Is the Sultanate Back? What happened to Erdoğan’s Turkey
Disclaimer: I have worked in Turkey from September 2013 to December 2014, first as a Lecturer and then as an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at Kırıkkale University. Although as an analyst I strive to be as impartial as I can, I know that nostalgia might play its role as well.
Turkey, the Role Model
When I began my work in Turkey, the country was without a doubt the role model for the “Middle East”. The arrival of the AKP (acronym for Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, aka Justice and Freedom Party) revolutionized Turkey that had been rattled by a series of military coups and weak civil governments. AKP, founded in 2001, came to power in 2002 and reorganized the country.
Turkey became a beacon for democratization and that attracted the attention of Washington and Brussels. The long frozen dialogue for the accession to the European Union was slowly re-opened and Prime-Minister Erdoğan became the face of the extraordinary political reforms happening on the ground. Alongside with the democratization of the political arena, came the modernization of public bureaucracy leading to greater efficiency and responsiveness.
Turkey’s economy was also transformed and as of August 2015, according to IMF data, Turkey had the world 18th largest nominal GDP, right after Netherlands (17th) and above Saudi Arabia (19th). Turkey service sector was dramatically reshaped by AKP’s policies and internal markets also faced interesting transformations. It was a proud, vibrant and confident Turkey that received me in September 2013.
The Arab Season gamble, a descending journey
Analysts, experts and pundits have been trying to understand where things began to change. Although it is undeniable that the mysterious rift between Erdoğan and Fettulah Gülen (scholar in self-imposed exiled at the USA) played a significant part; I would argue that it were the Foreign Policy gambles that severely transformed Turkey. The evolution of the Arab Season made Erdoğan increasingly paranoid. I was there during the March 2014 Twitter blockage…
What happened? Ahmed Davutoğlu (initially Foreign Minister now Prime-Minister of Turley) reformed Turkey’ Foreign Affairs introducing the concept of Strategic Depth. In short, Turkey had to continue its path of diplomatic alignment with the West while becoming a “game setter” in the Middle East. Turkey wanted to claim its role as regional leader having into account all that had been said about Turkey’s miraculous transformation.
With the turmoil generated from the unpredictable Arab Season, Turkey devised a strategy to implement its Strategic Depth concept and to become a regional leader. The idea was to place Muslim Brotherhoods (Sunni-oriented) friendly to Ankara across the Middle East. Things started quite well. In Tunisia, Ennahda (Renaissance Party) won 89 seats at the elections of October 2011 for the Constituent Assembly. In Yemen, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (Sunni) assumed office in February 2012, following the highly contested President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Shia) that was in Saudi Arabia for medical reasons. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi won the Presidency in the elections of May/June 2012.
The next step had to be the removal of Bashar al-Assad from the presidency of Syria, but that has proven (until now) to be a more laborious task. Assad remains in power as of today and Syria imploded into a multi-layered civil conflict. Post-Gadhafi Libya also challenged Turkey’s intentions, with the country breaking into tribal strife and with three rival Parliaments claiming Sovereignty over Libya.
In 2013 things started to change for the worst, for Ankara. In June 2013, Mohammad Morsi was removed from the presidency by the Egyptian military following a series of massive street protests. In October 2014, Ennahda lost the parliamentary majority it had in Tunisia to the more secular Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia). In 2014/2015 the Houthis (Shia) rebellion in Yemen led to a climate of civil conflict and to the deposition of President Mansur Hadi. Turkey had gambled during the turbulent Arab Season and had lost all the gambles…
From Competitive (Democratic) Pluralism to Limited (Autocratic) Pluralism
With Turkey losing the soft power it had acquired in Middle East, Prime-Minister Erdoğan goes to elections in August 2014 and wins the Presidency with almost 52% of the votes. The election of August 2014 produced the first President of Turkey elected directly by popular scrutiny (until then the President was chosen by the members of the Parliament), following the Constitutional referendum of October 2007.
Although the nearly 52% of votes were a good result, they were not satisfactory for a man who had planned to transform the Parliamentary Republic of Turkey into a Presidential Republic, with him at the center. Besides the Constitutional reform over the transformation of the nature of the political regime, which is still currently under debate, the AKP also introduced new electoral laws that increased the threshold at parliamentary elections to 10%.
The new threshold (the highest in the world, followed by Russia and Kazakhstan both with 7% of threshold) was tested in the parliamentary elections of June 2015 were the AKP party lost its parliamentary majority, mostly due to the good performance of the HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party), and consequently the ability to form government and to advance with the Constitutional reform under Presidential patronage.
Once again, President Erdoğan decided to gamble. Although it was the AKP that was in need of coalition partners to maintain itself in power; it was also the AKP that was the most unable political force to persuade others to join them. The country faced political instability and in November 2015 new parliamentary elections were called. AKP recovered its majority (mostly at the expenses of the nationalist MHP) but was unable to conquer enough mandates to impose the Constitutional reform. Negotiation and power exchanges will still be needed…
Curiously raising the threshold at parliamentary elections to 10% and aiming to transform Turkey into a hard-liner Presidential system was not enough. At the same time that political reforms were being implemented and/or discussed, civil rights were being targeted. Temporary bans on Twitter and YouTube opened the “hunting season”. Coming from a country that reconquered its liberty in 1974, it was all but awkward to wake-up on March 20, 2014…
Currently there is also a governmental crackdown on freedom of press and on the right to do meaningful opposition. The Turkey that I left by personal choice, in December 2014, was already on a descending road (with extreme-nationalist and sometimes xenophobic comments being less and less abnormal) and to my horror things seem to be worsening by the day.
The “shy” Sultan’s arrival?
The political transformation of Turkey has not been the sole interest of Erdoğan’s AKP. There is also an attempt to reverse some of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk legacies, namely secularism and the rapid Westernization of Turkey. I was still in Turkey when President Erdoğan spoke for the first time of his willingness to re-impose the Arabic Ottoman alphabet.
The focus of the discussion in Turkey was not so much with the plan, but with the incapacity to carry on the plan. There are no enough instructors and academics in contemporary Turkey that know Ottoman language that well to make it feasible its reintroduction at all schools. What was less debated, but its more relevant in my view, was the clear undermining of Atatürk’s Westernization of Turkey.
The law of 1928 that reintroduced a Latin alphabet was made, not out of a fetish but, to ease the rapprochement between Turkey and the West. Its reversal would damage relations with Washington and Brussels and would not ensure a deeper level of diplomatic interaction with the Arab world. Luckily, I was not in Turkey to ear the recent praise of the Ottoman harem life made by the First Lady of Turkey. That, I have to say, deserves no further comment.
The other pillar of Atatürk being eroded by President Erdoğan is secularism. It is quite interesting that religiously oriented schools (İmam Hatip schools) have increased their number of students from around 60.000 students in 2002 to 1,600,000 students in 2015. In September 2015 Erdoğan attended the ceremonies of the opening of the first İmam Hatip high school in Istanbul. The move made some Western bells ring.
Reversing, slowly but steadily, the legacy of the founder of Turkey’s Republic is not the end game for the current President. It has become more and more apparent that the final goal is the reinstatement, at a symbolic ceremonial level, of a neo-Ottoman styled Presidency. Erdoğan’s know that he lacks the blood claim to fully reinstate the Sultanate but he also knows (watching Turkmenistan’s or Russia’s Presidencies) that he can do it by other less direct means.
The reinstatement of the Ottoman glory, under Erdoğan’s leadership is a good reason to justify the construction of the colossal, Seljuk-inspired, Presidential Complex with at least 1150 rooms and with an annex compound with additional 250 rooms for the President’s family. Naturally, there is little surprise in me telling that the guards inside the Presidential compound wear, in formal occasions, traditional Ottoman and Seljuk styled clothes. This might be cruel, but nowadays President Erdoğan seems to struggle between is complex of royal grandeur (like el-Sisi in Egypt, or Berdimuhamedow in Turkmenistan) and the awareness of his non-Noble origin. The bill of this inner fight, sadly, is and will be paid by Turkey’s amazing people.