from Middle East Program

Cracks Are Growing in the Erdogan Regime

Turkey is more politically unstable today than at any other point in recent years. 

Originally published at Foreign Policy

August 2, 2021 5:54 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Washington knows that briefings with policymakers and their staff tend to start and end with the question: “Is [name of country] stable?” The problem is that the answer to this question is rarely straightforward. To respond “yes” or “no” is to invite policies based on faulty assumptions. That’s what happened in late 2010, when Middle East experts and other observers informed U.S. officials that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule was durable and his son, Gamal, or Omar Suleiman—the head of intelligence—would likely succeed him. Of course, none of those assumptions turned out to be true. 

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Rather than looking at countries in terms of stability versus instability, it’s more analytically useful (and interesting) to approach the problem in terms of assessing a country’s relative instability. And on this measure, the country in the Middle East that stands out is Turkey. 

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Along several dimensions, Turkish politics today is more unstable than at any time in recent years. This doesn’t mean that there will be another uprising like the one that began over Gezi Park during the summer of 2013 or that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in danger of being overthrown. But Erdogan’s capacity to establish and maintain control across the country seems compromised, which raises the prospects for large-scale protests, increased violence, and political struggles at the summit of the state. 

I am old enough to remember when Erdogan, former President Abdullah Gul, and several others among what was then a group of Islamist reformers founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the summer of 2001. In breaking with Turkey’s Islamist old guard, the new party offered a positive vision of the future based on piety, broader political participation, prosperity, and national power that resonated with an increasingly larger and more diverse group of voters than its previous parties of Islamist patrimony. It helped that the government that the AKP replaced in 2002 had undertaken important economic reforms that helped fuel the economy’s growth for much of the first decade of this century. The party also benefited from the fact that, despite never earning more than 49.5 percent of the popular vote, Turkey’s electoral system gave the AKP a parliamentary majority and thus there was no need to establish a government with other parties. As a result, the country enjoyed a period of political and social stability. 

Of course, there were problems. The AKP and its partners, the Gulenists, offended the traditional secular nationalist elite. Erdogan and other party leaders like Gul described themselves and the party they led as the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democrats, but they turned out to be considerably less democratic than they wanted the world to believe. The same can be said of Fethullah Gulen—the Turkish cleric and onetime Erdogan ally—whose followers helped the government arrest critics with phony evidence. And the Europeans missed an opportunity to help Turkey consolidate the political and social reforms the AKP government undertook during its first few years when they froze EU membership negotiations not long after they began. 

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A lot has happened since then. The military tried to prevent Gul from becoming president, prosecutors tried to shut down the AKP, officials uncovered a conspiracy to foment violence and stage a coup to overthrow Erdogan, as well as a counterconspiracy, which all contributed to what analysts often refer to as Erdogan’s “authoritarian turn” sometime around 2008. Erdogan’s authoritarianism in and of itself did not make Turkey unstable. He was not and is not Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The Turkish leader has a strong social base, which contributed to Turkey’s stability. 

So, when did Turkey start becoming unstable? It is hard to identify a single moment. Instability is a continuum, after all. That said, it seems that the 2013 Gezi protests is a good place to start, followed by a Gulenist-fueled corruption scandal at the end of the year that resulted in a massive purge of the cleric’s followers from government, the media, and higher education in 2014. The on-again, off-again war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party erupted again in 2015, along with the reversal of the election outcome that same year. Then there was the attempted coup in 2016, a prolonged slide in Turkey’s economic fortunes in 2018 and 2019, and, finally, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. 

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One could draw a straight line from one of these events to another, and together they could represent a fracturing of the AKP’s vision. They reflect the party’s failure to widen political participation, forge a more prosperous society, realize Turkey’s potential as a great power, and institutionalize religious values that would make for good governance and help overcome society’s cleavages. Over the last half-decade at least, the press––which the AKP has transformed into little more than a mashup of government talking points, excessive Erdogan flattery, and nationalist paranoia––could be counted on to convince Turks that whatever the gap between past promises and present reality was someone else’s fault: international bankers, the CIA, Zionists, Gulen, Emiratis, Professor Henri J. Barkey, and a variety of other alleged troublemakers. 

Of course, not everyone believed it, but there were grave risks in speaking out against the AKP. There has never been an impartial investigation—because it is impossible under current circumstances—and therefore there remain many questions about the failed coup d’état of July 2016. Anyone who dares to question the official narrative about the culpability of Gulenists can expect to confront the full weight of the Turkish government, resulting in jail, expropriation of property, family ruin, and, for those lucky enough to escape, constant fear of rendition or violent retribution at the hands of Turkey’s intelligence agents and related thugs. 

This fear may be dissipating, though in a way that only adds to Turkey’s increasing instability. In recent months, a man named Sedat Peker has lit up the country with a series of YouTube videos containing spectacular allegations connecting senior government officials, including the interior minister, to drug running, murder, and corruption. Peker—who is a figure in the Turkish mafia—has not fingered Erdogan directly, but he has strongly implied that the Turkish leader was involved. Peker’s charges, which remain mostly unsubstantiated, have riveted the country. Turkish journalists working in exile in Europe have picked up these allegations and amplified them with their own dogged investigative work—often at great risk to themselves. Cevheri Guven, a journalist who fled Turkey for the relative safety of Germany, has also become a YouTube phenomenon, exposing the gap between what the AKP says and objective reality. 

Let’s take a step back for a moment. A mafia don and exiled Turkish journalists like Guven have become more trusted news sources than either the government or the press. That is a big deal. 

What does this have to do with stability? Well, a lot. A positive vision of the future like the one the Justice and Development Party espoused is an important ingredient in eliciting loyalty and thus social control. When life aligns with the party’s vision as it seemed to in the early years of the AKP’s rule, Turkey was less unstable. Years later, fewer and fewer Turks are experiencing their reality in the way the AKP says they are, which is the reason that Peker and exiled journalists like Guven have eye-popping YouTube views that number in the millions and Turkey is more unstable. With the AKP’s vision compromised, Erdogan has had to rely more and more on patronage and coercion to maintain control. But both are expensive and finite. 

This kind of political environment invites rivals. Some are puny, like former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the once well-respected minister of state for the economy, Ali Babacan. They may have the ability to peel some votes away from the Justice and Development Party, but of far more consequence are the maneuvering of officials like the minister of national defense, Hulusi Akar; his rival at the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan; and the land forces commander, Gen. Umit Dundar. To be sure, they are Erdogan’s people. But what happens when the president, bereft of a vision that elicits the loyalty of the people, puts social cohesion in jeopardy? Can they be counted on to ensure Erdogan and the AKP’s continued dominance through ever increasing amounts of force? This kind of uncertainty creates opportunity for powerful and ambitious people. 

Turkey’s political trajectory is not at all clear. Despite all the challenges it confronts, the Justice and Development Party remains the single most popular political organization in the country and Erdogan the most powerful person. The economy could recover, and Erdogan could very easily win another election. That’s why when people ask me if Turkey is stable, I often say: “yes and no.” 

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