Turkey’s ‘new sultan’ who wants to fill Ataturk’s shoes
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fully recast himself as the 21st-century model of the man who founded the Turkish republic a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war.
He has used Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s very methods — state institutions and top-down social engineering — to dismantle the legacy of the man who, in the 1920s and 1930s shaped Turkey in the image of a Western society and relegated religion to the private sphere. Erdogan, by contrast, is imposing a very conservative form of Islam on the country, splitting Turkish society down the middle by locking up dissidents and taking steps towards what seems to be the end of democracy.
Since last July’s failed coup attempt, nearly one-quarter of Turkey’s judiciary has been dismissed or detained in what looks suspiciously like a systematic effort to reshape the country’s judicial system. An estimated 150,000 civil servants and teachers, police officers and magistrates have been dismissed from their jobs, their salaries stopped and their passports confiscated. An estimated 40,000 of them are under lock and key.
Hundreds of thousands of Turks, led by the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, rallied in Istanbul, following a 450km “justice march” from Ankara to a city on the Bosporus. This may be the biggest march against Erdogan’s rule since 2013 demonstrations sparked by the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park in the city but the autocrat has a tin ear. More journalists are behind bars in Turkey than in any other country in the world.
The pivot towards Erdogan’s big push to dismantle Ataturk’s state came in 2015 when successive general elections on June 7 and November 1 saw a new party of Kurdish origin, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) gain success and challenge the hegemony of the president’s Justice and Development (AKP) party.
By embracing a moderate and modernist platform, its young leader, Selahattin Demirtas, not only deprived the AKP of a majority in June but attracted many votes outside the Kurdish areas of the south-east. Demirtas’s success infuriated the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified as a terrorist group in Europe and the United States and has been locked in a bloody confrontation with the Turkish Army for decades.
Both the PKK’s old guard and Erdogan’s AKP conspired to smother the new moderate force that so rudely erupted on the parliamentary scene. The PKK launched attacks in south-eastern Turkey and the AKP broke off what seemed to have been promising negotiations with the group. Erdogan proceeded to get rid of the old AKP guard and speak of Turkey’s future in apocalyptic terms.
Demirtas soon found himself stripped of his parliamentary immunity and sentenced to prison after a trial that reflected the deteriorating state of law and order in Turkey.
The renewed fighting in the Kurdish region of Turkey has, to the dismay of many, led to the razing of the historic centres of the Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Nusaybin and Cizre.
Erdogan also shifted from Ataturk’s foreign policy vision by moving away from Europe and pivoting towards the Middle East. His policy here has proven to be a disaster.
Having backed the ousting of his former friend, Syrian leader Bashar Assad, he proceeded to provide weapons and safe haven to groups close to the Islamic State (ISIS) in their fight to topple Assad. Like most Western leaders, he underestimated Assad’s ability to maintain control.
In the course of a foreign policy that backed the Muslim Brothers from Egypt to Libya via Tunisia, Erdogan flip-flopped on foreign alliances with Israel and Russia. This upset many army officers and helps explain why so many were involved in the failed plot last year. They felt that Ataturk’s golden rule of non-intervention abroad had been upended, to the detriment of Turkey’s security. Just like French officers felt betrayed by their political leaders because of their stance on Algeria in 1961, many Turkish officers refused to accept a foreign policy they viewed as adventurous.
Meanwhile, Turkey said it wants to build its own helicopters, fighter jets, tanks and aircraft carriers. Being a member of NATO does not mean being servile to Europe or the United States, but dreaming of building your own weapons is somewhat pharaonic.
Many Turkish officers posted in European capitals and NATO headquarters have sought asylum in Western Europe. This infuriated Erdogan and increased tensions between Turkey and its NATO allies — Turkey has been a valued member of NATO since 1952 and always pledged to uphold the rule of law and individual liberty.
Turkey remains a crucial strategic ally for the West but its international relations are in disarray, complicating efforts in the international fight against ISIS and efforts to control the Mediterranean migration crisis. Germany is particularly affected as it hosts the largest Turkish diaspora outside the mother country by far.
The West should be worried about Turkey’s drift from democracy. Unfortunately, despite the country’s considerable ethnic, religious and political diversity, its democracy has operated along crude majoritarian lines. Whoever wins the majority in parliament — or now the all-powerful presidency — may do what he pleases.
For decades, AKP supporters were on the receiving end of CHP oppression. “Rights belong to me, not to you,” sums up the attitude of most Turkish politicians. As the tide of conservatism and intolerance rises, encouraged by the crude anti-Western rhetoric of the man some dub “the new sultan,” Western policy-makers are deeply concerned. They know that the upheaval in Turkey cannot easily be contained.