Turkey has been branded by the West and East alike as a success story ever since the sweeping victory of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) in the 2002 elections.
The nation’s AKP leaders touted themselves as proponents of “conservative democracy”, a slogan that resonated among average Muslim Anatolians.
Indeed, parts of the country have changed for the better, and for a time, there was notable social and democratic progress. Particularly during the party’s first term – sometimes referred to as “the golden age” of Turkish-European Union relations – AKP fast-tracked reforms that were initiated by the previous government. Among these were some cosmetic improvements on the freedom of expression and minority rights.
Despite significant opposition, the AKP was re-elected in 2007 and 2011, still brandishing the “conversative democracy” card. And in this year’s local elections, held on March 30, the party secured around 45-46 percent of the vote.
All that came with the blessing of the United States, which considered President Abdullah Gul, conservative preacher and famed Pennsylvania resident Fethullah Gulen and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their “boys”. Today, two of them remain “their boys”, while the third appears to believe he is the new Suleiman the Magnificent.
Delusions of grandeur
Certainly, Erdogan’s delusions of grandeur have been fuelled by the specactularly large-scale projects – dubbed “megalomaniac” projects – he has initiated. Bridges, roads, shopping malls and an artificial waterway – none of which may be entirely bad for the country – have come into the spotlight in recent months. Admittedly, the country has also advanced economically. In May 2013, Ankara paid off its remaining debt to the International Monetary Fund and announced that the unemployment rate had fallen from 15 percent to nine percent in 2009.
There are those who claim the man and his vision are akin to ‘neo-Ottomanism’, but that is nothing short of a travesty. The AKP and Erdogan have nothing to do with the Ottomans. For one thing, it should not be forgotten that the Ottoman empire was led by highly educated people who stemmed from the many nations and religions of the empire that spanned six centuries.
But what is alarming is the slow and steady move towards autocracy. Since last year’s Gezi Park protests, there is increasing concern that the Turkish prime minister, in the words of one Guardian newspaper columnist, is becoming a “righteous, vengeful and paternalistic commissar occupying an almost unchallengeable position at the apex of the country’s political life.”
But let’s backtrack a little. Islamist parties in Turkey are a creation of US policies during the time of the Soviet Union. At the time, the US needed to garner sympathy from the Muslim republics of the Caucasus – Chechnya, Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Kabardino-Balkaria. With the fall of the Soviet Union, AKP’s existence provided another opportunity for Washington – to create a “democratic” and “western” alternative to the pseudo-liberal “Muslim” paradigm. When the US no longer needed these parties to foment trouble in the Caucasus, they shifted their strategy to create “acceptable” Islamo-democratic parties, both palatable to the West, and acceptable to more conservative Arab countries.
Despite being a world away from the west-leaning Kemalists, the AKP managed, with its new west-friendly policies, to gain sympathy in the US and the EU by following – with a measure of hypocrisy – what the West wanted from them: Democratisation, liberalism and absolute subservience.
Three reasons for failure
For a while, this was the general refrain: We liberalise the undemocratic Kemalist state, we declare a policy of “no problem with our neighbours”, we become sympathetic to all Arab regimes, we pretend to be friends with Greece, we are sorry for what happened with the Armenians, etc.
It worked for a while, but as in all states of the Near East – despite the Turks’ pretence of being part of Europe – it failed. The reason for this failure is threefold.
Firstly, the AKP is led by a culture of ignorance which abhors Kemalism – and the Kemalist elites who had held the “traditional Muslim” electorate in contempt for 80 years. The party tipped the longstanding balance of power away from westward-looking urbanites towards the rural people of the provinces – and when these masses started to emerge socially and financially from their second-rate-citizen status, they voted against the conventional parties. The emergence and empowerment of the AKP was a reaction to the Kemalist-military establishment’s longtime grip on power.
Simply put, Erdogan’s rise was fuelled by Muslim Anatolians with axes to grind against the western-secular Kemalist elite. Both, however, have been detrimental to the nation’s interests – as one extreme is usually just as bad as the other.
Secondly, the prime minister, the leader of the party’s culture of ignorance, appears to believe that he is always right, and is slowly but surely travelling the dark path towards a presidential dictatorship. There are those who claim the man and his vision are akin to “neo-Ottomanism“, but that is nothing short of a travesty. The AKP and Erdogan have nothing to do with the Ottomans. For one thing, it should not be forgotten that the Ottoman empire was led by highly educated people who stemmed from the many nations and religions of the empire that spanned six centuries.
Thirdly, growing numbers of urban youth are acutely aware of the world, thanks to Twitter and other social media networks – despite attempts to ban two of them in the country. They are thirsting for more democracy, not less.
If Turkey manages to grow economically, in the long run, the AKP will no longer serve the purpose it once did for their formerly disenfranchised voters – who, having now emerged socially and economically, will also demand more democratic accountability.
In 2023, the republic will celebrate a century since its establishment, and as the date approaches, there remains a real hope that the citizens of Turkey will finally witness the inevitable victory of democracy over autocracy.
Osman Rifat Ibrahim is Chairman of the Royal Mohamed Ali Institute in Lisbon.