The Unbearable Lightness of Blaming Erdogan: What Turkey Experts Are Not Telling You
Most observers of Turkey have reduced every single problem facing Turkey to one factor: Erdogan, its president. He is certainly a troubling leader, but Turkey's trials run far deeper than one man.
Turkey is making the news more and more frequently due to its foreign policy posture in the Middle East. Such attention creates a vibrant market of its own: “Turkey experts,” including journalists, academics, area specialists, and pundits (many of whom are Turkish citizens), are offering numerous insights about “what is really going on in Turkey.” Most of these analysts focus on one word — a name, actually — to explain the puzzles of Turkish politics to English-speaking audiences: Erdogan. That is, of course, the president of Turkey — Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For example, why is Turkey so ambivalent about the Islamic State? Most will tell you that either Erdogan has long been aiding and abetting the jihadist organization or he is engaging in a political maneuver that will grant him his one true wish, that is, transforming the parliamentarian constitution to a presidential one with him as a super-empowered president. What about Turkey’s recent clashes with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)? Many experts will tie this breakdown in the peace process to Erdogan’s incentives to exploit and fuel the ethnic tensions for a handful of votes that he can steal from the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) by playing the nationalist card.
What happens if you challenge this narrative? It is no doubt true that Erdogan can be, to put it mildly, extremely provocative and has lately been rocking the boat (the norm in Turkish politics) a little too hard in his game of brinkmanship. But what if you suggest that he is not the source of all of Turkey’s ills? What if you say he is not an omnipotent and omniscient mastermind operating in a political vacuum in domestic and international politics? Well, then you must either be a useful idiot or a hired pen (or, a keyboard?), serving the “sultan,” “despot,” “dictator,” or “tyrant.”
In so many ways, discussions about Turkish politics are starting to resemble a blame game with a twist, where an overwhelming majority of analysts blame Erdogan for all that troubles Turkey. “Blaming Erdogan” takes three forms, First, if Erdogan did something, anything, it must either be a bad, self-serving, or both. Second, if something is going wrong in Turkish politics, the immediate or underlying cause is, one way or another, Erdogan. If you challenge some of these “explanations,” then, well, you must be either be a secret sympathizer, a hired hand, or, at best, a fool. This is in fact the one “insight” that you do not get from most Turkish experts: Blaming Erdogan as the main and sole culprit of all that is wrong about Turkey is the current state of the art in analyses of Turkish politics.
Let’s be clear. Erdogan brought all this on himself in two ways. First, during the course of the last couple of years, he alienated and made enemies out of the Turkish intellectuals who tend to be very vocal in the English-speaking world of letters. Put simply, they are angry with Erdogan and they want him gone. An overwhelming majority of the experts who supply insights about Turkish politics, in turn, are part of this angry intellectual elite; or, if they are foreigners, they are getting their own insights from this vocal group or using them as references.
Second, that most of the intellectuals who inform global media are angry with Erdogan does not mean that he is not responsible for much of what troubles Turkish domestic and foreign politics today. Over the last four years, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rushed Turkey into a high-risk gamble in Syria by drawing on neo-Ottoman dreams and an unfounded optimism about the durability (or lack thereof) of the Assad regime. The Syrian quagmire eventually empowered two groups, the so-called Islamic State and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which then trapped Turkish foreign policy between a rock and a hard place.
Domestically, Erdogan, drunk from his 2011 electoral victory and having freed himself from the overbearing shadow of the Turkish military in politics, pushed the government into a grey area between majoritarian (as opposed to plural) democracy and outright authoritarianism, acting as the chief agent of political polarization in the country.
The problems facing Turkey, however, cannot be reduced to Erdogan’s ambitions, personality, incompetence, or omnipotence. Erdogan is an important component of the troubles surrounding Turkey, but he neither operates in a vacuum nor controls every relevant dimension.
Understanding — and seeing through — the unbearable lightness of blaming Erdogan requires exploring three dynamics: 1) how Erdogan fell from grace (in the eyes of the global media); 2) which groups of international and vocal intellectual elites are angry at Erdogan and why; and 3) how obsession with Erdogan distorts analyses about Turkish domestic and foreign politics.
Erdogan’s Fall From Grace
For almost a decade after the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey was heralded by the West as the beacon of stability in the Middle East, a “model” country where political Islam could co-exist with democracy. Erdogan was the face of these changes. He always had his critics, but the choir of domestic and international admirers drowned out their voices.
All this changed in the last two years. The Gezi Park protests of summer 2013 were the turning point. In fact, the Gezi Park protests were merely the symptom of the disease: the tendency in Turkish politics for successful political parties to slide into majoritarian democratic tendencies, usually a first step toward authoritarianism. Having secured 50 percent of the votes in the 2011 elections, Erdogan opted for polarizing the country with “us” versus “them” rhetoric and policies to solidify his authority. The attempt backfired, not only further alienating his opponents but also creating enemies from some of his former supporters.
As of now, there are very few left among the intellectual elites who still support and cheer for Erdogan. Those who still stick with him are not the cream of the crop. Such intellectuals either feel compelled to bend words and concepts to justify Erdogan’s post-2011 posture or, more commonly, utilize a conspiracy theory-laden, anti-Western rhetoric in an attempt to portray Erdogan (to domestic audiences) as a selfless hero or the only thing that stands between shadowy, yet barely defined, external enemies and Turkey’s independence. (These external enemies, according to a chief advisor of Erdogan, are using “telekinesis” to discredit and even kill his boss.)
One way or another, these people have little presence on the international stage. The insights that are aired in the English-speaking global media are offered by other intellectuals who are now, or always have been, against Erdogan.
Enter the Angry Intellectual Elites
Erdogan’s critics can be classified as the “constants” and the “newcomers.” The constants are AKP’s chief adversaries, the so-called secularists (or Kemalists), traditionally associated with the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The hardcore secularists opposed Erdogan from day one, claiming that he was just a cunning politician bent on turning Turkey into a state like Iran in which sharia dominates.
A running line among the Kemalists was “tehlikenin farkinda misiniz?” (Are you aware of the threat?), suggesting that AKP’s democratic discourse was merely a Trojan horse, a cover until Turkey was ripe for Islamist takeover. This interpretation proved to be overblown vis-à-vis the extent of Erdogan’s Islamism, further discrediting the secular elites. Kemalists were wrong about the extent of Erdogan’s Islamist tendencies, but the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies and discourse following Erdogan’s electoral victory in 2011 proved them right about his anti-democratic inclinations. Erdogan’s patronizing and increasingly intolerant rhetoric, in turn, has kept Kemalists infuriated, marginalized, and threatened.
The newcomers to the anti-Erdogan camp among the vocal intellectual elites are numerous. First, there are the so-called “liberals” who have risen to prominence in the domestic media, especially during the reign of AKP. Liberals claim that they stand for human rights, free markets, democratization, and freedom of speech. They are known for their disdain for Kemalists and especially the military, which they perceive as the biggest obstacle to a healthy democracy. Their numbers are not significant, but they have a disproportional influence on the public opinion, which they originally used to help the AKP legitimize itself, especially in its struggle with the Kemalists, not to mention the military.
Most of these liberals are now disillusioned with Erdogan.Long branded by Kemalists as “useful idiots,” many liberals have now turned against Erdogan, blaming him directly for the troubles of Turkey, fueling the Erdogan-focused discourse domestically and internationally.
Similar to the liberals, the pro-Kurdish and left-leaning Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its followers recently turned against Erdogan. Now, one can argue that the intellectuals and politicians associated with HDP did not initially put their weight (or voices) behind Erdogan as much as the liberals did, but, especially as long as the peace negotiations between the AKP and PKK (implicitly mediated by some HDP leaders) were ongoing, these groups remained relatively silent.
The elections of June 2015, in which HDP scored a stunning victory and stole a good number of parliamentary seats from AKP, when combined with the apparent failure of the peace negotiations, changed everything. Leading up to the elections, but even more rigorously after the results became clear, HDP intellectuals and politicians have been simultaneously participating in and riding on anti-Erdoganism. Age-old slogans positing that the “Turkish state is infringing the rights of Kurds,” for example, are being replaced by “Erdogan is infringing the rights of Kurds.”
Then there is the so-called Gulen movement, associated with the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen who’s been living in the United States in exile for nearly two decades. The extent and the reach of the movement are hard to ascertain, but there are at least three dynamics everyone agrees on. First, over the last decade and a half, the group achieved considerable influence in the judiciary and the police force, not to mention in mainstream and English-speaking media outlets. Second, the movement and AKP were close allies during AKP’s reign, at least until December 2013, when a “war” between the two erupted. It was members of the Gulen movement who are thought to have blown the whistle over the alleged corrupt activities of some key AKP officials as well as Erdogan’s own son. Erdogan responded with harsh rhetoric, declaring the movement to be a “parallel state” that needed to be eradicated. Third, the movement has taken the offensive against Erdogan in the global media, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) making the case that Erdogan is the underlying cause of all that troubles Turkey.
All this makes for a perfect storm for Erdogan, and not in a good way. Public intellectuals, journalists, academics, and pundits with some influence tend to belong to one of the above groups. All have a bone to pick with Erdogan, or are piggybacking on the anti-Erdogan winds. Criticize them for their reductio ad Erdoganum, and you will find yourself in the same league as Erdogan’s supporters who, for example, blame Lufthansa, the so-called “interest rate lobby,” or, telekinesis-using dark forces for the Gezi Park protests.
A Call for a More “Realistic” Account
Erdogan’s critics are right about many things, but their analyses are also filled with an obsession to frame every aspect of every major problem Turkey is facing primarily, and sometimes solely, in terms of one man.
Take the so-called Kurdish question. One near-established view among Erdogan’s critics is that he is willing to risk a full-on ethnic conflict and civil war to achieve his political objectives. It is true that Erdogan aims to consolidate his authority, perhaps for good, by transforming the constitution and establishing a Latin American-style strong presidency where he is a super-empowered president. For that, he either needs AKP to win a stunning electoral victory (which seems less likely, if not impossible, after the last election) or a solid majority in the elections and support from another party.
It is also true that, especially after the Gezi Park protests, Erdogan went to great lengths to polarize the country, either to preserve or increase AKP’s votes. It would also be difficult to refute the claim that he may force a similar polarization in the elections to come in November, this time defined in terms of ethnic lines.
Erdogan is not all-powerful, however, and he most certainly does not operate in a vacuum. Other political actors are also playing a role in the problem. For example, the opposition parties are radically divided among each other and cannot offer any balance to the AKP. In addition, the HDP’s electoral victory did not translate into a more restrained PKK or ethnic tolerance between Turks and Kurds. On the contrary, the PKK played an important role in the escalation of violence by assassinating two police officers in retaliation for a suicide bombing attack in the town of Suruc, which probably had little to do with the unfortunate officers. By continuously invoking the PKK’s captured leader Abduallah Ocalan in a very positive light (a no-no for Turkish nationalists), HDP leaders did not single-handedly fuel ethnic tensions, but they most certainly did little to defuse them.
There are other contributing factors to the crisis’ intractability. The MHP refuses to participate in any arrangement that involves the HDP (even indirectly). The CHP is strategically confused, unable to formulate a consistent modus operandi. Put simply, ethnic tensions are rising and Erdogan plays an important role in their escalation (or, could have done more to keep a lid on them), but he is not the sole driver of the crisis. We are looking at a multi-player game of chicken where different actors are speeding toward each other with no intention to step on the brakes. Erdogan is driving the largest vehicle, but it takes more than one driver to cause a pileup.
Turkey’s Kurdish question is no longer a domestic affair. In fact, thanks to the rise of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia and an organic affiliate of PKK, what happens in Syria will have direct implications for the future of the Kurdish question in Turkey. Universally championed as a capable and willing fighting force against ISIL, the YPG is gaining ground not only in Syria, but also in the hearts of many in the international community.
The YPG’s rise as a military power and its increasing legitimacy among the eyes of the Western audiences, in turn, pose a challenge to the Turkish state for two reasons. First, these developments may pave the way for the emergence of a truly autonomous Kurdish political entity in Syria right at the southern border of Turkey, which will only empower the PKK as well as Kurdish nationalism more generally. Second, the PKK is making direct use of the legitimacy and support that YPG is drawing from the West to whitewash its image as a terrorist organization (the United States formally recognizes PKK as one). Both developments are not in line with the security and strategic interests of Turkey, regardless of who is running the government.
It is true that Erdogan gambled big in Syria, lost, and eventually trapped Turkey in a strategic quagmire. One can even go further and suggest that an Erdogan-led Turkish foreign policy contributed to the weakening of the Assad regime, which then withdrew from provinces that eventually allowed ISIL and the YPG to rise to prominence, setting the stage for Turkey’s strategic dilemma over ISIL and the YPG. Yet neither Erdogan nor the AKP can control the situation now and, as far as the YPG is concerned, Erdogan and the AKP are acting not all that different from any leader or party that ruled Turkey during the pre-AKP years, especially during 1990s.
What’s the moral of the story? Erdogan certainly remains as the most important actor in Turkish politics. His most-important role in political outcomes cannot be denied. But the Turkish political landscape is complex and can hardly be explained in terms of a single person, even though Turkish political discourse has a sweet tooth for such framing. Turkey is complicated, and so is its politics. Anyone who is trying to over-simplify it is deluding herself, or you — or worse, both.
Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state-formation and production of military power, and empires. His scholarly work has appeared in numerous outlets including International Security. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.