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.

Will the Egyptian Coup Affect Other Islamist Groups?

In the aftermath of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government, observers have started to wonder what effect the coup will have on Islamist groups throughout the region. Shadi Hamid argues that the coup will have “profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways.” It could well, he continued, convince such groups that participation in the political process is unwise. Less apocalyptically, Barbara Slavin contends that “Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others.”

The juxtaposition of these two pieces highlights the difficulty in trying to understand the coup’s potential consequences for the kinds of decisions other Islamist groups might make. But short of direct knowledge of the discussions Islamist leaders are holding behind closed doors, we cannot know for certain what drives their decisions. A glance at the history of Islamist involvement in pluralist politics suggests that the response is likely to be diverse and not a simple “no to elections.”

First, the specific countries or actors used for comparison matter. Hamid looks only at al-Qaeda, a group that has never suggested it might engage in the political process or that it should lay down its arms for a trial run at democracy. There’s no evidence that jihadist groups will change much of their behavior because of the coup. Alternately, will they plan more attacks out of fear they are on the defensive? Target more governments? Perhaps, but it’s also likely they would have done so if countries were becoming more democratic anyway, without the participation of Islamist parties.

Will McCants suggests that of comparable groups that do decide to participate, Salafi parties tend to be too radical and small to obtain broad support within the political system and so can participate without having to face the kind of choice the Brotherhood did. What Salafi violence might be precipitated seems due as much to intra-Islamist politics as anything else. (McCants continues that it’s too early to draw firm predictions.)

Slavin considers Turkey and Iran. But in the former, the AKP split off from the more hardline Welfare Party and may already have been undergoing a mild internal struggle over the character of the party. In fact, the military coup that ousted the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and the subsequent campaign to shut the party down convinced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that participation in the democratic process was quite necessary. In Iran, the government is structured along a strict but specific interpretation of Shia Islam as conceived of by Ayatollah Khomeini that none of the main actors within the state want to change.

Second, the history of Islamist groups in the Middle East suggests that coups or similar “shocks” against them or Islamist parties in other states haven’t prevented non-jihadist groups from participating in democratic processes. In December 1991 the Algerian military cancelled elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front appeared to be doing very well, leading to a vicious civil war that lasted into the 2000s and killed over 100,000 Algerians. In 1997 the Turkish Armed Forces removed the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and then proceeded to purge Islamists from government, the bureaucracy, and the military.

Yet in 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish acronym) participated in national Turkish elections. In January 2006 Hamas participated in Palestinian elections. After its victory, Israel, the United States, Canada, and others began to hold back funds they had been channeling to the Palestinian Authority; after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007, Israel—again supported by the US and Canada—imposed a blockade on the entire Strip. In July 2007 and then in 2011, the AKP continued to participate in parliamentary polls (winning the government both times). In 2008-2009 and 2012 Israel attacked Hamas in Gaza, forcing it to seek a ceasefire in both wars. And in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt actively participated in elections despite the fact that the military—once their nemesis—remained a powerful actor, while in Libya the process is complicated by the existence of both jihadist groups and parties that want to participate.

The evidence is only suggestive, but it’s enough to demonstrate that coups or similar shocks against Islamists haven’t precluded participation in subsequent democratic processes. But we need more than sweeping statements for effective comparisons, so that our conclusions are not skewed.

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.

Follow the link for more.

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.