We’re nearly a century into Turkey’s rebirth as a modern, secular nation. But the nation today doesn’t look much like its 20th-century reformers might have imagined it.
That’s because Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government — led by the governing Islamic AKP party — are beset by a series of polarizing and destabilizing problems. These range from a sliding economy to a seething feud between Erdoğan and his opponents, largely over his increasingly autocratic governing style. All of which threaten to undercut the role that many hoped Turkey would play as a model for struggling Islamic regimes elsewhere. As Erdoğan keeps his hold on power — which he almost certainly will — Turkey could lose its chance to be the great bridge between East and West.
But things didn’t need to descend to this. From Turkey’s beginnings in 1923 and through much of the 20th century, it seemed to be a secular, nation heading toward modernity. Today, however, the nation we see is slipping on all three scores. Ankara today is a far cry from the government once run by one of the last century’s most charismatic and effective revolutionary reformers, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Today’s Turkey, replete with political turbulence, anti-government protests, and potential instability still to come, belongs increasingly to Erdoğan’s conservative governing party, the AKP — a party with distinctly Islamic roots.
What’s troubling and interesting about what is going on in Turkey is not just that the ideology of the ruling party runs so counter to the ideology that birthed it as a modern nation. The greatest danger may come from 60-year-old Erdoğan’s increasingly divisive approach and the hefty roster of anti-democratic policies he has begun to put in place — a combination that could place Atatürk’s very legacy in danger.
The Rise of the AKP
Still, it does no one any good to merely bemoan a leader’s shortcomings; it’s crucial that we understand why such leaders come to power in the first place.
For Erdoğan, a few key factors helped propel him to prominence and generate the string of electoral successes he has enjoyed since 2002.
1. The re-emergence of Islam: Interestingly, Atatürk was not just a secularist in name, but also in action; he ended Islam’s role as the state religion and banned the teaching of Islam in schools. Later, the military — seeing itself as the guardian of Atatürk’s legacy — banned Islamic parties like the one Erdoğan now leads. But over decades, such parties migrated gradually to middle ground. They gained popularity over time and signaled respect for the army’s insistence that religion not determine major government policies. This was essentially a pragmatic decision by these parties, who realized power would forever remain out of reach if they did not seek some middle ground.
Erdoğan has been careful not to push too far on the Islamic issue. But he has appealed to Turkish conservatives by removing some of the close-to-home restrictions on Islamic practice and education. For example, he permits women to wear head coverings in school. (Interestingly, the practice is not at all remarkable in the U.S., but the act was revolutionary in Turkey.
2. Money talks: Erdoğan delivered prosperity — which is difficult to argue with. His stats, until recently, are impressive: annual growth rates of around 7 percent; average annual incomes rising from $2,800 in 2001 to about $10,000 in 2011 (the year of his biggest electoral win).
3. Military downgrade: Erdoğan curtailed the power of Atatürk’s military, diluting its role in national institutions — actually jailing a sizeable number of generals and admirals.
Challenges Ahead for Erdoğan
So for the last decade, Turkey has looked like an Islamic country achieving a sought-after balance between religious and secular forces and strengthening democratically based civilian rule.
Yet something went wrong. There are the corruption scandals — fueled by leaks that Erdoğan blames on his opponents.
Perhaps above all, there is Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic style. He has reassigned police and security officials, passed a law limiting judicial independence, cracked down on the media and tightened control of the Internet — banning Twitter and YouTube during last month’s local elections, for example.
Although Erdoğan’s party continues to come out on top — ahead of its closest challenger in the locals by 18 points (46 percent to 28 percent) — he has begun to polarize politics into warring camps. In fact, Erdoğan’s challengers come in many, often odd, forms. For example, it may seem strange to outsiders that Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Sunni cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, is able to give Erdoğan so much trouble. But he has managed to put together an extensive organization dedicated to influencing politics and education. His followers, the Gülenists, have worked their way into influential positions in the Turkish police and judiciary, and are thought to be behind the leaks that tarnish Erdoğan.
And then, all politics and ideology aside, there is the simple reality that after a decade of boom, the economy has begun to sputter. Growth appears to be sliding toward the 3 percent range, and unemployment looks poised to jump. Turkey’s stock market lost 30 percent of its value during the second half of last year, and its currency plummeted 16 percent against the dollar recently. All of this has led the IMF to term Turkey’s economic choices as “unsustainable.”
So the promising future that Erdoğan’s rule seemed to portend earlier now looks seriously clouded. The prime minister is not taking well to this idea; case in point: Erdoğan’s vow last month to make the Gülenists “pay” for their opposition and hinting at mass arrests and firings. If the outside world sees him scramble like that, everything from foreign investment to business confidence will go south — while also stunting Turkey’s democratic development.
The true face of the situation will be shown in Turkey’s first-ever direct presidential election in August. Erdoğan is said to be weighing whether to run for the presidency or tinker with his party’s rules that prohibit a fourth term as prime minister. Many Turks will see either path as a power grab, especially if Erdoğan succeeds with a plan to beef up the presidency’s largely ceremonial powers.
In all likelihood, Erdoğan will retain power. But unless he dials back his autocratic tendencies, he may squander Turkey’s chance to guide other Islamic societies into the 21st century. As recently as 2011, Erdoğan portrayed himself as seeking a balance between religion and effective modern government — and helping others find that balance, too. If he abandons that path, we will have to ask: What did Atatürk do it all for?
Why you should care
The country that could help lead the Middle East into the 21st century might be gambling their chance on faltering leadership.