Once a wunderkind, Turkey’s decline is now complete

Erdogan’s election as president signals Ankara’s growing separation from Europe

August 26, 2014 6:00AM ET

Not long ago, Turkey was hailed as a model democracy in a tough neighborhood spanning the Balkans, Central Asia and the Middle East. Its startling reforms in anticipation of European Union membership, observers cheered, were transforming the country into a prototype for a modern, democratic Islam — living proof that Islam and liberalism could mesh. Turkey was also emerging as a constructive regional power that bridged West and East, both physically and diplomatically. As a NATO member, Ankara spoke to other Muslim-majority states as a friendly sister nation and could even truck with Israel.

That now seems like a past age, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decisive victory this month in Turkey’s first-ever direct presidential election punctuating the end of those days, less than a decade after they began. Erdogan, who served as the country’s prime minister for three consecutive terms starting in 2003, now has the prerogative to shape Turkey more profoundly than any of his predecessors since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the legendary founder of the secular republic. In fact, in many ways Erdogan resembles Ataturk, an authoritarian father figure revered by his followers and loathed by his enemies — whom he implicitly considered enemies of the state and treated as such.

‘Miracle on the Bosporus’

Erdogan, a devout Muslim, rose to power as an outspoken critic of the staunchly secular state that denied Turks their religiosity and maintained its power through the military. The military has closely guarded Ataturk’s legacy since his death in 1938; from 1960 to 1997 it overthrew the political leadership four times, jailing political foes that tested the limits of the ban on religious-based politics.

A scrappy newcomer from a working class family in one of Istanbul’s grittier districts, Erdogan chose politics over professional soccer and never looked back. An impassioned orator who connects with the man in the street, his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 rocked the secular establishment. Never before had a vocal religious leader climbed so high within the political structures left by Ataturk. Erdogan paid for stoking religious passions with a 10-month prison sentence in 1997. The episode simply burnished his opposition credentials. In 2001 he helped found the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), the durable vehicle of his political ascent ever since.

When the AKP took power in 2003, Erdogan, as prime minister, dismantled the archaic polity that Ataturk built on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan sidelined the army, isolating it from politics and brokering power. Restrictions on religious dress codes and practices were gradually challenged, as were historical taboos on linking modern-day Turkey with the bygone Ottoman era. Turkish leaders worked hand in glove with the European Union to meet membership criteria in fields from justice to consumer protection. Former EU parliamentarian Daniel Cohn-Bendit dubbed Turkey’s radical transformation “the miracle on the Bosporus.”

But Erdogan’s romance with the EU soured after his first term in office. Critics contend that Erdogan never believed in far-reaching democratic reforms, preferring to tackle only those that helped dismantle obstacles to his power, from the military’s political clout to the bans on public expressions of Islam that blocked his ambitions. For Erdogan, it appears, democracy is a battlefield with victors and vanquished; there is no compromise or sympathy for the conquered. His critics are his enemies, and they are treated as such, not excluding prison sentences.

Consolidation of power

His authoritarian predilection notwithstanding, Erdogan is not solely responsible for Turkey’s stalled reforms and falling out with the EU. The EU opened the door to Turkey’s candidacy in 1999 and started accession negotiations in 2005. But the election of conservatives in Germany and France — Angela Merkel in 2005 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 — doused the hopes of European-oriented Turks who believed membership was within reach and democratic reforms just beginning in Turkey. Merkel and Sarkozy stuck to the script of their Christian democratic parties, arguing that Turkey was simply not part of Europe and would never be a member of the EU, with or without reforms.

Europe’s cold shoulder gave Erdogan more room to consolidate power at the expense of democratic niceties. With the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, he struck out at his liberal civilian and conservative military opponents as a diversionary tactic, carrying out several rounds of administrative cleansing. Ever since, critical media, independent minority groups such as the Alawites and the secular opposition have been on high alert, lest they be next. 

The brutal crackdown on Istanbul’s Gezi Park demonstrators in June 2013 and banning of Twitter and YouTube in March underscored Erdogan’s deep distrust of civic democracy. The world watched, aghast, as Turkish police blasted peaceful protesters with water cannons and dragged bloodied, school-age youth into police trucks. Gezi Park became a symbol of Turkey’s urban discontent with the AKP and police brutality. Erdogan never apologized or expressed a tinge of regret as demonstrations spread across the country, nor did he launch an investigation into the violence. He still insists that the demonstrators were thugs who deserved what they got.

‘Without a doubt, new Turkey, great Turkey, leading Turkey has won today. We are closing the doors on one era, and we are now taking our first step to a new phase.’

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

president-elect, Turkey

On the international stage, too, Turkey is now a shadow of what many hoped it could be. First, with its tattered democratic credentials, Ankara is hardly a model or impartial broker for the region. Second, Turkey squandered much of its political capital with missteps: It reacted hesitantly to the Arab Spring uprisings and eventually committed a series of gaffes — from backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime and then the Syrian rebel army to staunchly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — that diminished its influence in the Syrian conflict. The subsequent ouster of the Brotherhood government in Cairo left Turkey in an awkward diplomatic position. In May 2010 a deadly raid on six ships in a flotilla that was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza left nine Turkish citizens killed, turning relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara icy.

Erdogan’s charms still resonate in Turkey, especially in conservative rural regions across the Anatolian heartland. This is why he captured an unprecedented 52 percent of the vote in last week’s runoff election. But it isn’t charm alone — or his conservative religious and cultural slant — that captures his supporters’ imaginations. Since Erdogan took power 12 years ago, Turkey’s per capita income has tripled, and incomes have shot up by 50 percent. He presided over a wide-ranging modernization of the economy, which has raised millions out of poverty, financed dozens of massive infrastructure projects and stabilized the lira; Turkey is now the world’s 15th-largest economy. Today average Turks can take out bank loans to shop to their hearts’ content in the endless malls that dot the Turkish landscape. 

Erdogan, having served the legal maximum of three terms as prime minister, now plans to amend the constitution and turn the presidency into more than a ceremonial post. “Without a doubt, new Turkey, great Turkey, leading Turkey has won today,” he told jubilant supporters outside the AKP’s Ankara headquarters shortly after polls closed on Aug. 10. “We are closing the doors on one era, and we are now taking our first step to a new phase.”

After his Aug. 28 inauguration, Erdogan will move into the presidential palace, Cankaya, which once belonged to Ataturk. Erdogan’s new Turkey could not be more profoundly different from the one Ataturk envisioned. But Erdogan’s deep distrust for democratic values unites the two leaders and perhaps also hinders the country’s evolution into a truly great Turkey. 

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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