EU should get used to Erdogan’s Islamic minded autocracy
Authoritarianism is the norm in most Middle Eastern countries and many are turning away from democratic practices from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Donald Trump in the United States.
It should thus come as little surprise then that Turkey’s already powerful president should be seeking to become the new sultan of the country that was for centuries the hard core of the former Ottoman Empire.
There are, however, reasons specifically linked to Turkey’s very recent and more distant past that shed light on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s shift towards Islamist rule under an increasingly autocratic leader.
For six years Turks have been living with the bitter consequences of their government’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. Turkey sided with the United States, France and Britain in trying to get rid of the Assad regime but this backfired as Iran and Russia, not to mention Syrian President Bashar Assad, have outwitted their enemies.
The success Syrian Kurds have had when resisting the Islamic State (ISIS) on the Turkish border around Rojava has encouraged Kurds on the other side of the border to reassert their claims to self-determination. As Kurds account for maybe as much as one-fifth of Turkey’s population of 78 million, anti-Kurdish feeling is running high. This is all the more true as Turkey has received and housed millions of Syrian refugees.
However, Erdogan’s policies are the prime cause of his country’s failures in Syria. This has nothing to do with the Islamist principles he and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proclaim.
Pro-Western democratisation was the order of the day in the early years of AKP rule after 2002 but as some European leaders poured cold water on any realistic hope of Turkey joining the European Union, Erdogan started undermining the Kemalist legacy.
He drastically reduced the powers of the army and muzzled the pluralist strain of modernisation that more liberal Turks had inherited from the republic’s secular nationalist 20th-century founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Erdogan then set about revising the very negative view of late Ottoman rule, which prevailed in Turkey until the turn of the century. When he became sultan in 1876, Abdul Hamid assured liberal politicians of his support to give the basic law a more democratic character. Such people quickly realised that the infallibility of the sovereign mattered more to Abdul Hamid than respect for human rights and an independent judiciary and press. For three decades the power of this pious and absolutist and paranoid ruler was unchallenged.
Erdogan will probably get his way because the effective shelving of Turkey’s bid for membership of the European Union has lost the West much of the leverage over the country.
In the later Ottoman days, with many lands in the Balkans and as an ally of the West in the Cold War, Turkey was locked into a wider political order. The Ottoman Empire had its first taste of constitutional democracy as its existence was threatened by European powers eager to share the spoils of the sick man of Europe. The liberals of late 19th-century Istanbul, minorities such as the Greeks and the Armenians clamouring for rights and autonomy with European support, bear a passing resemblance to the liberal Kurdish and Alevi minorities who are suffering as are many journalists and teachers under a hardening regime today.
The majority of pious Sunni Turks who support the president’s bid to be granted greater powers have no particular inclination to support such minorities. Here again, Islam is a proximate factor in what is otherwise a very polarised political situation.
One key lesson of the failed “Arab spring” is that, given a chance, people who live in the region that has been torn apart by political strife, murderous civil war and foreign meddling will play safe when it comes to voting for parties that could lead to an upheaval. That has been true from Algeria to Iran where Western observers have often deluded themselves as to ordinary people’s desire for change.
Erdogan prefers to deal with leaders who keep their noses out of Turkish affairs and that includes the presidents of Iran and Russia. The rough language he uses resembles that of Putin but also of Trump. So EU leaders will just have to get used to dealing with another Islamic-minded autocrat.
How successful Erdogan is in the longer term is anybody’s guess. Turkey could lose its attraction for foreign investors and see short-term flows of funds so important for its economy drastically cut. Foreign tourism has been hard hit by recent terrorist attacks. Insulting German and Dutch leaders is not conducive to building trust or closer economic ties.
Minorities can be cowed, for a while. Curtailing the freedom of the press and universities will have a disastrous effect on the quality of some of Istanbul’s and Ankara’s more respected universities.
Paranoia and piety may be useful weapons to win the referendum but those very qualities did not stop the Young Turk revolution of 1908 from restoring the constitution of 1876 and deposing Abdul Hamid the following year.