The stunningly unexpected electoral triumph of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan creates a window of opportunity for Turkey that will not remain open very long. The country is most likely to experience another damaging cycle of polarization of the sort that has been so divisive ever since the AKP first came to power 13 years ago. Only a radical rupture can disturb this tormented continuity by making a determined move toward moderation. Such a rupture will require a convergence of the unlikely from two directions: an embrace of responsible democratic leadership by Erdoğan and the formation of a responsible opposition platform by the various forces that have been battling against the AKP all these years. Only such a dual embrace has any hope of success, one side without reciprocity from the other side will probably only engender anger and frustration.
Ever since the AKP gained electoral leverage in 2002 sufficient to shape the governing process in Turkey, an intense polarization has been evident. It pitted the displaced Kemalist urban elites of the West that had run the country since the founding of the republic in 1923 against the emergent Anatolian elites who gathered their strength from the religious and socially conservative ranks of Turkish society. The Kemalist opposition initially depicted this ongoing struggle for Turkey’s soul and political future as between the democratic secular legacy bequeathed by Kemal Ataturk, and the Islamic militants that supposedly ran the AKP, and thirsted to make Turkey into an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines. Secularists whispered to one another that regardless of its public utterances of adherence to the Constitution what really motivated the AKP was commitment to this secret Islamic agenda. From the beginning, Erdoğan the dominant political figure in the AKP, was an anathema to secularists. Also, expressive of this oppositional fervor that accompanied the AKP initial electoral victory were secularist objections to the presidential appointment by Parliament of Abdullah Gul, above all complaining that because his wife wore a headscarf he could not properly represent Turkey in diplomatic circles.
In this first phase of polarization the AKP hardly fought back, but rather tried to compile a record that would make the secularist allegations appear irresponsible, and hence largely to blame for poisoning the quality of Turkish political life. The credibility of this style of response was augmented by the high priority initially accorded by the AKP leadership to seeking European Union membership, a goal also espoused by the opposition. This mainstream posture was reinforced by the achievement of economic success along neoliberal lines and through regional and extra-regional activist diplomacy that seemed at once to enhance Turkish prestige in the Middle East and to be dedicated to the peaceful resolution of all international disputes, what was called, it turns out prematurely, ‘zero problems with neighbors.’ These achievements were acknowledged by the Turkish citizenry in a series of electoral victories of the AKP. By and large this Turkish role was also internationally appreciated, as signaled by its election to term membership m the UN Security Council and by a new acknowledgement of Turkey as an important actor.
Yet these AKP achievements did not mollify the opposition. This passivity only added to the frustration of the anti-AKP forces, even rage as power slipped from their hands, with no prospect of recovery in sight. These electoral rejections of the opposition parties created a depressive mood among the secularists who increasingly, yet rarely openly, pinned whatever hopes they had on a military coup that alone was capable of restoring their rightful place at the top of the Turkish political pyramid. A second disruptive strategy in the early years of AKP governance was to seek the closure of the party by accusing the AKP and its leaders of criminal culpability due to their alleged policies of undermining the Kemalist principles embedded in the Turkish Constitution, and the Turkish Constitutional Court came within vote of dissolving the AKP.
Those in the opposition not willing to endorse such radical initiatives as a military or judicial coup, were still deeply dissatisfied with AKP governance. These milder opponents expressed their discontent verbally. They discounted the seeming success of the AKP economically and politically by insisting that the AKP claim to enact democratizing reforms were not sincere, but were adopted cynically to improve the prospect of qualifying for EU membership. The economic success was also discounted as a lucky windfall, an unearned result of policies put into operation under the guidance of Kemal Derviş, and instituted well before the AKP took over the government.
Even in the face of such mean spirited provocations, the AKP did not counter-attack as it could have, but concentrated its energy on the reform process, seeking to insulate the governing process from the notorious ‘deep state’ that had undermined elected governments in the past at the behest of the unaccountable Turkish intelligence services and the armed forces, and on several occasions mandated coups. The civilianization of the Turkish government should have been celebrated by all democratically inclined sectors of society as a major and unexpected achievement. Instead the elimination of the deep state was totally ignored by the opposition, and probably even resented, as it tended to undermine prospects for an extra-constitutional return to power, which was bad news given the unlikelihood in the foreseeable future of any kind of victory via the ballot box. Privately, many secularists regarded the Turkish armed forces as a brake needed to block AKP ambitions and protect the country against an Islamic tsunami.
As allegations of an AKP plan to turn Turkey into a second Iran faded more and more into a domain of implausibility, a new scare scenario was contrived by the hardcore opposition. It centered on the contention that Erdoğan was intent on becoming a second Putin, pushing the country toward autocratic rule and fostering an unacceptable cult of personality. Ignoring AKP achievements with the help of a strong media presence that demonized Erdoğan, contributing to this nihilistic posture of uncompromising polarization, which actually deprived Turkey of what every healthy democracy needs—a responsible party of political opposition that projects alternative policies, programs, including an alternative vision. It was not in the country’s interest to have one hegemonic party govern all these years in what amounted to a political and ideological vacuum, with no credible alternative leadership competing for power.
This overall portrayal of the Turkish scene changed in 2011 due to two major developments. First, the Arab Spring unexpectedly erupted generating waves of instability throughout the entire region. Ankara quickly and enthusiastically welcomed the Arab uprisings, and Erdoğan’s popularity in the region reached peak levels. But when the regional unrest spread to Syria, there soon arose a growing challenge to the zero problems diplomacy as a result of the draconian response of the Damascus regime to the first stirrings of revolt. If we recall that Syria was put forward as the centerpiece of zero problems diplomacy, we can realize that Erdoğan must have felt great pressure to distance Turkey from this display of Syrian brutality. When Ankara’s efforts failed to persuade Bashar al-Assad, the real autocrat next door, to stop killing Syrian civilians and adopt a reform program, the dye was cast. Turkey found itself gradually drawn into the wider regional turmoil by stages, initially in Syria when it sided with the anti-regime insurgents.
Turkish foreign policy had previously been challenged on other fronts, especially by deteriorating relations with Israel that reached a negative climax in 2010 when Israel boarded a Turkish merchant ship, Mavi Marmara, in international waters killing nine Turkish nationals who were taking part in an international humanitarian mission that consisted of several ‘peace boats’ determined to deliver assistance to blockaded Gaza, whose people had been suffering for years from collective punishment.
Secondly, in 2011 the AKP won their biggest electoral victory ever, leading Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive style that expressed itself in ways that antagonized the opposition even more. He seemed to be disregarding critics and claiming a populist mandate in the spirit of majoritarian democracy, that is, a mode of ruling that stressed effectiveness and central power, and rejected the republican stress on checks and balances. This shift enraged the opposition, and led to the portrayal of Erdoğan as a dark angel intent on destroying Turkish republicanism in the process of becoming a reigning tyrant. After 2011 Erdoğan’s aggressiveness toward the opposition gave polarization a more symmetrical quality for the first time. This polarization was, however, misrepresented in the international media as solely the consequence of Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions and brash governing style rather than being a belated reaction to an earlier circumstance of unilateral polarization that the opposition to the AKP had foisted upon the country from the first moment that Erdoğan grasped the reins of power.
Anti-AKP waves of harsh criticism, especially in liberal circles of government and media, began blaming Ankara for alienating Israel and the United States, as well as pursuing an imprudent policy toward Syria. The AKP leadership was accused of abandoning its traditional reliance on American guidance, thereby undermining Turkish security. This was coupled with the insistence that the AKP was at last showing its true Islamic and sectarian face, favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Egypt, and Gaza, pursuing a foreign policy shaped by its Islamic identity rather than based on adherence to secular realism as offering the best approach to the protection of Turkish national interests.
In May of 2013 the Gezi Park demonstrations took place, at first peacefully and later increasingly in confrontational modes, taking slanderous aim at Erdoğan who was being compared by demonstration leaders to Hitler. As the protests against the government intensified after their opening rather mild phase, it became obvious that the ambition of the activists was to create a crisis of legitimacy in Turkey that would produce so much unrest that the country would become ungovernable, and a political process would ensue that brings the military out of the barracks to rescue a country on the brink of collapse. This is what was starting to happen in Egypt, and in a couple of months was consummated by a popularly backed military coup headed by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. Why not also in Turkey?
The government response to Gezi led by Erdoğan was defiant and suppressive, with police relying on excessive force that resulted in the tragic and unwarranted death of several demonstrators and injury to many more. The protests failed to ignite the hoped for groundswell of anti-government activism, although it did reinforce the international impression that Turkey was on its way to becoming a police state and it stimulated the domestic opposition to believe that it could build a powerful anti-AKP movement.
Another factor that riled the atmosphere at this time was the sharp break with the Hizmet movement led by the mysterious Islamic figure, Fetullah Gulen. Formerly allied with the AKP, tensions had been mounting, and exploded in response to the December 2013 Hizmet allegations of widespread corruption in the Erdoğan cabinet leading four ministers to resign, and implications that the trail of corruption if properly followed would lead to Erdoğan and his family. As would be expected, Erdoğan struck back, accusing the Hizmet movement of establishing ‘a parallel government’ that was subverting proper lines of authority and policy in the Turkish state bureaucracy. The claim was made that Gulen followers had succeeded in penetrating the police and the prosecutors’ office, and were responsible for bringing false charges against the military leadership, and doing other subversive things.
This accumulation of tactics designed to undermine the AKP and Erdoğan should be taken into account when addressing his still questionable effort to move toward an executive presidency. After all there were credible reasons for the AKP leadership to believe that it had been multiply targeted: polarization, judicial invalidation via party closure, aborted military coups, popular uprising, parallel government. In reaction, it is not altogether unreasonable for Erdoğan to arrive at the view that only a strong presidency could achieve security and stability that was needed if Turkey was to cope with the many challenges that it faces at home and in the region. It is understandable, but still highly imprudent as deep cleavages in the population persists. Even after the election landslide victory of the AKP and Erdoğan half the country remains deeply alienated, and would be susceptible to temptations of insurrection if these ambitions to revise the Constitution go forward.
In essence, this is an occasion on which Erdoğan alone has the capacity to move the country in a more grounded democratic and peaceful direction, softening if not overcoming polarization. Seizing such an opportunity would require Erdoğan to acknowledge the divided polity that Turkey has become, and to respect widespread fears of authoritarian rule. The most convincing way to do this would be to defer to the prime minister and head of the party, Ahmet Davutoğlu in the formation of a new government, and welcome a working partnership that divided authority harmoniously between these two highly gifted political leaders. It is not encouraging to hear Erdoğan talk vaguely of the added de facto powers that the Turkish presidency has somehow acquired without the benefit of constitutional reform and of his intentions to renew his personal crusade to create an enhanced presidency on a de jure basis.
Also menacing Turkey’s future has been the revived violence of the Kurdish struggle, giving rise to a strong military response. After this electoral outcome it is up to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to take the initiative in declaring a ceasefire to take effect immediately, to welcome the HDP deputies to the Parliament, and to commit to a reopening of the reconciliation process, possibly even giving some sort of role to the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
Let’s hope than when Erdoğan awakens the morning after his glowing victory, he chooses what is best for Turkey rather than to settle for becoming a grandiose figure who is certain to be both revered and feared. Only if he tames his ambitions will Erdoğan ensure his legacy as a great Turkish leader, second only to Ataturk. Such speculations are admittedly in the realm of the fanciful, but little else seems relevant at this stage if Turkey hopes to find ways to reverse the downward spiral of recent years, and move back from the brink of turmoil that is engulfing much of the region.