Can Turkey be a “source of inspiration for democratizing Arab states,” despite a “gathering air of authoritarianism” around Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP)?
During Erdogan’s decade in power, Turkey has refuted the conventional wisdom that when it came to “Islam, democracy, and secularism, one could have any two but never all three,” writes Nora Fisher Onar, an assistant professor at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.
And that’s not the only reason the ‘sick man of Europe’ has “re-emerged as a regional power,” note David Gardner and Daniel Dombey:
Its economy has grown at near-Chinese speed, spreading wealth and healthcare, schools and roads, while a new breed of “Anatolian tiger” entrepreneurs has risen up against the incumbent handful of business conglomerates. The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), refined from the debris of two banned Islamist parties into a Muslim version of Christian democracy, has sidelined the secular elites that had ruled as of right the republic created by Ataturk.
On the downside, they observe, Turkey last year “leapfrogged Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the number of cases brought against it at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, its 159 cases outstripping Russia’s 121.” This month’s release of Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, journalists detained for investigating the Gulenists, a semi-clandestine Islamist movement, “still leaves 104 journalists in jail, 69 of them from the Kurdish minority and more than Iran (42) and China (27) combined……The old joke about committing journalism has real bite.”
In a note from prison, Dexter Filkins writes, Sik wrote that the case against him had been fabricated by the Gulenists: “The ongoing investigations are not a democratic process; they are an attempt to silence the voices of opposition.”
“The cumulative impact of Sik’s reporting, including the way he detailed how the Gulenists have sought to manipulate the judicial process and put sympathizers in key positions, is devastating,” says analyst Gareth Jenkins.
Civil-military relations in Turkey have undergone a double-sided transformation over recent decades. As a consequence of the army’s intermittent censure, political Islamists had to moderate their demands and practices; simultaneously, the army….increasingly relied on civilian allies to pursue its agenda vis-à-vis the AKP. Eventually, the military relinquished control of crucial institutions (like the National Security Council), and the final showdown over control of the presidency in 2007 was fought not with bullets and tanks, but with web declarations, public rallies, and court cases.
“A similar tipping point regarding civilian control of the state is hardly a foregone conclusion in countries still under transition where national militaries continue to exert a dominant presence in political life,” Onar suggests.
Furthermore, she writes in Sada, the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab reform journal, Arab states have not experienced the “trajectory of Turkey’s economic development—particularly, the export-driven rise of the middle class experienced by religious constituencies across the Anatolian periphery—something that has underpinned the AKP’s moderation, political success, and interregional presence.”
But the AKP’s moderation was the result of clear constitutional red lines and the sobering effect of the military’s Damocles Sword, analysts suggest, but in their absence or dilution, the party’s illiberal instincts are unconstrained.
“Erdogan and the AKP displayed a clear sense of purpose in reducing the political influence of the army,” says Sinan Ulgen, head of the liberal Edam think-tank in Istanbul. But they “failed to show the same dedication to building a stronger democracy. The quality of Turkish democracy today remains problematic due to an intolerance of dissent, the weakening of individual freedoms and lack of constraints on executive power.”
On taking office, Erdogan and the AKP feared and expected resistance from Turkey’s derin devlet, or “deep state,” writes The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins:
The deep state is a presumed clandestine network of military officers and their civilian allies who, for decades, suppressed and sometimes murdered dissidents, Communists, reporters, Islamists, Christian missionaries, and members of minority groups—anyone thought to pose a threat to the secular order, established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk. The deep state, historians say, has functioned as a kind of shadow government, disseminating propaganda to whip up public fear or destabilizing civilian governments not to its liking.
Erdogan not only outmaneuvered the deep state’s hardline secularists, Filkins notes, he also presided over Turkey’s transformation into what some observers consider “an indispensable Islamic democracy,” presenting a template for Arab transitional states:
But Erdogan’s rule has another, darker side, which the West seems intent on ignoring: an increasingly harsh campaign to crush domestic opposition. In the past five years, more than seven hundred people have been arrested, including generals, admirals, members of parliament, newspaper editors and other journalists, owners of television networks, directors of charitable organizations, and university officials. Some fifteen per cent of the active admirals and generals in the Turkish armed forces are now on trial for conspiring to overthrow the government.
“There’s no way you agree to disagree in this country,” says Mustafa Akyol, who with reservations remains an AKP supporter. “It’s tantamount to treason if you do.”
The AKP government dismisses concerns over the widespread arrests of journalists, military officers and political figures as a result of the highly contentious Ergenekon affair.
“These people who are accusing our government of autocratic tendencies or authoritarian tendencies are making a mistake,” said foreign minister Ahmet Davutogylu. But the Ergenekon prosecutions had emasculated the deep state and curbed the military’s political power. “There is only one state now,” he said.
But European parliamentarians today voiced concerns over deteriorating media freedom and laws limiting freedom of expression. Turkey needs to include civil society in drafting a new civilian constitution that addresses the need for an independent and impartial judiciary, and equal treatment of ethnic and religious communities and women.
“Before the AKP and Arab Awakening, the received wisdom was that when it came to Islam, democracy, and secularism, one could have any two but never all three,” writes Onar:
Similarly, doubts have long been expressed as to whether political and economic liberalism can thrive simultaneously in a Muslim-majority setting. Taken together, it seems that if the purveyors of Turkey Inc. can show that liberal economics goes hand-in-hand with liberal democracy in a country governed by pious Muslims, the Turkish model-in-progress may achieve fruition and offer a timely example for the region.
But Turkey’s exemplary role will likely remain a subject of dispute until an emerging “intricate power struggle” is resolved.
Hardline secularists and some Western observers claim that Turkey’s authoritarian drift is exposing the AKP’s secret Islamist agenda.
“That is a minority view,” say Gardner and Dombey, “and one contradicted by Erdogan’s public defense of Turkey’s secular system as a shield of state protecting all beliefs – including those of Islamists. At the same time, he partakes fully of a winner-takes-all political culture in which the AKP has resorted to the same methods its enemies used to try to deny it power.”
Turkey’s current political pass “can be seen as a drama within a paradox,” they suggest:
The drama is not the secularists’ specter of creeping theocracy but that the opposition has proved unelectable, trapped in the past and reliant on generals and judges to win back what it keeps losing at the ballot box. The paradox is that Mr Erdogan and the AKP, although now lords of all they survey, behave as though they were still in opposition.
The conflict likely to determine Turkey’s political trajectory, they suggest, will not be between the AKP and secular Kemalists, but between the AKP – a self-described conservative party with an Islamic orientation – and the “shadowy Islamist” Gulenist movement.
In overcoming the deep state, analysts suggest, the AKP may have also facilitated the emergence of an equally sinister parallel power structure.
In Turkey, Filkins writes:
Gulen’s followers own the newspaper Zaman and the TV channel Samanyolu, which editorialize on behalf of the A.K. Party and the Ergenekon prosecutions. (While Erdogan himself is not believed to be a Gulenist, President Gul is said to be one, as are several other senior members of the government.) Gulen is thought to have between two and three million followers in Turkey, including as many as sixty members of parliament—about ten per cent of the total.
The Gulenists insist that the organization is too diffuse to function as a political movement. But many Turks say that the Gulenists have ambitions and that these may or may not include Erdo?an. A former member of parliament who was once a confidant of Erdo?an’s told me that, in 1999, he met Gulen in Pennsylvania. Gulen, he said, told him that he had a twenty-five-year plan to take control of the Turkish state, and that this would be accomplished by a group of followers he referred to as “the Golden Generation.” “There isn’t any question that Gulen wants political power,” the former legislator told me. (A spokesman for Gulen denied that he had ever advocated “regime change.”)
The Gulenists operate a global network (right) of Islamist schools and other “clusters of invisible power” that some observers characterize as a semi-covert strategy or “creeping coup” designed to infiltrate and seize Turkey’s institutions. The movement’s success in penetrating the police, judiciary and security services has reportedly proved too much for Erdogan himself.
“There was good co-operation between the AKP and the Gulenists but at a certain point their demands became too much,” says one party insider. “They wanted to be not just in the police but other places as well, and somebody had to tell them to stop.”
But the country’s most powerful Gulenist could yet take the top job.
“With two five-year terms allowed, Erdogan could stay in power until 2024, which would make him the longest-running leader in Turkish history,” writes Filkins. “One possibility often discussed is that Gul and Erdogan will switch jobs, bringing to mind the Putin-Medvedev maneuver in Russia.”