How Erdoğan Has Reshaped Turkish Politics

Over at The Monkey Cage I have a piece on what the corruption scandals in Turkey mean for Turkish politics. A brief snippet:

Leaders who see themselves as infallible and who have no institutional constraints on their ability to make policy don’t leave power willingly. This can include leaders elected democratically. They weaken political institutions in their campaign to fend off challengers and remain in office. So whether or not Erdoğan survives is less important for Turkey than the damage being done to Turkish institutions, which in turn poses a real challenge for American interests in the Middle East that depend heavily on a strong Turkey.

Follow the link for more.

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Turkish Politics is Exciting Again

From about 2002 to 2013, Turkish politics was boring. The AKP had come to dominate the political system, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had come to dominate the AKP. The Turkish Armed Forces, having seemingly expended its last strength pushing Necmettin Erbakan out in 1997, was moving in slow motion, unable or unwilling to confront the AKP government and stop the hemorrhaging of its own autonomy and power. No credible political alternative existed to either Erdoğan or the AKP, leaving elections to be more about how much stronger the two might get than a real contest for power.

The outbreak of the Gezi protests in May followed by this week’s anti-corruption probe turns everything on its head. The latter, in particular, represents the most serious threat to Erdoğan’s power since 2002. It’s clear now that the AKP’s dominance has its limits; significant and various groups within Turkish society and politics don’t accept the increasing authoritarianism of the party or its leader. What’s not clear is how long opposition to the AKP can be maintained, and what the outcome of this very public clash might be. But some things that bear watching are:

1. It is, as Michael Koplow reminds us, part of a long-simmering rivalry between the Justice and Development Party and the Gülen movement. Both are powerful and entrenched in the Turkish polity and in society, which potentially makes this struggle very destructive of Turkey’s institutions. Erdoğan’s decision to eliminate the dershanes (preparatory schools designed to help Turks study for university entrance exams but run by Gülen), the anti-corruption investigation itself (which is looking into banks, politicians, and business enterprises), and the AKP’s campaign of dismissing police chiefs and investigators (widely seen as a response to the anti-corruption probe) will leave some gaps in important Turkish institutions. How—or whether—they are filled could have long-term effects.

2. Was 2002-2013 an incubation period? The rise to power of Erdoğan and the AKP was facilitated by the infighting and self-inflicted, mortal wounds of the secular parties, most of which vanished by 2002, and the unrepentant radicalism of Erbakan and the Welfare Party. This left the political field open to the AKP, without any serious challengers. It might be that rivals and opposition parties needed that time to recharge and re-form. I’m skeptical of such a process, since neither of the two existing non-AKP parties (The Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party) have the public support, organizational reach, or political savvy necessary to directly challenge the AKP and its leaders; and there aren’t any viable alternatives on the horizon either. But maybe in retrospect something else will be obvious.

3. The economy. I think that while both Gezi and the current anti-corruption probe pose serious challenges to the AKP and Erdoğan, there is still a long way to go before either loses power. These political processes might undermine their ability to protect their interests and promote loyal allies, but per my second point, it won’t matter without a political alternative. But the economic fallout of this instability could have a larger, longer, and more immediate effect. And because much of Erdoğan’s popularity rests on economic development and the economic gains that Turks have reaped since the 2000s, his and the AKP’s allure will be tarnished if these trends stall significantly or are reversed.

4. Is there hope for Abdullah Gül? Observers have long wondered about the polite rivalry between Erdoğan and Gül, the two preeminent leaders of the AKP. Conventional wisdom is that their respective powers are locked into a zero-sum game. On this point, Henri Barkey has a very interesting piece at Al-Monitor discussing whether Gül will, in fact, be the ultimate beneficiary of the Erdoğan-Gülen spat.

5. Finally, how will all of this affect Turkish foreign policy? Ankara’s international policy is in flux since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, but it hasn’t been stable since the end of the Cold War. Given Erdoğan’s tendency to see international conspiracies everywhere, he is likely to emphasize this point as part of his reaction to the anti-corruption probe. But more worrisome is how distracting this will be to Turkey’s efforts to construct a viable foreign policy in the region. Given Turkey’s economic and diplomatic weight in the Middle East, a Turkey that staggers around without a clear sense of direction will make resolving the region’s problems that much more difficult. And as Turkey has trouble getting others to take it seriously again, it will continue to feed Turkish perceptions of Otherness, superiority, and wounded pride, undermining its ability to look after its own interests and work constructively with allies.

Erdogan’s Democracy

Yesterday at The National Interest I analyzed the conditions that helped lead to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP’s particular understanding of democracy. I also considered how the United States should respond to the Turkish protests:

The protests that have roiled Istanbul, Ankara, and several other cities in Turkey over the weekend have caught most observers by surprise. But the conditions that led to them—and shaped the government’s reaction—have been building for some time. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged out of decades of a particular Islamist experience in Turkey, which has shaped its understanding of democracy and the role of government. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have internalized this experience to an even greater degree. All this makes the demonstrations in Turkey a particularly difficult thing for the United States to respond to.

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Taksim Square Meets Rothschild Boulevard

When the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests first broke out, analysts immediately thought of the Arab Awakening. The comparison might seem obvious at first glance—Tahrir and Taksim can also make for a nice alliteration. I suggested that the better comparison might be Israel’s social justice protests (better known as J14).

Over at Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow does a good job of exploring why such a comparison might be the appropriate way to go—including the nature of democracy and the popularity of the ruling party in Israel compared to the Arab states. I think he’s right: both the Israeli and the Turkish protests were driven by middle-class voters, who demanded/demand greater public accountability and participation in governmental decision-making. Few were/are advocating for a wholesale change in the system.

If J14 is the model, then we also need to think more about how the protests might end.

Israel’s social protests began in 2011, and continue into 2013. But the momentum has diminished considerably, for a number of reasons. Analysts of the Turkish protests and the demonstrators themselves might take note of these reasons, and learn from the Israeli experience.

First, because the protests were driven by middle class voters, it was hard to keep the momentum going for too long. Protestors need to work, take care of their families, and so on. By the end of the first year, rallies were held on the weekend and had taken on more of a party-like atmosphere, a place to hang out, than an effort to effect genuine political change.

Second, there was a concerned government effort to shut the Israeli rallies down, including the use of force. While this alone isn’t necessarily enough to put an end to protests, it certainly dampens enthusiasm for all but the most die-hard. In the Arab states, it was extreme police violence, including the killing of demonstrators, which helped galvanize the masses. One might even argue that the Israeli police—and the Turkish police thus far—are inadvertently maintaining a “proper” balance between “light” and extreme violence, and thus depriving the protestors of another spark.

[Update: It’s been pointed out, particularly by Gabriel Mitchell and Dahlia Scheindlin, that the Israeli police’s use of force was either minimal or more in line with the coercion used against Palestinians rather than Jewish-Israeli protestors. Both points are well taken. My purpose was to note some common use of force in both cases (beatings, arrests), but yes, the Turkish police response has certainly been far more violence.]

Third, the government co-opted many of the demands of J14 by appointing the Trajtenberg Committee to look into the reasons behind the unrest and to suggest plausible ways of accounting for their concerns. The Committee took its role seriously, meeting with protest leaders (at least in the big cities) and trying to offer some solutions. These tended to fall within the government’s neoliberal priorities, but it was genuine. Showing itself willing to meet protestors’ demands took some of the wind out of J14’s sails.

Fourth, in a political system that boasts strong parties and a strong executive—particularly where the government has considerable control in the parliament—extra-parliamentary movements have a difficult time translating their activities into political gains. This was certainly the case in Israel, which apart from the settler movement does not have a tradition of powerful interest groups operating outside the political arena. There’s no indication that Turkey is much different.

Fifth, some of the main leaders of the social protests had political aspirations. Whether they were intentionally using J14 as specific vehicles or not, after the first year and a half they started to move into the political arena, particularly into the Labor Party, which they argued was the next stage in achieving real social-economic change.

Finally, Israel held an election in January 2013. While it was some time after the start of J14, it was close enough that protestors could manifest some of their concerns and demands into voting—which again removed some of the impetus for keeping the rallies going. That the Labor Party and Meretz (traditionally associated with more government involvement in society) gained seats and the centrist Yesh Atid absorbed many of the middle class votes that reflected the J14 demands may have satisfied the base of the demonstrations for now.

It’s too early to say definitively that J14 had a major effect on policy in Israel. Now that the government budget has been presented in Israel and it’s proven tough on the middle class—to be fair, a tough budget was necessary given Israel’s deficit—protests might regain the momentum they had two years ago. But then again, they might not; that many of their demands have not been met could be an indication that the system has simply absorbed them without any lasting change.

Are similar conditions emerging in Turkey?

Analyzing the Turkish Protests

I’ve long complained, broken-record style, that when something big happens in Israel, observers who aren’t close Israel watchers or well versed in its history and politics leap to provide commentary and draw conclusions. This leads to poor analysis, misperceptions about the country, misguided implications.

There is some of that when it comes to Turkey, but there have been a considerable number of very good analyses of the recent protests based on sharp observations. All of them build on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s illiberal and non-democratic style of policymaking, and most seem to agree that the demonstrations might harm Erdoğan’s position but not undermine him completely. Many worry about what this means for the future of Turkey. But each emphasizes something different, and so a compendium of what’s been written so far might be useful.

If there’s anything to add, let me know.

In chronological order up to June 4:

June 1: The Monkey Cage: “A Breakout Role for Twitter

• An analysis of Twitter’s role in the demonstrations. See also the June 3 update: “Twitter and the Turkish Protests—A Weekend Update

 June 1: Hugh Pope, Dining with al-Qaeda: “A Ringside Seat as Istanbul Protests

• On the varied motivations behind the protests.

June 1: Me, Mideast Matrix: “Was Taksim Inevitable?”

• An argument for thinking of the protests as part of a long-term process in Turkish politics.

June 1: Aaron Stein, The Atlantic: “Protests Show Turks Can’t Tolerate Erdogan Anymore”

• First big piece out on the genesis of the protests. Still very good for understanding them.

June 1: Zeynep Tufekci, Technosociology: “Is there a Social-Media Fueled Protest Style?”

• Compares social media and protest from Taksim to Tahrir.

June 2: Sinan Ulgen, Foreign Policy: “Erdogan’s Dilemma”

• On the de-democratization of politics under Erdoğan and the AKP.

June 3: Claire Berlinski, City Journal: “Erdoğan Over the Edge”

• On the details of the demonstrations.

June 3: Steven Cook and Michael Koplow, Foreign Policy: “How Democratic is Turkey?”

• This piece lays out the reasons why Turkey was never, under the AKP, as democratic as Washington thought—which is a problem.

June 3: Alexander Christie-Miller, Bülent Journal: “Gezi Park: Towards a New Political Consensus?”

• More on the “perfect storm” of issues that drove the protests.

June 3: Gareth Jenkins, Tablet: “Obama’s Turkey”

• On Erdoğan’s metamorphosis into an autocrat, which coincided with a nostalgia for Ottomanism.

June 3: Shashank Joshi, The Telegraph: “Hubris and Nemesis, with a Turkish Accent”

• Emphasis on understanding the protests as something other than secular vs. Islamist, with a tie-in to Turkish foreign policy.

June 3: Michael Koplow, Ottomans and Zionists: “Why Turkey is Erupting in Protest”

• An examination of the contours of the protests as they occurred to this point.

June 3: Joe Parkinson, Wall Street Journal: “Conflict Redraws Fault Lines”

• Drawing on interviews, the piece concludes that the protests represent the emergence of a new popular middle class politics.

June 3: Jeremy Pressman, Mideast Matrix: “US Policy in Turkey: White House and State”

• Building on Steven and Michael’s piece, Jeremy asks whether the US really has let Turkey off the hook when it comes to expressing concerns for its illiberal democracy.

June 3: Claire Sadar, Atatürk’s Republic: “What Can We Say About Occupy Gezi?”

• A collection of thoughts on events thus far.

June 3: Justin Vela, Foreign Policy: “The Struggle for the Heart of Istanbul”

• An explanation of how the violent police response turned the protests into a broad-based demonstration against the government.

June 4: Henri Barkey, The National Interest: “All the Prime Minister’s Yes-Men”

• “At the root of the problem is the combination of both his personality…and the emergent de facto one-party, one-man political system.” There’s no-one to provide alternate advice.

June 4: Steven Cook, Foreign Affairs: “Keep Calm, Erdogan”

• An argument that Erdoğan really has little to fear from the protests, because he’s just so much in command of Turkish politics. Still, things may be changing—too soon to tell.

June 4: Me, The National Interest: “Erdoğan’s Democracy”

• An examination of the conditions that shaped the AKP’s understanding of politics and democracy, and how this complicates American policy toward Turkey.

Was Taksim Inevitable?

The events unfolding in Turkey over the last few days are very telling. I’m not on the ground there, but plenty of people who are have been tweeting and posting on Facebook their experiences and impressions. It’s too early to convincingly declare the implications of the protests, but there are some larger processes at work here that are important to think about that, I think, will inevitably have some effect.

The AKP has been in power since 2002. No government—in a democratic, authoritarian, or mixed system—can be in control for that long without generating some frustration, resentment and opposition among the public. This is especially the case when the party in power pursues a specific political-ideological-economic agenda, bound to cause some dislocation and alienation.

The AKP has certainly done so. When it first came to power, analysts and pundits debated whether the party, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, were really moderate, reformed Islamists or simply disguised fundamentalist Islamists of the Welfare/Virtue/Felicity Party and Necmettin Erbakan kind.

I argued that both were Islamist, but just had different ways of expressing it in policy. Where Erbakan was belligerent and bulled his way forward, Erdoğan was more politic—and in doing so managed to get a lot more done than his predecessor, including removing the military’s ability to intervene in civilian politics.

With the Turkish Armed Forces no longer a serious threat (of its own volition, in addition to being forced out), other parties more a cardboard cutout than a serious political opposition, an economy that was already growing before it came to power, and broad support across different segments of the population, the AKP won an increasingly large share of the popular vote over three elections, culminating in about 50% of the vote in the 2011 poll.

This allowed the AKP to implement its foreign and domestic policy agendas, which were, in fact, tied together by a broader economic plan. Erdoğan’s own populism and ego increasingly came to the fore, engendering a detached approach to the average Turk (even while he displayed deep concern for and emotional attachments to Palestinians and Syrians) and underlined by expanding authoritarianism, shrinking tolerance for criticism, and a sense of infallibility.

All this came to a head in the case of the construction plans for the Taksim Square area. Hugh Pope’s description of the protests highlights the variation of motivations behind them.

At the moment there’s no serious contender to take advantage of these wide-ranging dissatisfactions; and anyway, Turkish politics has long been marked by the inability of a single party to represent a variety of interests (until the AKP). But perhaps one or more might arise before the next election, riding the momentum of the protests—if it can be maintained.

Depending on how events in Syria unfold—if more refugees stream into Turkey, more shells strike it, or more bombs target Turks—Erdoğan’s room for maneuvering might be further constrained.

On the other hand, Erdoğan might make some concessions here and there and be able to ride things out, weakened but not in danger. Especially if he’s able to move into a strengthened presidency, the protests will become more a footnote to him than a warning or something to be taken seriously. This could still, though, have an effect on the party’s ability to maintain its dominance.

Either way, we should think about the Taksim/Gezi protests as part of a long-term process. Turkey’s political, social, and economic structures are still changing, and the insertion of such a dramatic event could well alter their trajectories—either by the government consciously accounting for the protests, or by the government trying to ignore them and then having to account for the consequences of it.