Erdoğan’s Authoritarian Turn
It is often observed with Schadenfreude these days that Turkey’s old authoritarian demons have returned to haunt it. And Europe feels a cowardly relief that it is finally rid of the vitriolic issue of EU enlargement into Anatolia.
This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. The diplomatic and strategic price to pay for leaving Turkey to its own devices, alone to play a game of free rider in service of what it believes to be its national interests, remains to be seen. Already, it is eyeing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the club bringing together continental Asia’s authoritarian powers under the umbrella of Russia and China. It goes shopping for antiballistic missiles in Beijing, and then in Moscow, to the great displeasure of NATO. And it is moving closer to Tehran on the Iraq-Syria issue. This was the blind spot of those who were against Turkey joining the European Union: quick to complain about the cost that this would supposedly entail, they never wondered about the cost of Turkey not joining. We have reached this point, and European democracy – as well as its security – will be the great loser from this mess.
For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey joined the club of “illiberal democracies” once Nicolas Sarkozy’s election to the French Presidency in 2007 destroyed any illusion of EU membership. Brussels had no means left for dealing with Ankara: neither carrots nor sticks. The result was Erdoğan’s – increasingly personal – authoritarian shift. Within several years, he had broken the backbone of the army, of the media, of his ally Fethullah Gülen’s neobrotherhood, which had provided him with the leaders the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was lacking in its electoral victory in 2002, of the parliamentary representation of the Kurdish regionalists (or nationalists), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and of the civil, liberal and environmental opposition that had emerged across the country during the events at Gezi Park in 2013. Ahmet Insel was the first to refer to Erdoğan’s “Putinisation” or “Orbanisation”.
Until the June 2015 parliamentary elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could claim to have the support of the electorate. But he then lost an absolute parliamentary majority and embarked upon a risky leap forwards. He manoeuvred behind the scenes – at the cost of a new outbreak of the civil war in the South East – to call new elections in November, and to win them. After the attempted coup in July 2016, he lost all restraint. He custom-made a Presidential Constitution to suit his own immoderation. The AKP was under his thumb. Press freedom was de facto abolished. The November 2015 parliamentary elections and April 2017 constitutional referendum took place in a climate of police and judicial intimidation. For perhaps the first time since 1950, they were marred by suspicions of fraud. Mass purges swept through the police, the army, the judiciary, the universities, the entire civil service, and the opposition parties, condemning tens of thousands of people and their families to social death, deprived of their papers and their jobs. Elected representatives, journalists, writers, judges, lawyers, officers and civil servants languish in prison. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, alone at the commands, President of both the Republic and his party, suggests to the crowd that it should ask him to reintroduce the death penalty.
a DARING reversal
This authoritarian flashback is all the more impressive given that during his first five years in power, Erdoğan’s democratic record was not insignificant. No other Turkish leader had gone so far in recognising – culturally and politically – the Kurdish reality, or opened negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). No other leader had so clearly questioned the ethno-religious understanding of citizenship, and so publically declared themselves in favour of a “Republic of Turkey” rather than the “Turkish Republic” dear to the Kemalists. Finally, his accession to power symbolised a turn in favour of the “black Turks” that had been marginalised by the secularist “white Turks” since the 1920s. It had a social and cultural dimension that bears recall, just as it overturned the constraints of the constitutional order inherited from the 1980 military coup.
How can this reversal be explained? Only disciples of “transitology” should be surprised. The development of democracy has never been linear. The hypothesis of a hidden antidemocratic agenda that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cherished all along does not stand up to scrutiny. Whatever his secret intentions may have been, the real issue is the power dynamic established between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of democracy. Yet Europe refrained from supporting the latter, while shedding crocodile tears over the slow speed of the “reforms”. As in the Cold War period, at heart, it prefers the certitudes of authoritarianism to the vagaries of democracy, leaving the dirty work to Turkey: then, the fight against communism; today, containment of the migrants. This is how in 2015 it granted Erdoğan The Authoritarian what it had refused Erdoğan The Democrat several years earlier. The PKK didn’t play the liberal card either, oscillating between bullets and the negotiation of little authoritarian deals with the president. One can well imagine its historical leader Abdullah Öcalan bartering from his prison cell his tacit support for the move to a presidential regime against the liquidation of the HDP, whose parliamentary rise threatened his own charismatic leadership. The reaction of the two opposition parties, one ultranationalist, the other neo-Kemalist, has been inept and at odds with the new Turkey, born from ten years of AKP power, but also from far-reaching economic and social transformation. Finally, the trap of the war in Iraq and Syria has closed around Ankara, dramatising the Kurdish issue as well as the issue of public security.
It would be a mistake to lay the responsibility for the return of authoritarian rule in Turkey on Islam. Many had doubted the compatibility of the Islamic parties with democracy at the time of their electoral success in the 1990s.It would be a mistake to lay the responsibility for the return of authoritarian rule in Turkey on Islam. However, even if he draws on the resources of Muslim conservatism to underpin his legitimacy, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan relies above all on the old methods of the Kemalist regime. His conflict with the Fethullahci shows that he, too, asserts the primacy of the state over religious pluralism. His instrumentalisation of the coup attempt and Kurdish dissidence to eliminate all forms of opposition recalls the great purges that followed Sheikh Said’s revolt in 1925, in which the net was already cast wide. His repertoire is that of nationalism, or rather a national-liberalism that seeks to ensure political control of neoliberalism, as in China, Russia, Hungary or Poland. What we are witnessing is the resurgence of an authoritarian situation whose origins go back to the absolutism of Abdul Hamid II, the Committee of Union and Progress, the single party of the interwar period, and the military regimes of the 1960s to 1980s.These historical precedents are also, paradoxically, an indication of the entrenchment of the democratic idea in Turkey.
In this context, the Turkish state is not so much, as is often said, strong and autonomous in relation to society, as it is porous and penetrated by political and social forces, as illustrated by the conflict between Fethullah Gülen and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan within the administration itself. These historical precedents are also, paradoxically, an indication of the entrenchment of the democratic idea in Turkey. It has been rehabilitated on a regular basis by the exercise of the universal right to vote. From this standpoint, the result of the last referendum was incontrovertible: despite the bombardment by the AKP propaganda machine, the “no” vote prevailed in the large cities that Erdoğan had once counted on, including Istanbul, his stronghold since the 1990s.