Erdogan’s Journey – Conservatism and Authoritarianism in Turkey

Date posted: October 25, 2016

Halil Karaveli

What happened to Recep Tayyip Erdogan? The Turkish president came to power in 2003 promising economic and political liberalization. But under his rule, Turkey has instead moved in a profoundly illiberal, authoritarian direction—although not toward repressive Islamism, which some feared was Erdogan’s true agenda, given his background in Islamist politics. Rather, Erdogan has become something more akin to a traditional Middle Eastern strongman: consolidating personal power, purging rivals, and suppressing dissent.

Over the summer, it briefly appeared as if Erdogan might have overreached, when a group of military officers attempted to topple him—at the direction, Erdogan has insisted, of his erstwhile ally turned bitter foe Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric based in the United States. But when the plotters struck, Erdogan was able to quickly rally support inside the armed forces and among the broader public and managed to put down the coup attempt with surprising ease. A subsequent crackdown has been swift and merciless: the government has jailed tens of thousands of alleged Gulenists, conducted a sweeping purge of the army and the state bureaucracy, shut down media outlets, and suspended thousands of academics. Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt has demonstrated that the president’s grip on power remains stronger than even many of his fiercest critics had assumed.

No one could have foreseen the coup or its aftermath. But even long before those events, it should have come as no surprise that Erdogan had failed to live up to the expectations of many liberals in Turkey and elsewhere who had initially hailed his ascent as a sign of progress. Erdogan never really aimed to make Turkey an Islamic state, but he also never wanted to liberalize it. His grand project, rather, has been to preserve a conservative social order while mending the long-standing rifts between the Turkish state and the country’s minority ethnic and cultural groups, especially the Kurds. He believed that he could harness Sunni Islam, a creed shared by a majority of Turkey’s citizens, as a unifying force. But as demonstrated by the divisiveness and instability of the past few years, this approach has been a thorough failure.


Turkey has never had a liberal leader. Since Kemal Ataturk founded the modern state out of the rubble of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, authoritarianism has held sway. No Turkish government has ever respected freedom of expression or minority rights. The cornerstones of the illiberal order in Turkey—held up by military juntas and popularly elected governments alike—have always been statism, nationalism, religious conservatism, and the protection of powerful business interests.

When he came to power, Erdogan seemed poised to break with that tradition. Early in his career, he had made a name for himself as an unorthodox Islamist. He earned his antisecularist stripes as a young participant in city politics in Istanbul in the late 1980s and 1990s, famously refusing an employer’s demand that he shave off his mustache and quitting his job instead. But he also disregarded some traditional Islamist sensitivities, especially those concerning gender. When he ran for mayor of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district in 1989, he encouraged women—including those who did not wear headscarves—to become involved in his campaign and to join the Welfare Party, the Islamist group to which he belonged. And he exhorted his campaign workers not to get into discussions about religion with voters. “You must absolutely build relations with people outside your community,” he advised them. “Salute even the customers in places where alcohol is served.”

Erdogan has moved Turkey backward, not forward.

But when Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul, in 1994, he hewed to a more conventional Islamist line. He said that he was in favor of imposing sharia and oversaw the prohibition of alcohol sales in all municipally owned facilities. By that time, Turkey was experiencing an Islamist moment—one that would soon prove short-lived, however. In national elections in 1995, the Welfare Party won the highest share of the vote, and the party’s leader, Necmettin Erbakan, became prime minister in a coalition government the following year. But in 1997, the military and its allies in the government pressured Erbakan to step down. At a rally later that year, Erdogan quoted a poem that read, in part, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” For this, he was charged with “inciting the people to religious hatred.” He was convicted and spent 120 days in prison.

After his release, he recast himself as a “conservative democrat” and aligned himself with a group of post-Islamist conservative reformers who had broken with Islamism’s traditional anti-Western posture and advocated that Turkey orient itself more firmly in a pro-European, pro-American direction. Erdogan now said that he did not “take seriously people who talked about a state founded on sharia.” He didn’t elaborate much on this apparent change in his thinking; it seemed to be mostly a concession to pragmatism. “We are not going to get anywhere with radicalism,” he remarked at a dinner with business leaders in Istanbul in 1999.

In 2001, the reformers, led by Erdogan, founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the party triumphed in national elections the following year. (Erdogan was unable to assume office until 2003, when the government, now led by his party, changed a law that had prevented him from holding office owing to his conviction.) The AKP’s victory was fueled by support from a new middle class made up of conservative, religious small-business owners in Anatolia, the heartland of Turkey, who were enjoying unprecedented prosperity and influence thanks to Turkey’s slow but growing integration into global markets. Anatolia had long been a backwater. In 1980, there was not a single company from the major Anatolian cities of Gaziantep and Konya among the top 500 companies in Turkey; by 2012, the two cities together boasted 32 of them. But during their rise to prominence, devout business leaders in Anatolia had shunned the established, secular-minded trade organizations and had instead formed their own associations, which soon become the basis of a support network for the AKP.

As prime minister, Erdogan promised a “new social contract” between the state and society and called for a series of liberal reforms that would enhance the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, and the rule of law. He wanted to make Turkey more hospitable to foreign investment and turn the country into a place that would be “more cooperative with the world, at peace with it, and . . . easier for the world to enter.” He pledged to reduce the state’s role in the economy, lift stifling regulations, and “save the country from a plethoric bureaucracy.”

Erdogan also promised a break with tradition on another crucial issue: the troubled relationship between the central state and Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, which has bred a decades-long violent conflict between the Turkish army and the militant Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He moved slowly, but in 2013, Erdogan announced a set of reforms intended to address Kurdish demands for civil rights and more autonomy: for example, permitting towns to refer to themselves by Kurdish-language names and allowing private schools to offer classes in Kurdish. He also briefly considered a constitutional change that would have lowered the threshold at which a political party could win representation in parliament. That same year, Erdogan’s government embarked on a “solution process” in coordination with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish militant leader.

But on economic and political reform and on relations with the Kurds, Erdogan has failed to deliver the kind of change hoped for by liberals in Turkey and elsewhere: in fact, on both fronts, Erdogan has moved backward, not forward. Talks with the Kurds fell apart, and war is once again raging in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. And far from shoring up liberal democracy in Turkey, Erdogan has instead sapped the country’s institutions of their independence and subverted the rule of law. This process began in earnest as early as 2007, when Erdogan orchestrated a series of prosecutions of his political opponents, some of whom were charged with plotting coups; the trials reeked of judicial impropriety. In 2012, Erdogan complained about the separation of powers, which he described as “an obstacle” to be overcome. “You find yourself confronted by judges in places where you least expect it,” he complained. His solution has been to hollow out the judiciary. Turkish courts have always acted in the service of state power, but Erdogan has eliminated even the pretense of prosecutorial or judicial independence.

The Erdogan government also toughened the country’s already draconian antiterrorism laws in order to crush all opposition. By 2012, 9,000 people—including university students, journalists, lawyers, and trade-union activists—were serving prison sentences for “terrorist activities,” meted out by courts that had fallen under Erdogan’s control. Today, more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than in China or Iran. (Last year, Erdogan personally instructed prosecutors to indict the chief editor of a newspaper that had been critical of him.) And Erdogan has made it clear that he will not tolerate public displays of dissent. In 2013, he authorized police to use force against peaceful protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. According to the most reliable estimates, 11 were killed, and hundreds were injured.


What accounts for the gap between the Turkey that so many hoped Erdogan would usher in and the Turkey that exists today? One common answer is to blame it all on Erdogan’s thirst for personal power. Murat Belge, a liberal Turkish intellectual who supported Erdogan until the crackdown on protests in 2013, captured this line of thought when he wrote earlier this year that “all of the problems that haunt Turkey emanate from the personality and goals of Erdogan.” According to this view, Erdogan never really believed in anything other than himself and never had any goal other than self-aggrandizement.

But that explanation misses the structural factors that have allowed him—even encouraged him—to chart an authoritarian course. It also reveals how the liberals who initially embraced Erdogan fundamentally misread modern Turkish history. They perceived his rise as the next chapter in a grand conflict between the state and the religiously conservative masses that has been raging in the country since the founding of the republic by the staunch secularist Ataturk. There was, of course, such a struggle. But it ended long ago. After Ataturk died in 1938, the state abandoned radical secularism and allowed for the gradual and partial restoration of Islam’s influence in public life, especially in education. The Turkish state continued to be wary of underground Islamic movements that it could not control, but Islam was not its enemy. On the contrary, Turkey’s ruling elites saw religion as an asset for the state, especially during the Cold War, when leaders in Turkey—a NATO member and U.S. ally—suppressed leftists, using a broad brush to tar many of them as Soviet sympathizers in thrall to godless communism. Kenan Evren, the military officer who took power in a coup in 1980 and under whose rule Turkey’s present constitution was drafted, warned that it would “unthinkable” for Turkey to become irreligious. “We must firmly embrace our religion,” he declared in 1981.

Erdogan’s formative years overlapped with the apex of these anti-leftist campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, and as a result, his original political identity was that of a religiously devout Cold Warrior. In high school, he joined the leading youth organization of the Turkish right, the National Turkish Student Association (MTTB), which played a crucial role in mobilizing students from conservative and lower-middle-class backgrounds. “The only force that can destroy communism is Islam,” was one of its slogans; “Fighting against communism is as beneficial as praying,” went another.

The MTTB was the ideological breeding ground for the generation of Islamist cadres that went on to found the AKP. All of the party’s leading figures had belonged to the MTTB during their high school or university years, including Abdullah Gul, who served as president from 2007 to 2014, and Bulent Arinc, who was Erdogan’s deputy prime minister from 2009 to 2015. As a young man, Ismail Kahraman, the current Speaker of the Turkish parliament, served as the president of the MTTB. These men’s worldviews had been forged in a traditionalist Turkish middle class in which political values were shaped not by a commitment to liberalism but by a combination of hard-line anticommunism and aggrieved religious nationalism.

When Erdogan and the AKP came to power, some of the Western observers who issued optimistic forecasts seemed wholly unaware of this history, and some pro-Erdogan Turkish liberals seemed to have forgotten it. They celebrated the AKP’s rise as the victory of capitalism over an authoritarian, bureaucratic, militarized state. Turkish liberal intellectuals rejoiced; finally, a real bourgeois revolution had taken place in Turkey. In their eyes, the conservative, religious middle classes behind the AKP were an “authentic” bourgeoisie because they owed their prosperity to free markets and Turkey’s participation in the global economy—unlike the older, secular middle class, which had been nursed by the state behind the walls of a protected, closed-off economy and had therefore been uninterested in economic or political reforms. Turkish liberals believed that Erdogan and the AKP would have no alternative but to pursue such reforms because their supporters’ newfound prosperity relied on continued economic growth. But in short order, it became clear that in the Erdogan era, statism would trump capitalism.


Historically, a fear of fitna (anarchy) has haunted political thinking in Turkey, as it has in many parts of the Muslim world. Turks have long revered, even sanctified, the state as the ultimate defense against internal strife and dissolution in a heterogeneous society. Mustafa Erdogan, a liberal Turkish academic (no relation to the president), has written that “the cultural code of our people dictates that the state’s authority must be obeyed even if it is tyrannical and evil.” This deep-rooted statism, he argues, is “the foundation on which the AKP rests.”

Erdogan’s hunger for order is colored by the fate of Adnan Menderes, his political hero. Menderes took office as Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1950. He was popular but also strikingly intolerant of dissent. As his time in office progressed, he resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures: clamping down on protests, imprisoning journalists, and indicting members of the opposition. “Is it possible to tolerate the state order being undermined from morning until night because doing so is supposedly a democratic obligation?” Menderes responded when questioned about such measures by members of the opposition during a parliamentary session in 1960. His repressive tactics created enemies in many quarters, including the military, and later that year, he was toppled by a coup led by a group of military officers acting outside the chain of command. The following year, he was executed.

Erdogan has frequently described Menderes’ death as a “tragedy” for his family and has said that he was deeply moved by news photographs showing Menderes being led to the gallows. “I experienced the extreme emotions of my father and my mother at home,” Erdogan recalled in an interview in the Turkish daily Tercuman in 2009. In Erdogan’s view, Menderes had been fighting against the forces of fitna. But the real lesson of his hero’s tragic fate was lost on Erdogan: in his quest for order, Menderes had gone too far toward authoritarianism. Menderes had himself fomented fitna.

This past summer, Erdogan’s failure to understand that history almost led to his meeting the same end as his hero. The insurgent officers who tried to topple Erdogan in July seem to have been inspired by the 1960 coup, justifying their putsch as a reaction to Erdogan’s overstepping his authority and threatening Turkish democracy.


Just as Erdogan’s approach to governing reflects his Cold War–era political upbringing, his efforts to address the Kurdish question show the influence of trends in social thought that were shaping Turkey when the president was a young man. Erdogan was born at a time when a new, more overtly Islamic version of Turkish nationalism was gradually replacing Kemalism, the staunch secularist thinking of Ataturk. Proponents of Kemalism maintained that it was an inclusive ideology. But in reality, its conception of national identity relied heavily on Turkish ethnicity, and thus Kemalism demanded cultural surrender on the part of the country’s many minority groups. By the 1950s, Kemalism’s limits had become clear, and many conservative Turkish intellectuals were exploring the possibility that shared religious bonds might prove stronger than those yielded by an enforced civic secularism.

Erdogan’s original political identity was that of a religiously devout Cold Warrior.

As a young man, Erdogan was an avid reader of conservative intellectuals such as Necip Fazil Kisakurek, who celebrated Turkey’s Muslim heritage. But Erdogan was never a xenophobe: a Greek soccer player from Istanbul was his childhood hero. As prime minister, Erdogan has condemned the ethnic-cleansing campaigns that banished the last remaining Greeks from Turkey in the 1950s and 1960s, blaming them on “a fascist mentality.” Erdogan is the first Turkish leader to have publicly displayed a relaxed attitude about his own ethnic identity. According to some reports, he has openly referred to his mother’s Georgian origins and has suggested that his father’s ethnic heritage was a bit murky. Erdogan has recalled that he once asked his father, “Are we Laz, or are we Turks?” (The Laz people hail from the Black Sea coastal regions of Georgia and Turkey and speak a language distinct from Turkish.) Erdogan’s father replied that he had asked his own father the very same question. The issue was ultimately settled by Erdogan’s great-grandfather, a mullah, who declared: “God is not going to ask us to which tribe we belong. Just say, thank God we are Muslims, and let it be.”

In the 1980s, the issue of how Turkey should cope with its ethnic diversity caused a sharp division within the Islamist movement: one faction urged for the enforcement of a pan-Turkish identity; another sought to accommodate ethnic difference. Perhaps owing in part to his own background, Erdogan belonged to the second camp. He argued that the Koran demanded respect for all “tribal” identities and that imposing restrictions on minority cultures and languages was theologically dubious. In 1991, he commissioned an internal report for the Welfare Party on the Kurdish question. The report’s recommendations were radical compared with the conventional thinking of the time, proposing to officially recognize not only the Kurds but also other minority groups—the Laz, the Circassians, and the Arabs—and to grant them the right to receive education in their own languages. It was no surprise, then, that the AKP came to power with strong support from Turkey’s Kurds, many of whom are religious conservatives.

Erdogan’s attempt to bring the conflict with the Kurdish militants to a peaceful resolution was sincere. But it was also unrealistic. Erdogan believed that he could achieve peace without making any significant political concessions simply by appealing to the Sunni Muslim identity that Kurds and Turks shared. The Turkish government persuaded the imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Ocalan to evoke that theme in a 2013 message to his followers, in which he stressed that the two peoples had together “been marching under the banner of Islam for a thousand years.” But in the Kurdish areas in the southeast of Turkey, the PKK had entrenched its control, and the militants demanded official devolution of power to the Kurdish provinces. The Kurds were not interested in religious bonding; they wanted autonomy and rights. Erdogan was prepared to accept cultural diversity, but not self-rule, for the Kurds: self-rule would have amounted to political suicide for him. The “solution process” with the Kurds finally fell apart last year, undermined in part by the emergence of Kurdish forces as leading players in the international coalition fighting the jihadist group the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria—a development that Erdogan and the Turkish state have found profoundly threatening. In the past year, the Turkish military has reduced Kurdish cities to rubble for the first time since Ataturk’s rule.


Erdogan wants to be the new “father of Turkey.” But waging war against his own citizens is hardly how he wanted to walk in Ataturk’s footsteps. His failure to achieve peace with the Kurds is ultimately a demonstration of the fact that the chief sources of his appeal—Turkish capitalism and Sunni Islam—have proved insufficient to the task of creating a unifying, twenty-first-century Turkish identity capable of fostering a sustainable political order. In the end, Erdogan has been left with little choice but to revert to traditional authoritarian nationalism.

That failure transcends the question of Erdogan’s personal legacy: it signals that Turkish conservatism—whether in its religious or its statist form—has run its course. It has brought neither liberty nor order to Turkey. The prospects for a more liberal Turkey appear dim, but it has rarely been clearer that liberalization is likely the only path to sustainable stability and prosperity.

Erdogan has expunged virtually every trace of liberal advocacy from the mainstream, so any future movement toward reform would likely emerge from below, among the victims of Turkey’s conservative order, especially the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. The Kurds, for example, could catalyze wider liberal change if they managed to transform their appeals to Kurdish ethnic nationalism into a broader plea for civil and political rights for all Turks. Even without such a shift, the escalating costs of the state’s war against the Kurds might at some point lead the Turkish middle class to question Erdogan’s leadership; a more liberal, reformist vision might then appear more attractive. Neither of those scenarios, however, seems particularly likely at the moment. For the foreseeable future, all Turks will be living in a country that has indisputably become Erdogan’s Turkey.

Source: Foreign Affairs , November/December 2016 Issue

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