain and threatened to terminate the party's existence. The grounds for the establishment’s “anxiety” were that the AKP was an “Islamic” government trying to Islamize a secular state which the officers guarded.

Aligning with the EU was “survival politics,” or a coping strategy for the AKP’s politics of anxiety, and in the process they created the “myth” of Turkey being democratized through waving a magic wand. We need to be careful here, in so far as this development is not to deny that the party has put its signature on unprecedented measures that are “democratic”. However, there was no systematic and intellectual commitment to a coherent project of “democratization”. At best, only a hodgepodge series of reforms to overcome the traditional powerlessness of elected civilians surfaced, thereby allowing the government to create a comfort zone for the conservative voter base to enjoy increased religious and personal freedoms.

Those intellectuals who referred to those responsible as “nervous modernists” in the face of the AKP’s ascent to power never thought about the effect of reactions to their anxiety on the AKP’s side. History tells us that rarely has the “politics of anxiety” produced anything good, whether on the part of those who are “anxious” or those who react to it. More often, this genre of politics has accelerated and augmented power fetishism, narcissism, intolerance of criticism and celebration of a fictional democracy. Politics driven by anxiety, fear, revenge and recrimination has only encouraged polarized positions and intensified state security, not freedoms.

Neoliberal conservatism

True enough, neoliberal politics can be traced back to the 1980 coup and to the legacy of the ANAP governments (originally borne out of the Motherland Party – a centre-right nationalist entity) that succeeded it. But what is original since 2002 is that for the first time, more effectively than in the post-1980 era, neoliberal market policies are executed by a party which has left its ideological transformation indefinite; one that conveniently weds pragmatism with nostalgia for Ottoman and Sunni sensibilities and employs populist reformism successfully because of the growing benefits of unfettered capitalist marketization. Regarding its so-called “Islamic” nature, the characterization used above of the AKP as being “no different” from the other political actors in Turkey is a reminder that the leadership has explicitly abandoned Islamist politics in favour of “conservative” ideas.

Police with shields on street, flames blazing

Police crackdown empties Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Taksim Square, 8 July 2013/Demotix/Sadik Güleç/All rights reserved

However, although the AKP proclaims itself “conservative democrat,” it retains an affinity with Sunni Islamist ontology. Furthermore, it is committed to unlimited marketization and western democratic ideals – albeit not consistently and all the time – while expanding the security of the state with a fervour close to Turkey’s hard-line Cold-War parties. The leadership can be heard wanting to raise a pious new generation with at least three children per household; at the prime minister’s signal, abortion and C-section operations are scorned in state hospitals; and legislative changes have been made to tighten the controls of the sale, consumption and promotion of alcoholic beverages. But despite these moralistic salvos, even secular opponents have come to admit that there has been no systematic Islamization of the state.

Lost its way? Then what? 

What has emerged instead is the expansion of good old state domination of our lives, veiled in a discourse of sometimes anti-Kemalist and rights-based, sometimes moralist and undemocratic, discourse.  It is fair to say that this government has no particular ideas and vision, no systematic critique of anything, no attachment to any particular text. That is why it has been going nowhere in particular. However, it can and will manage to steer the same discourse and course for as long as it can continue to harness popular support.

How? Contradictions, inconsistencies and a divisive rhetoric have become the source of the AKP’s identity and lack of identity, failures and successes, popularity and unpopularity. On the positive side, these ambiguities and multiple discourses have also become sources of its energy and capacity to address socially fragmented and politically disintegrated masses living in ambiguous environments with multiple commitments, identity levels and networks.

Erdoğan’s mess and inconsistent-looking discourse corresponds to the inconsistencies and ambiguities of real “life” itself. This is why his name is etched in the historical imagination of millions of people representing nothing short of what Ataturk represents for the sizeable secular community.

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