Back to the future in Turkish politics?


As Turkey celebrates its 91st anniversary as an independent state since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a modern republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, much of today’s tumult in its region is eerily reminiscent. Having once ruled from Istanbul through Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem to Tripoli, no country has more at stake than Turkey; and no leader has more to prove than its first popularly elected president: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has always sought to overturn the effects of early Republican Kemalism. Claiming that his domestic win was a victory for all these regional capitals he even stated that, “The only loser is the status quo.” Having set 2023, Turkey’s centennial, as the deadline for his ambitious slate of reforms, Erdoğan will be celebrating this Republic Day as the first president outside of Ataturk’s shadow as he plans for the next decade ahead.

In the last decade, under Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule, momentous strides in development, together with an increase in Ankara’s political activism abroad, have undoubtedly positioned Turkey as an emerging power.  The weakening of the traditional centers of Arab influence, namely Iraq, Egypt and Syria, has also heightened Turkey’s role in regional and global affairs.  Unfortunately, the future risks looking a lot like the past.  Two recurrent themes—the over-concentration of executive power and destabilizing dynamics of exclusionary nationalism—have remained perennial features of Turkish politics and could again hinder Turkey’s ability to lead. Therefore as modern Turkish leaders look towards its centennial as a moment of global arrival, learning from the past and not repeating certain mistakes will be critical for reaching the full potential of this “new Turkey.”

Kemalist policies of the 1920s and 1930s, just like the AKP’s recent accomplishments, were initially lauded for making phenomenal strides in terms of development and infrastructure. At its root, however, the Kemalist project was deeply marred by a tendency to aggressively silence opponents, to concentrate too much power at the very top, and to use that power to quash minority rights and majority freedoms. The running narrative among the AKP’s critics today claims that a similar, albeit more gradual, dynamic is again at play, as the current regime has eroded institutional checks-and-balances and eliminated its domestic competitors one by one.

According to its opponents, the AKP first decimated the capacity of the Kemalist old-guard in an unrelenting dragnet of court cases launched under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s tenure in 2007 to root out “enemies of the state.”  The Turkish military’s ability to intervene in politics was dramatically reduced as a result.  Next, came the widely publicized rupture between the AKP and its long-time ally, the ever-elusive Gulen Movement in late 2013.  The AKP’s victory in this battle was recently cemented by two developments. The first was Erdoğan’s unequivocal victory as the first popularly elected president last month. The second, and much less publicized, centered around a consolidation of AKP power within the state, including the September nationalization of the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) and the October 12 mini-elections of Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), a body tasked with overseeing promotions and disciplinary actions for judges and prosecutors. 15 of 22 HSYK members are now openly backed by the AKP government, limiting the Gulenists’ ability to challenge the regime through the judiciary, once a major power base for the movement.  Simultaneously, Kurdish groups within Turkey are taking to the street, alleging that the AKP’s failure to rescue Syrian Kurds in Kobane means that the government has turned on them too and as a result the cease-fire with the PKK could unravel.

Three factors have made the Turkish government’s creeping over-centralization of executive power and exclusionary nationalism difficult for outsiders to decipher and/or acknowledge.

First, the West’s obsession with understanding the rise of “moderate” Islam caused many analysts to disregard the plight of Turkey’s besieged opposition.  Studying the political fortunes of old guard Kemalists with blood on their hands and a penchant for military coups was simply not in vogue among Western scholars in the last decade.  The academy (as well as Washington and the media for that matter) found “moderate” Islamists who embraced capitalism and European Union membership to be much more fascinating and attention-worthy. There was also the fleeting hope that Turkey under the AKP could serve as a model for Muslim countries in transition from Tunisia to Indonesia.

Second, Turkey’s troubled history of military coups and repression enabled Erdoğan to cleverly cloak his illiberal political tactics in liberal populist rhetoric.  Over the course of the last six years, arrests and trials that would have come under heavy scrutiny elsewhere were dismissed in Turkey as a “democratic deepening”, the “normalization of civil-military relations”, and the “end of state tutelage.” Given that Kurds, leftists, Islamists, and genuine liberals alike all suffered under the repressive tactics of military rule at one point or another, no viable coalition formed to oppose Erdoğan’s dismantling of the old guard.

Finally, the egregious injustices of Arab dictators and the rocky transitions following the Arab Spring eclipsed Turkey’s domestic woes from 2011 to the present, which seem minor when compared to the problems elsewhere in the region. With Syria and Iraq in complete disarray, Libya risking collapse, Jordan and Lebanon overflowing with refugees, Iran pursuing a nuclear capability, and Egypt embattled in a protracted constitutional crisis the West needs its Turkish Muslim ally now more than ever if it wants to influence regional developments.  This fact certainly has not been lost on Erdoğan, who has confidently ignored domestic challenges to his own authority, first with Gezi and now with more serious Kurdish unrest.

Having initially emerged in 2002 as the anti-corruption reformist party in Turkey that unified conservative Muslim populism with the pragmatic Anatolian business interests and liberal pro-democracy urbanites, the AKP’s time to live up to its promises is running out after over a decade in power. Blaming the ills they inherited on the deficiencies of Kemalism and the legacy of the Cold War is no longer sufficient nor credible given the absolute control over the state they now enjoy. If modern Turkish leadership is to avoid falling into the very same traps for which they criticized Kemalism, they must begin by renouncing bad habits and acknowledging the new conditions that require a change of course.

Starting with the Kurdish question, long understood as a “domestic” problem for those countries with Kurdish minorities (Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria), Ankara must acknowledge that it has assumed a regional and international character.  With the disintegration of centralized authority in Iraq and Syria, Kurdish groups have achieved new platforms from which to exert autonomy, strength, and influence without achieving real unity.  The unresolved Kurdish disputes festering in multiple, adjacent countries could create a vicious spiraling “security dilemma”-like dynamic.  Under current conditions, no state with a sizable Kurdish population can realistically ignore a breakdown or a change in the status quo of Kurdish-state relations elsewhere, thereby fusing “soft” domestic issues of individual-rights and recognition with hard-power questions of national security in such a way that neither can easily be resolved.

Much of the recent criticism on Turkey has focused on Ankara’s frayed relationships in the wider region and frosty reception in Washington, but these critiques fail to expose how these problems link back to a complicated set of domestic issues in Turkey itself. Unfortunately unlike at the beginning of the Republic’s history where “Peace at Home, Peace Abroad” were more easily coupled, the domestic and regional today cannot be as easily disentangled. Therefore Ankara must start with getting its own house in order where it has the most control as opposed to pointing to shadows of the past or regional developments it has less control over. So while it is fair to ask how modern Turkey is projecting its power abroad, what is especially critical is how Ankara is concentrating power at home and how this process could impact its ability to lead in the future.

If the AKP wants its political success to continue and Turkey’s regional influence to grow, it must do everything possible to avoid the pitfalls of the past—concentrating too much power at the top and falling back on exclusionary nationalism. As a NATO ally with relations to all major regional and global powers, Turkey should act as a cautious broker, working to convince its neighbors that the long-term benefits of peace and economic development will certainly trump any immediate spoils of repression and war.  To do so, however, Turkey will have to lead both through example and through direct engagement.  Silencing domestic opposition and igniting exclusionary, nationalist rhetoric are the traps of the past and risk preventing Ankara from doing either. To achieve the government’s stated goal for its 100th birthday, Ankara must begin making the most of the coming years so it will be the decade of the future, and not a lost decade that brings Turkey to the past.


Kristin Fabbe is an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, a research fellow at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow.

Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and previously served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State.  He is a contributor to War on the Rocks and the views expressed are his own.


Image: Randam, CC