The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot
Last weekend, years of pent-up fury and frustration erupted into anti-government demonstrations as tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul to protest the increasing authoritarianism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The protests quickly spread to more than a dozen cities across the country. In Taksim Square in the center of Istanbul, the police repeatedly tried to disperse the demonstrators with pepper gas, pressurized-water cannons, and plastic bullets. Dozens of demonstrators were injured, many of them critically. But the number of protesters continued to grow. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, as the world watched on television, Erdogan was forced to admit defeat and withdraw the police, allowing the demonstrators to occupy Taksim Square.
Ironically, the protests came just two weeks after Erdogan paid a visit to Washington, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the relationship between their two countries as being “rooted in democratic values, freedom, pluralism, and justice.” Kerry’s paean was just the latest in a series of eulogies lavished on Erdogan and the moderate Islamism of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the Obama Administration, which appears to have singled out Turkey as a role model to which other predominantly Muslim countries should aspire. Erdogan himself has made no secret of his hopes that, as new regimes emerge in the Arab world, they will look to Ankara for leadership—and enable him to realize his ambition of creating a neo-Ottoman sphere of Turkish influence in the Middle East.
Yet it seems fair to say that this hopeful description of the values that Erdogan and the AKP represent, which are intended to serve as a beacon for Arab countries that have sunk into turmoil since the 2011 outbreak of the Arab Spring, is largely a fiction. Far from serving as an example of the leader of a Muslim country with democratic values, Erdogan has increasingly begun to resemble the authoritarian potentate of popular caricature. Nor has Turkey shown much of an ability to influence events in the rest of the Arab world, beginning with its flailing intervention in the Syrian civil war. The question of why the “Turkish model” appears to be failing is therefore an urgent one. Is there something wrong with the model of Islamist democracy that Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush have both championed so ardently? Or is the problem Tayyip Erdogan?
Erdogan’s bludgeoning rhetoric and ability to connect with the average voter have made him the most successful politician in modern Turkish history. His party, the AKP, first took office in November 2002. It has since been re-elected twice, most recently in June 2011, when it won 49.8 percent of the popular vote. Opinion polls suggest that support for the AKP is currently running at around 53-54 percent. The opposition parties remain weak and divided and appear unconvinced of their own chances of ousting the AKP.
The AKP’s electoral success is largely attributable to the energy, cunning, and raw political charisma of Erdogan himself. While some party members resent Erdogan’s abrasive self-confidence and autocratic management style, few are bold enough to confront him—not least because they know how much their own political careers owe to his electoral appeal among the Turkish masses. As a result, Erdogan has increasingly concentrated political power in his own hands. Relying on a small inner court of trusted advisers rather than the career bureaucrats in the civil service, Erdogan has the final say on every aspect of AKP policy, with the result that Turkish politics and policy-making have become both deinstitutionalized and highly personalized.
Disturbingly, the longer Erdogan has remained in power—and particularly since the election of June 2011—the more he has appeared to regard himself as the embodiment of the national will and to identify his own views, values, and prejudices as those of the entire Turkish population. Over the last year, this has led him increasingly to try to re-shape Turkey according to his own personal tastes. For example, in November 2012, the makers of a popular television series set in the 16th-century reign of Suleyman the Magnificent were forced to change both its script and its costumes after Erdogan publicly complained that it failed to reflect the piety of the Ottoman court and focused too much on palace intrigues rather than military campaigns. In April 2013, Erdogan abruptly announced that he had decided that ayran or “buttermilk” was now Turkey’s national drink. No one else was consulted.
Erdogan has long inveighed against the use of alcohol. Since it came to power, the AKP has more than doubled the taxes on alcoholic beverages and effectively banned it from all state and municipal premises. On May 24, 2013, the government tightened legislation still further by banning all advertisements for alcohol and forbidding the issuing of new licenses to sell alcohol to any premises located within 100 meters of an educational establishment or place of worship. Turkish law now also requires all depictions of alcohol in movies or on television to be obscured by being blurred, on the grounds that they would otherwise encourage people to drink.
Erdogan has disingenuously dismissed suggestions that the new restrictions on alcohol are religiously motivated, arguing that they are prerequisites for public health—despite the fact that similar strictures are not applied to other items that are generally considered to be harmful to the public, like, say, guns. On May 28, 2013, in an alarming demonstration of his apparent belief that the AKP now owns the public space, Erdogan blithely dismissed criticism of the new alcohol law. “We have not outlawed the consumption of alcohol,” he told a meeting of the AKP parliamentary party. “People can still buy alcohol and drink it in the privacy of their own homes.”
While it is possible to dismiss Erdogan’s war on alcohol as a personal preference, or a pious foible, it is harder to dismiss the use of the police and the courts to stifle dissent. In recent years, more than one thousand actual or suspected opponents and rivals of the Turkish Islamist movement have been charged in a series of highly politicized trials, such as the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations. Much of the evidence in the trials has clearly been fabricated and planted in the homes and offices of the accused. In September 2012, a total of 331 serving and retired members of the Turkish military, once the dominant power in Turkish politics and social life, were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for alleged involvement in plans for a military coup. Prosecutors claim that plans for the coup were saved to a CD on 5 March 2003—even though the judges in the trial accepted forensic analysis showing that the documents in question had been written using Microsoft Office 2007. Faced with such blatant manipulation of the judicial system, it is hardly surprising that most Turks are now afraid of publicly criticizing Erdogan, the AKP, or other members of the Turkish Islamist movement.
Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism comes at a time when he is attempting to change the Turkish constitution and replace the country’s parliamentary system with one in which all political power is concentrated in the office of the presidency—without, as is the case in countries such as the United States, any system of checks and balances. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Erdogan plans to introduce the new system in 2014, when he will stand as a candidate in Turkey’s presidential elections.
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