Erdogan the master chameleon

November 19, 2017

One of the most interesting politi­cal phenomena of the past decade has been the behaviour of the Muslim Brother­hood and its ideological cousins when in power. Mostly, they were unprepared or unable to serve the people. They understood the short-sightedness of the simple power grab all too late.

In light of this, the story of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is worthy of note. The party is led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose actions could serve as case studies in any political history.

Here is a man who has been active in politics since 1994, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul. He has displayed the skills of a political acrobat and an ability to survive almost every test. He is arguably the most slippery politi­cian in contemporary front-line politics. Erdogan, it’s fair to say, has mastered the capabilities of a chameleon to stay in power.

Even so, observers say Er­dogan is in serious trouble. He has failed in the foreign policy sphere by personally ruining his administration’s efforts on EU membership as well as with a zero-problems policy with Turkey’s neighbours. Erdogan has unsuccessfully tried to secure that release of Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab, who is facing trial in New York for the alleged breach of US sanctions on Iran.

Erdogan has strained Turkey’s traditional relations with its allies to the breaking point. In interna­tional matters, he has engaged in a form of political arm wrestling and not always won. Because of him, Turkey’s position in the interna­tional community has suffered. Yet, at almost every stage of his career, Erdogan has managed to surprise friend and foe alike.

Lately, however, Erdogan’s challenges have multiplied at home. Two pollsters’ surveys indicate that support for his party has dropped from nearly 49% to 39-40%. This is bad news for the Turkish president, who aims to win the 2019 national and presi­dential elections. If he fails, he fears he will end up in court facing charges of misconduct and large-scale corruption.

Erdogan’s anxiety about the next election has led him to turn to a tactic that is anathema to true Muslim Brotherhood believ­ers. For some days, Turks have been listening to him rant about the greatness of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, secular founding father of modern Turkey. Erdogan is no longer critical of Ataturk’s destructive legacy for the pious. Here again is the chameleon.

Having declared war on the Kurds, arch-enemy of the Kemal­ists, Erdogan is trying to forge an axis with the republic’s old guard. He seems keen to build an election alliance with the ultra-nationalist, far-right National Movement Party (MHP).

This 180-degree turn has shaken the AKP. The party’s very exist­ence has long challenged the Ke­malist model, which denied Islam­ists a role in politics. If Erdogan persists on his pro-Ataturk path, there is reason to believe that AKP will split. This would please the old guard and leave Erdogan with a massive problem. Closer embrace of hard-core nationalists may make him their political captive.

Omer Taspınar, a political expert on Turkey at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Wash­ington, argued that Erdogan’s em­brace of Kemalism is a “new kind of green Kemalism,” one tinged with Islamism.

It continues, he said, “the authoritarian state tradition of Turkey based on conservative nationalism.” The glue that holds together an “alliance between Kemalism and neo-Ottomanism is the deeply rooted desire for full independence, full sovereignty and national power to stop West­ern imperialists,” Taspınar added.

By that token, Erdogan’s green Kemalism, supported by the MHP and anti-Western Eurasianists in the military, is much more than an opportunistic alliance. It is, Taspinar said, “the default setting of the Turkish Republic.”

Green Kemalism will mean an Erdogan shorn of much of his Islamist past and laying claim to the legacy of a man he has long despised. It would mean the quick-change act of a consummate political chameleon but will the electorate buy it?