How the 20 year rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has transformed Turkey
In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), obtained a parliamentary majority in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. The seemingly unstoppable rise of political Islam throughout the turbulent 1990s had finally culminated in a much-dreaded loss for a Kemalist political establishment committed to the secular vision of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic.
Twenty years on, many of the prophesies about Erdogan’s leadership remain unfulfilled. The fears of his opponents were encapsulated in the slogan “Turkey will not become Iran!” Turkey decidedly did not turn into Iran, but it did turn into something that even the most pessimistic observers could not have predicted at the time. Though Turkish democracy has always been illiberal to a certain extent, it has never resembled an autocracy as much as it does today, save for the early republican period.
Turkey Under Erdogan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West – Dimitar Bechev (Yale University Press).
In Turkey Under Erdogan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West, Dimitar Bechev contributes a timely assessment of the last 20 years. Timely, because there is a real possibility that Erdogan’s appeal is starting to crumble.
In his introduction, Bechev suggests that Turkey is likely to return to democracy in the future – a general election is due in 2023. But he finishes his book with a more prudent prognosis, suggesting that Erdogan’s legacy will outlive his political career, regardless of how that career comes to end.
Readers should not expect a political biography of Erdogan in this book. In fact, Erdogan as a person – his personality, his relationship to various people and ideas – is often not discussed directly.
Turkey under Erdogan is, rather, a book about the transformations Turkey has undergone in the years since the AKP came to power. Bechev attributes many developments to actors other than Erdogan, presenting an insightful and balanced account of the multiple variables that have contributed to democratic decline and the rise of Erdogan the strongman.
Before analysing the changes under Erdogan’s AKP, Bechev establishes continuity with the past. The first two chapters provide historical background to Erdogan’s rule, focusing on Turkey’s domestic affairs and international relations from the late 1980 into the 1990s.
Bechev traces several of Erdogan’s hallmarks back to his predecessors. The unholy marriage of free-market economics with conservative cultural and social policies was not Erdogan’s invention. Nor was his pursuit of a pro-European and pro-Western agenda in combination with increased regional engagement.
Among Erdogan’s predecessors, Bechev places Turgut Özal, who served as prime minister from 1983 to 1989, and then as president until 1993, in a privileged position. Comparisons between Özal and Erdogan are not unheard of, but this is quite unorthodox. Bechev’s extensive comparison almost obscures the influence of Erdogan’s more immediate political family.
Erdogan’s populism goes beyond branding, clientelism and polarisation through culture wars. It also engages people through government-operated or co-opted civil institutions and the party’s grassroots organisations. These strategies have been instrumental in advancing Erdogan’s social policies, as well as his electoral success.
In explaining Erdogan’s rise to power, Bechev notes that the AKP benefitted from a punitive vote against the leaders and political parties that had led Turkey through the 1990s. But he does not mention that the AKP’s electoral win was at least as much due to their ability to mobilise support at a grassroots level. Nor does he mention that the strategies and structures enabling that mobilisation were directly inherited from Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party, Refah Partisi. Erdogan had been a member of Erbakan’s Islamist party before it was banned in 1998 for violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
Bechev deals with the so-called “golden years” of the AKP from the middle to the end of 2000s, firstly from a domestic perspective, then from a foreign affairs point of view. He describes this as a period of intense reform through several European Union harmonisation packages. These reforms were transformational, despite Turkey’s bid for EU membership quickly reaching an impasse.
During this early period, Erdogan was not in a position to ignore the demands of his allies and the opposition. His success was built on his astuteness in picking his battles and using the pro-European consensus to his advantage.
There are diverging opinions about when Erdogan turned away from democratisation, or whether he had been truly committed to it at all. Bechev focuses on the process of change and the consequences of the reforms, rather than the intentions of the reformers, and offers a nuanced reading of this transitional period. He apportions responsibility between various actors. For instance, the opposition’s nationalist and reactionary sentiment bore some responsibility for the ultimate failure of the Kurdish Opening – a policy designed to resolve tensions between the government and the nation’s Kurdish population – which was unable to move beyond symbolic cultural recognition and ensure long-term peace.
Erdogan’s refusal to officially recognise the Republic of Cyprus, a first step to normalising the relationship, also had to do with his need to appease his domestic opponents at the bargaining table on other pressing issues.
This assessment does not exonerate the AKP from responsibility, but acknowledges that these goals would have been unachievable, even if the AKP had been fully committed to their resolution. Perhaps the AKP’s reformist zeal would have been more sustained, had there been a realistic hope of gaining EU membership when major European countries were hostile to the idea.
The “golden years” were a period of relative openness. Liberals and the Kurds welcomed cultural rights for minorities and legislative reforms that curbed the political power of the military. Destabilisation of the political establishment freed voices that had been repressed. For example, a few conferences about the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16, an event that is officially denied by the Turkish government, were organised by some public and private universities in the mid-2000s – a feat unimaginable before or since.
The economy was doing well too, judging by the increasing GDP. There were reasons to be optimistic about the future. But things were about to change.
In Turkey, life for Syrian refugees and Kurds is becoming increasingly violent
In a chapter titled A Rude Awakening, Bechev turns to the effect of the Arab Spring of 2010-11 and the Syrian civil war on Turkish foreign policy.
Like Özal before him, Erdogan was a trailblazer in his engagement with the Middle East, breaking with the old policy of containment. After the Arab Spring, he went a step further, resorting to hard power in Syria and Libya.
Erdogan metamorphosed into the strongman that he is today between 2007 and 2015. Bechev argues that the transformation was slow, but he identifies a few turning points. One of these was 30 July 2008, when the Constitutional Court decided against banning the AKP for undermining the secularist principles of the Turkish Republic, despite the fact that several other Islamist parties had previously been banned.
Although the decision was favourable to the AKP, it prompted Erdogan to reform the judiciary, amending the constitution to avoid the possibility of a future ban. These reforms were presented as democratic. They were supposed to target the “constitution of the junta” and remove the reactionary nationalist mindset from the state apparatus. In reality, they resulted in a weakening or loss of independence of the judiciary.
It was during this period that the Ergenekon trials, which had started in 2007 with the promise of bringing the members of the so-called “deep state” to justice, went beyond their original intent and became a purge that enabled the government to install loyal supporters in positions of power. Ironically, the Gulenists, who were the architects and, to a large extent, the beneficiaries of this purge, subsequently fell out of favour and the same methods were used against members of their own movement.
The Gezi Park protest in 2013 was another turning point. Erdogan’s cavalier attitude and polarising strategy alienated not only liberals, but many of his political allies. Bechev emphasises the importance of internal divisions in the AKP, which opened up possibilities of new alliances, particularly with the extreme right. One of the most interesting observations in the book is the disproportionate contribution that the Nationalist Movement Party, Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP), a small player in Turkish politics, made to the democratic decline of the country.
Bechev argues that Erdogan introduced a form of executive presidency from 2014, before the parliamentary system was replaced by a presidential system in 2018. As the first president elected by popular vote, Erdogan presented himself as the incarnation of “people’s will” and started ruling the country with his powers largely unchecked.
After the 2015 general elections, the AKP forged an alliance with the MHP, an ultra-nationalist party which had been absent from the parliament since 2002, unable to cross the 10% threshold to win seats. Bechev attributes Erdogan’s increasingly belligerent nationalism to this alliance. It is arguable, however, that the AKP did not need ultra-nationalist allies to indulge in nationalist rhetoric, considering the huge purchase of nationalism across the political spectrum.
Hopes of the AKP ever resolving the conflict with the Kurds were destroyed during this period. Erdogan’s unapologetic embrace of nationalism coincided with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), making the strategic error of bringing the armed conflict into urban areas. The PKK forces were predictably defeated in 2015, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP), which Erdogan depicted as the political arm of the PKK, paid the price.
Ukraine war: crisis between the west and Russia gives Turkey a chance to strengthen its hand at home and abroad
The final three chapters of Turkey Under Erdogan focus on the combined impact of what Bechev calls “imperial presidency” and the nationalist turn in Turkish foreign policy. In a chapter dedicated to relations with Russia, Bechev presents Erdogan as being fully in charge of foreign policy, wooing Russia in order to achieve Turkey’s goals in Syria.
Tensions between Turkey and Russia were rife over Crimea, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and indeed Syria. But Putin and Erdogan managed to reach a mutually beneficial understanding. In doing so, they sidelined the US, which was focused on defeating ISIS under the Obama administration and looking for a way out of the conflict under Trump.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Iran and Russia put additional strain on its relationship with the US. Bechev argues that Trump was good news for Erdogan, despite the drama and the sanctions, and observes that Turkey’s course has not changed since Biden was elected.
Bechev sees Erdogan’s regional ambition, not as the product of a neo-Ottoman fantasy, but as a result of multiple factors, including the disengagement of the US from the Middle East. He depicts Erdogan as rather shrewdly escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean to give Turkey leverage in negotiations, creating a nationalist consensus with his traditional political rivals, while increasing Turkey’s naval capability. He concludes that Erdogan’s ambition to approach his neighbours from a position of strength is a result of nationalist politics that harnesses a wide-spread scepticism towards the West and a response to the changing playing field in the region.
Could tensions between Greece and Turkey lead to a second European war?
The refugee deal
Turkey remains economically and politically connected to Europe to a larger extent than its Middle Eastern neighbours. Bechev describes the relationship between Europe and Turkey as increasingly transactional.
This is exemplified by the refugee deal that positions Turkey as Europe’s gatekeeper. It partly explains the reluctance of Europe to impose sanctions on Turkey when Erdogan escalated the Greek-Turkish border crisis in 2020, sending a flood of refugees into Europe.
Bechev argues that a neutral third party, such as the US, could broker a deal, but we are yet to see Biden’s policy on the issue. Turkey has also made a strong bid for leadership in the Balkans, where countries such as Serbia, Kosovo and Albania are similarly frustrated by EU accession negotiations.
Despite the emphasis on religious identity under Erdogan, the economic benefit of Turkey’s friendship largely flows to non-Muslim majority countries in the Balkans. In economic terms, Bechev considers Turkey an integral part of the European marketplace and demonstrates that the country’s economic interest undeniably resides in a closer relationship with Europe.
Yet politics often brings Turkey into confrontation with Europe, jeopardising economic growth in the country. The depreciation of Turkish currency and the shrinking reserves of foreign currency are possibly the biggest challenges that Erdogan will face in the years to come, that is, if he stays in power.
Turkey Under Erdogan presents a powerful and balanced interpretation of Turkish politics over the last two decades. It is well written and easy to read for a non-specialist audience. It must be noted, however, that some important areas of enquiry are left out, such as the relations with China and India, and environmental challenges. Other conspicuous absences are discussions of civil society and activism, which are crucial elements for understanding the nature of democratic participation and decline in Turkey. Notwithstanding these few lapses, this is an insightful and rich history that connects the dots between Turkey’s recent past and its present.