The Paradox of Turkey’s Victorious Erdogan: Authoritarianism burnishes his ‘democratic’ credentials

(By Niall Finn)

Sunday’s local elections was the first time the Turkish people have had a chance to vote since last summer’s Gezi Park movement rocked the country. Although the protests sparked an almost continuous period of political crisis for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), they have again emerged as Turkey’s largest political party with a renewed electoral mandate. Such a result is especially significant for Prime Minister Erdogan, who led the aggressıve campaign and staked his own future on the outcome.

For many the result is a paradox. How can an increasingly authoritarian government continue to win democratic support?

In an attempt at an explanation, some western commentators have already called Erdogan an ’elected sultan’ and an ‘Islamic caudillo’. In doing so they are resurrecting the worn out narrative of the backward nature of Turkish politics and by extension the backward nature of the Turkish population. Ironically these were often the same people who praised Erdogan for reinvigorating Turkish democracy but now, unable to explain such a sudden reversal, have fallen back on stereotypes.

“Western commentators have already called Erdogan an ’elected sultan’ “The real solution can be found in the roots of the political crisis and the way the AKP have sought to resolve it.
While the banning of Twitter and YouTube caught the world’s attention, such moves are just one part of the AKP’s draconian strategy in Post-Gezi Turkey. The aim of which has been not only to crush the opposition (often physically) but to secure the Party’s power base after the weakest period in its history.

The social pressure from last summer’s street movement catalyzed a split in the country’s power bloc between Erdogan’s AKP and “Cemaat” (as the followers of America-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen are known). Although they have significantly different perspectives, the two groups were once united by resentment of the military’s role Turkish in politics and a love of free market capitalism.
They also share an Islamic background, which meant that the ability of Cemaat members to gain influence within the fiercely secular state had been crucial to overcoming one of the main obstacles that had defeated the AKP’s more Islamist ancestors. Thus helping clear the way for Erdogan’s spectacular rise to power.

When war broke out between the two, Cemaat turned their influence in the state apparatus against the AKP. First launching a police investigation into corruption (arresting several prominent figures). And then leaking a series of secret recordings of government figures, allegedly implicating them in an ever increasing number of scandals.

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While the fight with Cemaat has fractured the AKP’s power base, opposition outside the Party has kept up the political pressure. Students at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara launched a campaign against the city’s AKP Mayor and millions protested the governments use of state violence at the funeral of Belkin Elvan (who died recently after being hit in the head by a tear gas cannister).

In this context the AKP’s response has been politically defensive. They have focused on rallying their core supporters, knowing that the weak and divided nature of the political opposition means this will be enough to win them the elections. The key tenet of this strategy has been to polarize society and demonize the opposition. To do so the AKP has been playing on the historical experiences of their key supporters amongst the more religious inhabitants of the smaller cities and the poor of the large urban centers. These groups have long felt unfairly excluded from power by a secular state elite, but empowered by the AKP’s overwhelming electoral victories.

However given Turkey’s long history of plots to undermine parliamentary democracy (the country has seen a military intervention roughly every ten years) they are also all aware of the threat of anti-democratic conspiracies. It is on these (in many ways very rational) fears that the AKP has been able to secure the support of their base. Cemaat is the perfect specter of this threat; a shadowy organisation using parts of the state to undermine the elected government.

The social media bans have largely been seen as the AKP’s attempt to stop the spread of Cemaat leaks, which (with some government pressure) have been ignored by significant portions of the press. While the practical success of this policy has been mixed it has served an important political function. In provoking the rest of the AKP’s opponents against the ban, Erdogan has been able to demonize them as being on the same side as Cemaat.

This has been especially potent in regards to blocking YouTube. The pretext of which was that Cemaat used the website to host a recording of the Foreign Minister discussing the situation in Syria and how a pretext for war may be developed. Such a leak was immediately denounced by the AKP as a threat to national security by an organisation looking to undermine the government, confirming the suspicions of their supporters. While all those against the ban could easily be denounced as being complicit in the conspiracy.

In this way, not only has Erdogan become immune from the accusations in the leaks, he can also be seen to take tough measures to protect the popular mandate of his supporters. This in turn created a siege mentality, solidified his base and secured his party a further mandate at the local elections.

Thus authoritarian policies are helping cement Erdogan’s “democratic” credentials.

Niall Finn (@NiallFinn) is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

Mirrored from Your Middle East

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Related video:

Reuters: “Election protests in Turkey as opposition cries foul”

8 Responses

  1. “For many the result is a paradox. How can an increasingly authoritarian government continue to win democratic support”

    seriously? Has this author looked at actually existing political systems? Has Mr Putin, for instance, dropped in to say hi? Or Gen. Sisi? Daniel Ortega? The Ghost of Huey Long?

    Has the author read any historians on populism? this is hardly uncharted territory!

  2. The frame of this article as AKP vs. Ceemat does not explain what is going on. It follows the typical US approach of treating politics as a game between two competing teams. In the US, both parties agree on most things, e.g., support of military, lack of action on the environment, support of banksters, etc. so to deal with what is in the mainstream media misses the point about how the oligarchy is in control. Even the most basic right of citizens, the right to vote, is denied their direct control.

    I usually read the Gulen linked on line newspaper, Todayszaman and find the multiple columns well written and informative. It is obvious that Erdogan has cast them as a parallel organization and will continue to attack them. I took a trip to Turkey sponsored by a US branch of the Gulen inspired organizations and was very impressed with their work on interfaith, dialog and culture. I had great hopes that Turkey could be example of how to integrate Islam into today’s world. The authoritarian moves Erdogan main to retain power has shown the world that Turkey has not built democratic institutions.

    Another newspaper, Hürriyet, had a short article that provided the most insight to me. The frame of AKP vs Gulen does not capture the basic issues.

    quoting from the linked article

    The simple fact is that the 43 percent which voted for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s elections do not care about the EU, its liberal values or the modernity it represents. It wants to see a Turkey based on conservative Islamic values and looks to Erdoğan as the leader that will achieve this.

    When you put the increasing restrictions on the media, the government’s meddling with the legal system in ways that would not be possible in any modern European state, the banning of Twitter and YouTube, and other similar developments, it all points to one thing.

    Turkey under Erdoğan is rapidly losing its European orientation and moving away from the democratic principles this orientation represents. AKP supporters who talk much about democracy, and decry the fate of Egypt’s elected former president, Mohamed Morsi, refute this of course.

    Modern Turkish republic was founded in 1923 and they have had a coup about every decade. Democracy was seen as a fifth column which shows why it is easy to demonize Gulen. Continuing with the article

    But the democracy they defend has little to do with European-style democracy, just as Morsi’s policies during the brief period he was in power had nothing to do with genuine democracy, even if he was elected democratically.

    Looking back though, it is also true that successive governments that came to power after the republic was founded did little to turn Turkey into a respected member of the community of democratic European states, despite their modernist pretensions.

    It must not be forgotten that Turkey got its reputation as an oppressive country that does not respect human or minority rights, both of which it violated with impunity, under governments that preceded the AKP.

    It has to also be remembered that the establishment which ran this country for decades prior to the AKP always considered those citizens who defended true democracy and human rights as members of a fifth column in the service of a West that was out to destroy Turkey.

    In other words, the supposedly modern elements that ran Turkey for decades always mimicked Europeans superficially, but never believed in the values that go to make up contemporary Europe.

    More often than not, they considered these values to be a threat to national unity and the symbols they believed in religiously for maintaining this unity.

    I have included about 80 % of the short article and now the last two paragraphs

    Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” is not a desirable place for true democrats, but neither was the “Old Turkey” that some still hanker after. We need a genuinely new and democratic Turkey where no one feels alienated because of the results of a ballot box and everyone believes in the rule of law no matter who is elected.

    The results of the local elections have left us in even more of a quandary as to who will provide leadership for this.

    the link
    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    On this newspaper they have a link “green” it shows the destruction of the environment for progress. Right now it shows an old woman in her chair besides a giant digging machine and the title is that here protest stopped the destruction in a park. Scan down to see other actions and proposals including construction in National Parks.

    link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    • I’m a regular reader of Hurriyet and an admirer of Semih Idiz, whom I regard as the best Turkish journalist writing in English on foreign policy, but if you think that (a) TZ is reliable on Cemaat issues — look at the people it’s dismissed for breaking the party line — or that Semih Bey is for one second unsure that Cemaat is strong withing the state, and that it, with Tayyip’s blessing, put together Ergenekon/Balyoz, you’re either kidding yourself or you’re ill informed.

      Fact is, too that CHP was always at odds with Cemaat before this falling out, and previous secular governments had placed a warrant for FG for conspiracy against the state.

      Please inform yourself if you’re interested!

  3. Could we get a little deeper commentary on Turkey here?

    “Cemaat is the perfect specter of this threat; a shadowy organisation using parts of the state to undermine the elected government.”

    Cemaat was AKP’s ally and its “modern” face in the West. The English speaking representatives in DC try to make Gulen look like a Civil Rights leader while in truth he was always more akin to Jerry Falwell.

    Turkey suffers from experts who were paid to support AKP in writing and well-meaning idiots in the West who never got the true nature of Islamism.

    The basic truth is AKP and Gülen have been very successful about curtailing media freedom. When they could they bought media organizations. When they couldn’t they extracted massive fines from those who criticized them.

    All along leftists, Kurds and secular who warned about Gulen and Erdogan got jailed or fired from their jobs.

    And few really gave a damn in the West.

    These articles are too shallow to get the true gist of the situation. Perhaps Dr. Cole, you could get commentary about Turkey from Turks themselves?

    • Well, the Cemaat spends a lot of money on American academics and it expects articles in return. Wisely, it focuses on people in Humanities and the less-well-funded social sciences and cleans up quite well. Given the cost of a trip to Turkey, praise for the man who buys the ticket must seem like a small price. (I don’t think it’s only my colleagues I’m talking about ;) )

  4. And so, today, we get an even better picture of what Turkey’s Islamic democrats believe as they reject an appeal for a recount in Ankara, where the AKP mayor won by less than 1% of the vote in a count a marred by irregularities, and in Antalya, where the AKP won narrowly.

    • But there is at least one-party democracy, as AKP lost in Agri and the courts have declaredfor a revote there along with the big FUI from AKP judges to the CHP for Ankara and Antalya.

  5. link to lrb.co.uk
    Excellent article by Sy Hirsch on both US and Turkish exploitation of the something-gas-from-somewhere attack in Syria a year ago: a link that shouldn’t be buried in the comments here!

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