The End of the Turkish Model? Erdogan’s Paranoia and Authoritarian Streak Threaten his Legacy

(By Juan Cole)

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is sounding more and more hysterical, and less and less like a statesman as 2013 ends. If you thought Barack Obama had a tough twelve months, you should consider Erdogan. A major corruption scandal has broken out in his government, with 24 persons implicated including the sons of two cabinet ministers and the head of government-owned Halkbank. One allegedly had $4.5 million in shoe boxes.

On Sunday, thousands marched in Istanbul to protest the alleged corruption.

Erdogan responded by purging 70 police officials, including Istanbul’s police chief, who were behind the investigation. Then he hinted broadly that the corruption allegations were groundless and resulted from an attempt by Israel and the United States to frame his party members. He threatened to expel foreign ambassadors from Ankara. Career diplomat, US ambassador Francis Riccardione, whose leaked dispatches from Mubarak’s Egypt show him to be a humane person interested in human rights, must be scratching his head at these wild charges that he is sneaking into AKP homes and planting millions of dollars in shoe boxes.

On Sunday Erdogan said he would “break the hands” of anyone accusing him of corruption, adding that “everyone will know their place.” (These phrases are metaphorical, of course). This kind of paranoid fantasy expressed in public should be a danger signal to observers. Leaders who think and talk that way are the sort of people who have caused the world an enormous amount of trouble. Paranoia is not a mental disease but a symptom of some other underlying condition; a common cause is clinical depression.

Erdogan’s party is facing local elections in the spring, and he is running for president this summer. General elections are scheduled for 2015. After over a decade of dominance, his party may seem vulnerable to its rivals. Erdogan has to be concerned that his own image will be so tarnished by the corruption issue that it could interfere with his winning the presidency. He may have to run against his own party colleague, current president Abdullah Gul, who has in the past year behaved more judiciously than Erdogan.

Erdogan faced a significant youth revolt in June, which he dealt with by deploying water canon and military-strength tear gas and police repression. He appeared to have succeeded in tamping down the demonstrations before they could cascade into something more menacing. But the episode of “Gezi Park” revealed a dark side of Turkish authoritarianism at odds with the democratic facade projected for the sake of joining Europe. The Turkish mass media are so muzzled that they dared not cover the Gezi protests (notoriously, CNN Turk played a documentary on penguins during one of the more dramatic moments of the demonstrations). I was shocked that there was so little press freedom left in Turkey.

Erdogan was among the more successful world politicians of the first decade of the twenty-first century. His party came to power in 2002, crafted so as attract a constituency of committed Muslims but not to trigger the then Draconian laws guaranteeing official secularism. Erdogan had been jailed for reciting a poem in which minarets were equated to Muslim spears. He had seen several attempts to establish a Muslim-based party crash and burn. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) was intended to be “secular” in the sense of rejecting theocracy while arguing for removal of restrictions on public displays of belief and piety on public property (schools, universities, the parliament).

Erdogan and his party went from strength to strength. They grew the economy with wise economic policies and trade expansion. They avoided foreign adventures. They played a responsible role in NATO, stepping up to send troops to Afghanistan and to patrol the coast of Libya. They avoided the social divisions that beset Egypt under Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012-2013 because they did not push for sharia or the official implementation of Islamic law. Many in the Middle East saw the “Turkish model” as the salvation for societies torn between nationalism and political Islam.

But as Erdogan kept winning elections, he began acting high-handedly. He curbed the power of the secular officer corps. In a way this step was good, but it did have the effect of removing one check on a powerful parliamentary majority. Then his party bruited restrictions on abortion. Then they banned [the sale of alcohol after 10 pm and curbed sidewalk cafes where people sat out late drinking beer.] Then they curbed freedom of assembly by a harsh crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters (and their analogues in Ankara and other cities).

More recently, Erdogan moved against his Muslim ally, Fethullah Gulen, deciding to close the private Muslim prep schools run by the Gulen movement. The Gulen movement has a strong corporate identity and had been an important constituency for the Justice and Development Party. (You could make a loose analogy to the role of the evangelicals in the American Republican Party. Many in the GOP are not evangelicals, but the latter have become important and are responsible for some of they party’s electoral successes.)

I don’t know whether the corruption allegations against high AKP officials are true or not. It wouldn’t be surprising, since human beings are human beings. What is more worrisome is Erdogan’s posture of intolerance toward those raising the issue. In a democracy, discontents with the government have to be available for public debate. It isn’t right to attempt to displace blame onto foreign embassies or to menace critics. It has gotten to the point where Turkey is among the more dangerous countries to practice journalism.

There has been much to admire in Erdogan’s political career– his resiliency, his ability to craft solutions to otherwise intractable problems in Turkish society and politics, his stewardship of the economy, and his care to tamp down conflicts with neighbors (Syria is a recent failure in that regard). The “Turkish model” was appealing because it had at its core an ideal of tolerance for the other, an aspiration of liberty for both the secular and the religious. Erdogan is risking all his large achievements by a defensiveness and paranoia, a discourse and a policy of intolerance. That is a shame not only for Turkey but for other countries in the region such as Tunisia and Yemen, which have a lot riding on the success of that model.

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37 Responses

  1. “Paranoia is not a mental disease but a symptom of some other underlying condition; a common cause is clinical depression.”
    This statement is contradictory and dangerous: The American Psychiatric Association lists “clinical depression” as a “disorder” (which implies “mental illness”); human statements, more so political statements, are moral issues for which the person is responsible. The suggestion that a given statement is COUSED (determined) by a medical (biological) illness is incorrect, patronizing, disrespectful. It attempts to dismiss the moral, political value of the statement as meaningless because it coming from a mentally ill person.
    If the writer is talking metaphorically e.g. illness as a metaphor, the writer should label it as such, otherwise the readers would start demanding psychotropic drugs or electric shock to treat the mental illness.
    Let’s be serious…The political situation in Turkey is very complicated, nationally and internationally. Turkey/Ottomans is and has been the trachea between E & W . The intrigues have always been Byzantine type. Infiltrations, underground political governance has been the norm. Erdogan knows it, he is not stupid, nor is he “mentally ill”,
    The only way to approximate the truth is by establishing free political speech, free press starting with the USA

    • Crazy like a fox. Ataturk himself was expert in rallying the nation against imagined treachery and not above invoking Islamist identity when it helped his cause. It’s not an accident that Tayyip heads to the Karadeniz, to make his most inflammatory speeches; he’s playing to the nationalists at these points, just as she was over the summer. (Yes, his father is from the Karadeniz, but RTE’s an Istanbullu.)

      • “Ataturd himself was…not above invoking Islamist identity when it helped his cause.”

        Can you site any example(s) of him doing so?

        • Don’t have the text handy, but if you’ve ever visited Anitkabir and read the statements on display from during the War of Independence, you can see them. You may say that it was only because of the situation, but that’s exactly my point.

  2. One inaccurate remark is the new alcohol legislation which prohibits retail alcohol sales after 10pm not restaurants or bars. This change actually brings regulation in line with other European states.

    Another dimension thats been left out is the wider struggle between Gulen community and RTE sphere AKP. Much of the police that’s been reassigned are those that are part of or weren’t able to account for the shadowy Gulen sympathizers in their respective departments. Where one should exercise caution is the motive behind the recent investigation which is politically motivated with a greater agenda similar to the Ergenekon and sledge hammer cases of the past. Between RTE and Gulen movement, I’d rather have an elected official who can be held accountable rather than a shadowy, ghost like organization infiltrate key security and judiciary apparatus.

    Nonetheless, corruption is deplorable and RTE should not forget that justice comes before loyalty and his strong stance against corruption of the previous era is what helped swing him into power.

    • Ahh, yes, those shadowy Gulen forces whom Tayyip was happily defending while they were filling the prisons with huundreds of “Ergenekon” plotters, many of whom were journalists.

      And just two weeks ago, when the 2004 memo was leaked, AKP members were openly ridiculing the idea that the police was Cemaat-infested.

      But apparently, it’s always either “Kemalists,” tIsrael, the CIA, Gulen, or the all-purpose interest rate lobby, but never the White Party

    • The alcohol laws are like some EU as far as hours, but shall we also discuss the laws about location that can and cannot sell, or the licensing restrictions on shops and on streetside tables, neither of which have anything to do with EU norms?

      • Sure lets discuss the other aspects of the recent regulatory changes concerning alcohol sales:

        1) No sale of alcohol within 100 meters of schools and places of worship. Existing alcohol sales points will be grandfathered in, meaning none will be closed down. In fact, it allows for the permit to be handed down to their children but prohibits transfer to a 3rd party. Also excluded are those with tourism licenses that cater to tourists each year.
        2) Permitted alcohol level while driving decreased from 1.0 to 0.5. For offenders caught, $350 fine and 6 months license suspension.
        3) alcohol brand promotion, sponsorship of events and product placement on TV shows restricted. International promotions such as participating in trade fairs are allowed.

        As far as street side tables are concerend, there is no national regulation on it. Its up to the individual municipalities, which in this case I presume you are referring to Beyoglu.

        In practice, alcohol is still easily found if you are looking for it. Many retail locations are still selling alcohol beyond 10pm. Overall, enforcement is still lax. So let us not get hyped up over this and take the changes for what they are without exaggerating the issue. If you ask me, many of the changes noted above are restrictions that can be found in many developed countries. Let us not forget that we are talking about a country with 99% Muslim population but the changes still allows for individual lifestyles to be enjoyed.

        • Do you actually believe what you write? Similar restrictions are found in developed countries. Sure. But those countries all have problems regarding alcohol consumption and teenage drinking. If you look at volumes of alcohol sales, Turkey is one of the least alcohol consuming countries per person. In other words, alcohol consumption in Turkey is so small that we did not need these restrictions from a point of public health. Hence, everyone knows that these restrictions are clearly ideological. Moreover, there are such hidden clauses in these restrictions, which can make alcohol sale a partical impossibility. If you live in Turkey, you would know that there is, for sure a mosque, a school or something similar within 100 meters of each other. In addition, they made rules of granting alcohol sale licences so arbitrary that local authorities can easily not grant alcohol sale permits if they really wish to do so. You are right, touristic places are largely exempt from these strict rules and that is only because Erdogan cannot yet risk losing billions of dollars of revenue from tourism which Turkish economy needs desperately.
          You are right, in a few major cities, alcohol can be accessed without major difficulties but I dare you to find a place which serves or sells alcohol in inland Anatolian cities.

          When Erdogan himself many times repeated that they pass laws because they are conservative and they take inspiration from Islam, you are humiliating yourself by trying to defend and make it look like their lawmaking is fair and square.
          And it is an age old stereotype that 99% of Turkey is Muslim. At least 20 to 25 % of Turks are rather loosely religious or hidden atheits.

    • And tends to do so over time.

      Erdogan came into office in 2003.

      I think the United States does it right in putting a hard limit on the length of a Chief Executive/Commander in Chief’s term.

      • He’s reached an informal limit set by the AKP. But we in the States know how firmly politicians hold to their term-limit pledges, don’t we?

        • You’re talking to someone who lives in what used to be Marty Meehan’s Congressional district, so…oh, yeah. We sure do.

  3. Great post Dr. Cole.

    Here is my problem with it. What exactly is the Turkish model? Western media kept talking about this for years and made the AKP popular.

    Are we supposed to be a model for capitalism to the region because the population is majority Muslim? You must understand that most educated Turk have no aspirations to be BIG BROTHERS or MENTORS to anyone.

    This is a mission that Western thinkers have bestowed upon us without us ever asking for it. Frankly USA wants to use Turkey as mini-empire tool because it doesn’t know what to do about the ME. Our answer before the AKP was “Thanks but no thanks. This is way too messy for us.”

    I wish we could still stay out of it.

  4. link to

    Don’t discount US/Israel interest in destabilizing Turkey. Turkey has operated an independent foreign policy for some time, which has miffed the US/Israel. What better way to attack than gear up the Iran sanctions meme? The bank director arrested is the bank that was named in the Congressmen’s letter as doing naughty deals with Iran.

    Much of the present scandal has been brought about by Erdogan falling out with an ex-ally, Gulen, who was telling his followers in 1999 that “you must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach the power centers. . .” Shortly after the tapes becoming public, Gulen moved to the US, where he operates a kind of cult.

    • I’m quite happy to discount the theory that the US has an interest in destabilizing Turkey.

      Where does this idea that the United States wants a less-stable Middle East come from? The US government has spent the past century making regional stability its core foreign policy goal in the region. A stable Middle East means a steady supply of oil, the absence of hostile revolutionary regimes/movements, and the avoidance of damaging oil price spikes.

      On top of that, Turkey is an important NATO ally, as well as a top-tier MENA-region ally.

      According to this “destabilization theory,” what is the United States supposed to gain from regional instability?

    • Only if the falling out about the dersaneler happened two years ago (when the investigation began) rather than last month, and only if TOKI just became a den of corruption run off the books out of the PM’s office in the last three weeks. Facts should have some bearing on the discussion.

      & while I rather detest FG, “a kind of a cult” is cute. Yes, rather like that guy in Rome who also has a large donor base and a lot of academics at conferences about his little religion. If the Nursiler are a cult, what about the Naksibendiler?

  5. Been going on for years while you’ve apologized for and excused him, hailed him as the bringer of democracy, not as the man who was replacing one deep state with another. The Cemaat is now hoist on that same petard, decrying the same things they cheered in Ergenekon./Balyoz.

    Over 120 police chiefs sacked, prosecutors replaced, dsirectives now say that the government must be informed of any probes into corruption by ministers, the usual conspiracies — it’s the CIA! it’s the Jews! — being floated.

    To anyone following the redistribution of media outlets or what little decent attempts there have been to dig into TOKI, anyone noticing that the government accounts have not been audited for years, this is no surprise.

    But of course critics were just culturally insensitive White Turks who wanted their Raki and were offended by the behaviors of these villagers, not people to be taken seriously.

    Enjoy the monster.

  6. Oh, yeah, and an indictment against BBC, CNN, and Reuters for the Gezi protests being pushed in Antalya. Wheeee!

  7. jeez, dis you really say Erdogan’s stewardship of the economy in this essay? You mean the blueprint that Kemal Dervis (CHP) devised and that Ali Babacan, since marginalized, stayed with? Or the splendid 12% yer-to-daye drop of the XU100, which has shed ~30% from its April high?

    Interesting to see, though, that you admire his neoliberal selling off of government assets for private development by his cronies. You must miss Bush.

  8. I don’t know very much about Turkish politics. Can Erdoganism – that is, the embedding of the Muslim religious right within electoral democracy, as opposed to it being hostile to electoral democracy – survive Erdogan, or is it too closely associated with him personally?

    • He didn’t invent it. Menderes was, if not an Islamist, certainly very Islam-friendly. Erbekan, Tayyip’s mentor, was an Islamist. Menderes was toppled and executed; Erbekan’s Virtue Party taken out in the “postmodern coup.”

      Tayyip did famously describe democracy as a streetcar that one rides to where one wants to get off. Apparently, he reached his stop.

  9. “Then they banned restaurants and bars from serving alcohol after 10 pm”

    Oh dear, wherever did the writer get this bit of nonsense from? I’ve been to many bars and restaurants that served alcohol way into the night, at 10pm, at 11pm, at 12pm and all the way into the early morning. Quite a peculiar thing to say.

    No, what the writer is getting confused about is the law banning “retail” sales of alcohol after 10pm. But since the vast majority of shops and supermarkets in Turkey close anyway at 10pm, that isn’t the major hindrance to getting a drink as the author would like his readers to imagine it to be.

    • Yeah, and those sidewalk cafes off Istiklal where people drink beer sitting outside can’t serve it. It is only inside.

  10. Any praise for the economic policy might also try to explain this late-action FOREX dump to rescue the Lira. Basci “guaranteed” 1.92/1USD by years end, and now they’re dumping billions to keep it under 2.1/1 delaying the inevitable and trying to massage the EOY numbers for the election. Pity whoever has to inherit this mess and get the first clean audit in years.

  11. I think the corruption allegations will weaken Erdogan in the next election, but not to the extent some observers wish it should.As long as the economy is booming, most people still will admire Erdogan. However, the spilt between Gülen and Erdogan, the inside.struggle between two Islamist groups could be a chance for the secular spectrum.However, Turkish authotarian attitudes are not just a phenomen since the AKP became a player, but is deep rooted in the authotarian policy under Attaturk and his followers. To become a democtratic society need s a civil society and this will be a process of decades.Maybe the Gezi protstests were the beginning of that process–however since no new politcal secualr and democtartic party is founded, there will be no real social power which could change the status quo.

    • Such a party has been founded, HDP, but it is weak and many will not like it because of the number of influential BDP who joined it. Unfortunately, Surri Sureyya Onder, former BDP leader who was active in the Gezi protests, will be facing Mustafa Sarigul, who has returned to the CHP that he left while criticizing Baykal’s program, in the race to unseat Kadir Topbas, the AKPli mayor of Istanbul metropolitan municipality, who cheered the police all summer.

  12. When I speak of a new secular and democratic party I don´t mean that the HDP is such an alternative. As you already mentioned the HDP is run by former BDP and CHP cadres. But what Turkey needs are uncorrupted, new politicinas who have no roots in the old parties.

  13. There are also other parameters: First: There could be an inner struggle between Gul and Erdogan, secondly: the Gulen movement could transform into a political party or go underground, third: Erdogan could form an inner circle of absolute loyalists and establish a sultanate/presidential dictatorship. However a new democratic and secular paty won´t be a development till the next elections, but in a middle and long term perspective. As Turkey still has the 10% limitation for political parties, it is unlikely that a new party will be successful in the next elections. But it should be established by the new generation of Geziprotesters and could develop like the AKP–from out of nowhere to a real political force.However if Erdogan is setting up a dictatorship this could drive the activists in underground.However: Civil society and Twitter-revolution means nothing if it isn´t organizing in a real party who is chanllenging Erdogan and the old Kemalists in the elections.This new party should be a compromise between moderate Muslims and secular forces who agree on the principle of seperation between religion and state and the seperation of power.It also could have some sort of critisim of Erdogan`s neoliberal economic policy and its negative side effects.

    • My fear/guess remains choice 3, Recep Tayyip Putin, at great cost to the country; stocks already down 30% from their April peak, lira trading near a record even as the treasury emptied $1 Billion of foreign exchange in two days.
      If Gul wins, Gulen more or less has his party.
      Gezi Partisi? I’m not that much of a utopian, either in it ability to function or its ability to get votes outside parts of Istanbul, Izmir, and a couple other cities like Eskisehir. HDP may be as close as you get in a lot of ways, though Onder’s already attacked Sarigul for his use of religious rhetoric.
      As someone reminded me a couple of days ago on another site, it wasn’t the generals that took Menderes down, so there’s always that wild card, too.

  14. But to come back to reality: The goal of a new democratic and secular party which could challenge the authoriatism of Erdogan and the Kemalist doesn´t fit the te reality of Twitter-revolutionaries. Twitterrevolutionaries are very individualistic and hedonistic, reject anything which they perceive as “ideology”or “too political”, means: the need of a broad political consensus and the organization of a politcal party. These guys are just the Pussy Riots of Turkey, more a life-style protest than being political, That is the weak point on all of these “revolutions” from Occupy Wallstreet to the Arab spring,etc.Th eold parties desillsuioned people in the term of organizing a party, becoming political and the new generation is too antipolitical to think in terms of organizing power as power is something bad.Therefore Erdogan will have an easy game and his opponents will come from the established parties and organizations.

  15. [url=]This recent essay[/url] has a rather sophisticated (imo) take on the stakes and the lead up

  16. Interesting article and analysis, but I think the label “liberal Islam” doesn´t fit to the reality of the Gulen movement and Erdogan.The Gulen movement is a secret society which doesn´t take care about popular support by an electorate or democratic controll by the seperation of power, but wants to seize power by the infiltration and usurpation of the state machinery.As long as they don´t have the power they tactically speak of liberalism, democracy,etc., but similar to Erdogan when they should get the power they will forget all these rethorics and establish a autotharian Islamic state. Don´t follyourselve with the label “liberal Islam”.That´s wishful thinking.

    • Oh, I don’t fool myself about “liberal Islam” but I do see that author’s work on occasion and have liked what I’ve seen.

  17. Erdogan has used the Fetullah Gülen movement to break the powerful position of the military in Turkey. But now the military has less power Erdogan has discovered that the Gülen movement has increased its power at the expense of the AKP.

    On top of that, the Gülen movement has received billions in support from the US. That’s why I think the days of Erdogan & Gul as prime minister and president are numbered.

    Someone who is very good informed is Sibel Edmonds of

  18. “On top of that, the Gülen movement has received billions in support from the US.”

    Could you quote any source for that thesis? Does Gulen get funds from the CIA, the US goverments, party foundations or influentuial private donors. Who exactly is “the US”? What could be the interest of the USA supporting Gulen? His more prowestern foreign policy towards the USA and Israel, his anti-Iran position?

    • That’s a question I’ve often wondered about: What is the US interest in supporting him. I’ll say that he’s making a hell of a lot of money IN the US from his network of schools and cultivating large donors for his “outreach,” and spending quite well on university professors and state legislators.

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