How Erdogan lost the liberals

His authoritarianism and the us-versus-them model is the main reason why Turkey lost its shining light.

Turkish President Erdogan addresses media before departing New York
Turkey's 'democracy' has become an iconic 'illiberal democracy', where a popularly elected government shrinks civil liberties and rule of law, writes Akyol [Reuters]

About five years ago, Turkey was the shining star of the Muslim world, gaining praise from both East and West. It was a booming economy and rising democracy that had finally put its overbearing military back in its barracks, overcome its age-old fears about minorities, and even decided to have “zero problems with its neighbours”.

Moreover, this impressive success was taking place under the incumbency of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and commonly dubbed as “moderate Islamists”.

Hence many around the globe and within Turkey, including myself, believed that this “New Turkey” was a much-awaited synthesis of Islam and liberal democracy.

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Something went wrong

Today, however, Turkey looks much less impressive. The country is often on international news with the crackdown on opposition media, shrinking rule of law, and increasing perceptions of authoritarianism.

The 2015 Progress Report by the European Commission, whose precedents used to praise Turkey’s reforms, documented “significant backsliding in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly”.

That is why, as Abdullah Gul, the former President and the very co-founder of the AKP, politely noted in February 2014: “Turkey’s light, which [was once] extremely bright, is not shining in the same way.”

But why? What exactly went wrong?

The hardcore supporters of President Erdogan – who now control much of the Turkish media, and want to control even more – would offer a simple answer to this question: Erdogan dared to defy the evil masters of the world – the Zionists and their allies – with his defence of the downtrodden, such as the Palestinians, and that is why a series of “coup attempts” started against him that disrupted Turkey’s peace.

Also read: AK party is back on stage with force and responsibility

Accordingly, these conspiratorial forces not only turned the whole Western media against Erdogan, but also mobilised their fifth columns inside Turkey – such as the liberals, who had in fact supported the AKP for at least a decade against Turkey’s hardliner secularists, aka the Kemalists.

Yet, for me and many other Turkish liberals, who used have great hopes about the AKP era, it is precisely this latter-day “Erdoganist” narrative that is the core of the problem: The demonisation of everybody who opposes or even criticises the powerful president as the pawns of a nefarious plot that targets Turkey itself.

Such rhetoric, which increasingly depicts political opposition as high treason, is the hallmark of not democracies but authoritarian regimes.

No legitimate opposition

No wonder the common liberal opposition to Erdogan did not actually begin with his acts of defiance in the international scene – such as his rightful stance against Israel’s war crimes in Gaza in 2009, or Turkey’s “no” vote at the United Nations Security Council against sanctions on Iran in 2010.

Had Erdogan not tried to exert so much control over society, he would not have faced so much reaction, and would not have so many ‘enemy within’.


If there was a single breaking point, it was the Gezi Park protests of June 2013, to which Erdogan responded with fury, iron fist and conspiracy theories. Since then, the opposition has become “the enemy within” or “the axis of evil”, mirroring the exact language that the old Kemalist establishment used and that the liberals always opposed.

Interestingly enough, this combative style of politics is described by Erdogan’s hardcore supporters as the fulfilment of “democracy” – but of a peculiar kind. Accordingly, since Erdogan is popularly elected, he is the embodiment of the “national will”, who cannot be protested against on the streets, or be checked by any law, rule, or principle.

So, any judicial control over politics is despised as an illegitimate “tutelage” over the “national will” – as argued against the Constitutional Court last year when it annulled the government’s decision to shut down Twitter.

Similarly, the whole media is called to bow down to the “national will” – the president – and is demonised as treacherous when it disobeys. Disobedient media bosses are threatened with astronomical tax evasion fines or mind-boggling “terrorism” investigations.

As a result, eight Turkish major newspapers changed hands over the years, all of them turning from centrist or critical papers into unabashed propaganda outlets for the government.

Illiberal democracy

That is how Turkey’s “democracy” has become an iconic “illiberal democracy” in which a popularly elected government shrinks civil liberties and rule of law.

A gas-masked man during Istanbul's Gezi Park protests near Taksim Square in June 2013 [EPA]
A gas-masked man during Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests near Taksim Square in June 2013 [EPA]

Notwithstanding, this doesn’t mean that Erdogan is wrong on everything, or that he is always rightly accused. His Syria policy is debatable, but he has supported not the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but other Islamist rebels that fight both ISIL and the Assad regime, and Turkey’s policy of welcoming more than two million Syrian refugees is only noble.

Erdogan’s alert about a “parallel state” is not wrong – but his revengeful and merciless war against the entire Gulen movement is – and the PKK he has been fighting lately is indeed a serious threat for Turkey.

Finally, while Erdogan has many fanatical supporters, he has many fanatical opponents as well, and the opposing propagandas of both sides can be similarly detached from reality.

Also read: Who is the winner of Turkey’s elections?

Yet Erdogan’s authoritarianism, the us-versus-them model in place, and his cult of personality – which includes the sidelining of the two key moderate AKP founders, Abdullah Gul and former Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc – are the main reasons why Turkey lost its “shining light”.

My biggest disappointment is that it did not have to be this way. Had Erdogan not tried to exert so much control over society, he would not have faced so much reaction, and would not have so many “enemies within”.


Yet ultimately, Erdogan is here to stay and preside over Turkey at least until 2019, and perhaps longer. If he could show another example of his much-hailed political genius by striving for (now unexpected) national reconciliation instead of seeking absolute dominance, that would be welcome.

The more moderate Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, especially, can play an important role in such appeasement of societal antagonisms, if Erdogan leaves him some room to lead.

Meanwhile, the opposition forces should face their own failures and reinvent themselves to offer a new vision – not a reactionary and desperate anti-Erdoganism, nor nostalgia for the old Kemalist era, but a truly “new” Turkey where every citizen is free, equal and respected.

The very vision, in other words, that Erdogan initially offered – and, alas, even seemed to deliver.

Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist, regular opinion writer for Al-Monitor, and author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.