With a single notable exception after World War I, it had always been the unique characteristic of various Turkish states that in times of great crises they lacked leaders capable of rising above the sentimental currents of public hysteria. Thus, when the currently ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, came to power in 2002, most Western politicians and political pundits claimed that its moderate Islamic political philosophy was more in tune with the majority’s desire than the ossified secularism of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Moreover, these experts also stated that the AKP demonstrated the viability of a democratic model for societies with overwhelming Muslim population. However, the protests that shook Turkey since May 31st gave the lie to the myth of moderate Islam’s noble, tolerant and peaceful opposition to modern secularism.
The chain of protests started with a grove of sycamores that the government wanted to chop down to clear the ground for a shopping and residential complex in downtown Istanbul, inside Gezi Park and Taksim Square. But the real reason for the rapidly escalating mass protest movement that within days engulfed the entire country was the silent majority’s long-simmering dissatisfaction with the mounting authoritarianism of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
While initially concentrating on the economy, after his third electoral victory in 2011, Mr. Erdogan started to show his ideological preferences by imposing severe restrictions on alcohol consumption, declaring it to be a sin that was promoted by “two drunkards.” His reference to Kemal Mustafa Ataturk and his successor, Ismet Inonu had the strange effect of uniting the urban seculars with the observant Muslim population of the countryside in opposition to Mr. Erdogan’s truncated understanding of real democracy. Having risen to political prominence more by his demagoguery than intellectual abilities, he increasingly allowed his religious convictions and passions to guide his political judgments, to the extent of mostly sacrificing Turkey’s national interests to his personal aggrandizement.
After 2002, the AKP government launched a global offensive diplomatically and commercially. The European Union, Africa, Russia, Georgia, the former Islamic republics of the defunct Soviet Union, the Middle East and Asia were all courted by foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Following the European Union’s rejection of Turkey’s request for accession, Mr. Erdogan decided to embrace the anti-American and anti-Israeli policies of Iran, Syria, Hetzbollah and Hamas. Calling Bashar Assad his brother, he has ratcheted up his anti-Semitic rhetoric, earning himself repeated rebukes from the United States and the European Union. Mr. Erdogan also immersed himself in promoting the so-called “Arab Spring” offering unsolicited advice to every emerging movement and government on the benefits of the “Turkish Way.” Today, his and his foreign minister’s grand regional strategy is in a shambles. Syria turned into a mortal enemy. Iran and Russia are strongly supporting the Assad regime. The Muslim Brotherhood was defeated in Egypt and losing popular support in Tunisia. The Islamic republics of the former Soviet Union are returning, at least economically, to the Russian orbit. Talks with the sizable Kurdish minority came to a screeching halt. In the West, Mr. Erdogan lost all his credibility.
Domestically, Mr. Erdogan’s attempts to forge a lasting Muslim electoral majority have repeatedly faltered on his resolve to justify his personal authoritarianism and his government’s “cultural war” against Turkey’s secular classes that comprise half of the population on religion-based moral grounds. With his false belief of moral superiority, Mr. Erdogan became a slave of his personal intolerance, hatred and even revenge against anybody who does not share his simplistic majoritarian notion of democracy. This desire for moral micromanagement of people’s private life is coupled with an aggressive assault on political and civil liberties. The AKP government is the proud leader in the world of jailing opposition intellectuals, writers and journalists. In addition, almost the entire previous high command of the military had been in jail or already sentenced for their involvement in the so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer affairs, clearly on trumped up charges. Recently, even the social media came under harsh attack from the prime minister accusing them all of being a “menace’ to mankind that exist for the sole purpose of disseminating Jewish propaganda and Western lies about Turkey and the rest of the world.
Yet, the politically most important move involves Mr. Erdogan’s plan to introduce a new constitution, transforming Turkey from a parliamentarian to a presidential system. Since he is barred by his party’s constitution to run for a fourth term as Prime Minister, Mr. Erdogan wants to pull a “Putin” on the people, and govern as president for two consecutive five year terms until 2023. Yet, dissent in the AKP is mounting. President Abdullah Gul voiced his criticism of the new constitutional scheme repeatedly and publicly. He also condemned in no uncertain terms Mr. Erdogan’s characterization of the demonstrators as “louses”, “criminals”, “hooligans” and “whores.” A strong indication that Mr. Gul does not want to give up the presidency after only serving a single term is his public disagreement with Mr. Erdogan’s definition of democracy as “a tool to bring people happiness. Democracy is just a tool, not the objective. It is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.” Now it appears that the majority of the AKP leadership too is fed up with Mr. Erdogan and his self-righteous governance and has no intention of conceding him ten more years in power.
Both the intra-party and the external opposition are strengthened by the declining state of the Turkish economy. Growth this year will be anemic. Unemployment is rising. Foreign investors are spooked by the violence unleashed by the government against the demonstrators and the accompanying hostile rhetoric of Mr. Erdogan toward foreign capital. The twice-revalued lira is in a free fall. Bond yields more than doubled to ten percent. Consumer confidence inside the country is plummeting. Clearly, the Turkish economic miracle is over. The future only holds minimal growth, recession and even severe economic crisis.
Turkey is passing through a global crisis. Patriotic demagoguery will not be enough to solve it. The new “Young Turks” demand real democracy and not its Eastern, Islamic, or truncated version. Turkey, situated between the strategically two most important continents and a member of NATO, is along with Israel the most important regional partner for the United States. Therefore, it is essential to prevent its implosion and that our alliance be reestablished on a firmer foundation.