Turkey was once held up in the West as a model of how a predominately Muslim country could thrive as a secular democracy. With the consolidation of power by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years, that illusions is gone. And that’s complicating the way the U.S. deals with its NATO ally at a tumultuous time in Middle East.
It’s not that Turkey doesn’t have elections, Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday in Atlanta. It’s just that the country is beginning to look more like a “one-man elected autocracy.”
Over the last decade and a half, first as prime minister and now as president, Mr. Erdogan has taken a series of actions making it next-to-impossible for an already fractured opposition to challenge him at the ballot box.
It’s an about-face from the early days of his 10-year stint as prime minister, when the country was engaged in European Union accession talks membership and enacting constitutional reforms, Dr. Cook said during the annual Turkish Lecture Series at Emory University Feb. 19.
But as Mr. Erdogan moved into his second term in 2007, a variety of factors — internal and external — came together to shatter a fragile coalition that had papered over divisions between the moderate secular establishment and Islamist ideals represented by Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The hundred-year “struggle for the soul” of the country was unresolved, Dr. Cook said.
By the time of the massive Gezi Park protests of 2013, Mr. Erdogan had already begun stamping out dissent as he looked to take up Turkey’s presidency in 2014 and strengthen the largely ceremonial office. Paranoia, which Dr. Cook called a “perfectly rational response” to Mr. Erdogan’s perceived threats, had taken root.
“Out went consensus, and in came a strategy of intentional polarization,” Dr. Cook told an audience of nearly a hundred people on the Emory campus.
An attempted coup in July 2016 led to an even more elaborate and overt crackdown that has been “something akin to a reign of terror,” Dr. Cook said. Mr. Erdogan blamed Hizmet, a pervasive faction in Turkish institutional life run from afar by the exiled Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen.
Some 200,000 people — journalists, judges, police forces and military leaders — have been detained or jailed on the flimsiest of charges for collaborating with the Gulen group, which Mr. Erdogan has labeled a terrorist organization.
Still, Dr. Cook said, not all Turks see Mr. Erdogan as plunging Turkey into an authoritarian state. For about half the public that votes for him “religiously” — pun intended — he has given a voice to a large segment of Turkish society that would like to see Islam play a more prominent role in public life.
“(The AK Party) is actually closing the space for secularism in a lot of ways, but it seems that you have at least half the population that thinks this is a good and healthy thing,” said Dr. Cook, who has written on Middle Eastern politics in books like “False Dawn” and “The Struggle for Egypt.”
Mr. Erdogan’s obvious political skill and personal charisma make him hard to challenge, and Turkey’s economic ascent gives him an added dose of legitimacy among supporters — who have benefited from a decade of growth and reform.
Now, however, the country has become increasingly polarized.
“It’s like living in two totally separate worlds,” he said, comparing rallies and protests to Trump country versus Manhattan in the U.S. “For many people, Turkey is more democratic than it ever was. For some, it is more authoritarian than it has ever been.”
In a contentious referendum last November, Turkish voters agreed to 18 constitutional reforms that will move Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Should Mr. Erdogan be re-elected in 2019, he would be granted unprecedented and largely unchecked powers. Even in the unlikely case of a loss, Mr. Erdogan has changed Turkish politics for the foreseeable future.
“There is something likely to be called Erdogan-ism without Erdogan. You won’t have that charismatic figure necessarily directing every aspect of Turkish politics, but institutions will be hardly democratic,” Dr. Cook said.
Tillerson’s Visit and the U.S. Balancing Act
For the U.S., this all creates complicated balancing act, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson learned when he “walked into a buzzsaw” of Turkish anger during recent visit to Ankara, Dr. Cook said.
As miffed as the U.S. might be about Mr. Erdogan’s supposed disrespect for human rights, Turkey is a NATO ally, and there is no mechanism in the treaty to expel a member country over its behavior, Dr. Cook said.
And either way, Turkey has as leverage the Incirlik air base, from which the U.S. carries out airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. About 5 percent of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is based there, and Mr. Erdogan has threatened not to renew the Americans’ lease.
Turkey itself has many grievances with the U.S.’s destabilizing influence in the region, from its invasion of Iraq to its inaction in Syria. The conflict there has sent millions of refugees flooding into southern Turkey. Mr. Erdogan would like to see U.S. extradite Mr. Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. The two sides are also squabbling over the fate of a Turkish banker convicted of busting Iranian sanctions.
But the cardinal sin in Mr. Erdogan’s eyes is U.S. support for the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that has been effective in fighting the Islamic State. Turkey believes it’s aligned with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that has been waging an insurrection in Turkey for decades.
Mr. Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. withdraw its support from the YPG as a Turkish offensive ramps up in the northern Syrian city of Afrin, raising the prospect of direct confrontation between U.S. and Turkish forces. Before meeting with Mr. Tillerson last week, Mr. Erdogan threatened U.S. forces standing in the way of Turkish soldiers with a so-called “Ottoman slap.”
That’s largely for the internal Turkish audience, Dr. Cook said.
“There are two things that are profitable politically in Turkish politics right now: Beating up on the United States and confronting Kurdish nationalism. And there is little reason to believe that either of those things are going to come to an end.”
For the U.S. and Turkey, there’s little chance of returning to a rosy alliance, especially without something like the historical threat of the Soviet Union to bring them together. Turkey has even said that it will buy an air-defense system from the Russians.
“It strikes me that without that shared perception of threat, or without that shared project, these two countries might end up going in different ways,” Dr. Cook said of the U.S. and Turkey.
The Turkish Lecture Series is presented by Emory’s Halle Institute for Global Learning in partnership with the American Turkish Friendship Council, now headed up by former Coca-Cola executive Ahmet Bozer.
Read Global Atlanta’s coverage of the 2016 event: How Turkey’s Soft-Power Push Flopped
See past lecture speakers and topics here.