What is Happening in Turkey and Why? (By Fatma Müge Göçek)

4 Apr

What is Happening in Turkey and Why?

In spite of the public disclosure of widespread graft allegations that were copiously documented through illegally attained tapes, the ruling Justice and Development Party (hereafter AKP) managed to maintain its political dominance after the 31 March 2014 elections. This came as a dispiriting shock to more than half of Turkey’s population opposing AKP. How could people vote for a party that had so evidently lost its moral compass, aggressed upon any opposition, closed down the social media and clearly violated citizens’ rights? I too have been thinking about this question and would like to share my thoughts, regarding AKP’s success, the opposition’s current failure, and the future course of Turkey.


In the 1990s, my colleague Yılmaz Esmer and I conducted a survey in Istanbul and Konya on the rise of the Islamist movement in Turkey. Two results struck us in particular. One was formal: Islamists did not at all feel marginalized by the militantly secular state and its governments, demonstrating they were ready to become politically active. The other result was more informal: we wanted to compare our results with the research conducted by political parties. Visits to all party headquarters in Istanbul revealed that among them, only a single party periodically and systematically conducted surveys: the Welfare Party (hereafter RP), that is, the predecessor of the AKP. And this is probably AKP’s most significant asset: it continuously monitors the pulse of the populace, and does so in accordance with the latest technology. And it is no accident that RP and later AKP had the best voter records in the country that they could then utilize to get out the vote. Many AKP researchers were educated and trained in the United States how to develop campaign strategies, reach the electorate, and raise funds.

At the time, when I constantly mentioned these AKP activities to my friends and colleagues and asked them to get going if they wanted to counter this mobilization, they accused me of being an AKP supporter. And I initially indeed was because I believed – and still do – that AKP’s ability to mobilize the marginalized masses and bring them into the body politic would improve the health of Turkey’s democracy. AKP especially enabled the ‘Anatolian Tigers’ — who amassed wealth especially in Turkey’s post-Cold War opening to the world markets — to translate their economic resources to political power. AKP also strategically invested in the two constituents that hold the key to the future in politics, namely women and youth, making sure to include them in the party hierarchy. Most significantly, AKP had an economic vision, one that promised to put citizens before the state. The world economic conjuncture was fortunately in their favor in actualizing their mostly neoliberal projects.

Yet the passage of a decade revealed that AKP has inherent weaknesses as well. It appears that the most serious weakness is predicated on its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is extremely smart, economically savvy, but socially and culturally crude. He sees democracy as a means to an end, defining the end as the well-being of his supporters alone, at the expense of the rest of the populace. And he feels he has the necessary power concentrated on him to not only rule Turkey, but eventually the entire Muslim world as well. I cringe when I write about who Erdoğan is/has become because I naively believed that he had been socialized yet also repressed in Turkey enough to not undermine democratic principles, but uphold them. Yet he has no respect for democracy. All leaders who are in positions of power more than a decade start to fully identify with their posts, thinking they are the state and government personified… They then take any criticism they hear personally. That is where Erdoğan is located at the moment. Even though term limits are set to counter exactly such hubris, power obviously corrupts, leading one to hang on as long as possible. The fact that he has eliminated all critics from his retinue after the 2008 party congress and the 2011 elections, only keeping sycophants feeds this hubris as well. He should have kept his friends close, enemies even closer, but he evidently has not.


The second weakness is AKP’s shift of Turkey’s orientation from the west to the east with mixed results. Especially the problematic political positions Erdoğan has taken ın relatıon to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, for instance, because of his ideological stand have brought Turkey to the brink of war. Economically, monies have flooded into Turkey from Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, alongside Iran. Since, unlike Turkey, the economies of these eastern countries are mostly informally run, a lot of corruption allegations have been surfacing especially during the last couple of years. Iran needs special mention since once again acting ideologically against the ‘bad west,’ Turkey under Erdoğan helped break the trade embargo over Iran by procuring most needed economic resources. The middleman Reza Zarrab bribed many Turkish state and government officials to procure tons of gold; the official Turkish Airlines and state vehicles transported armaments to rebels in Syria and Sudan. These infractions are serious enough to marginalize Turkey within the world economic order, but Erdoğan has decided that Turkey belongs not to the west, but instead to the ranks of the rogue states of the east. I think that the huge amounts of cash found in the possession of leading AKP members point to a combination of greed and ideology: there is greed because money corrupts, and almost all AKP politicians including Erdoğan come from very modest backgrounds and therefore have no qualms about accumulating personal wealth generated both within and outside the country. There is also ideology because most is probably funneled into foundations to guarantee future AKP victories for his followers, especially by making educational investments. And this explains why AKP voters were willing to forgive such moral lapse. This also undergirds the main point of contention with the Gülen movement; after all, Gülen rose to prominence through education and could see how Erdoğan was there undercutting him through such similar practices.

AKP has two additional structural weaknesses. First, AKP does not tolerate dissent either within or outside the party. This stand will gradually stunt growth and development, leading the party to ossify over time with only old, conservative and male leaders left at the helm. Second, AKP bases its legitimacy almost entirely on economic success; its social measures, for instance, are much less developed. Yet, I think Turkey is headed for an economic downturn during the next couple of years. This is so because of the lack of financial trust in Turkey given the graft allegations, the violent treatment of the opposition, and especially the closing down of Twitter and the like on the one side, and the current migration of monies from developing countries like Turkey to the now recovering developed countries like the U.S. on the other. Once the economic bubble bursts, AKP’s rule will destabilize within the next decade, probably leading to fractures in the party, generating a more democratic and liberal party from within AKP, very similar to the way AKP originated from within RP.


It is now time to turn to analyzing the opposition. One observation I have constantly made during AKP rule was that not having a significant political opposition has been both their advantage and also disadvantage. It is an advantage because it enables AKP’s political success. Yet it is a disadvantage because it cannot hold AKP accountable for its actions by constantly monitoring them and also by providing alternate solutions to problems. Why has the opposition been so fractured? I think both the Republican People’s Party (hereafter CHP) and the National Action Party (hereafter MHP) suffer from the same ailment: they are old and outdated, remnants of the ancient order. The two have always identified with and supported by the state; in turn, they have actively participated in or supported the use of violence against all alleged potential opponents of the regime such as non-Muslims, leftists, Kurds and Alevis. CHP and MHP therefore have very heavy political baggage that voters, especially the once marginalized and traumatized ones cannot overlook. That is why they cannot raise their votes beyond the current thresholds. I think CHP and MHP should either elect young, progressive leaders to continue their existence or slowly disappear into the dustbin of history.

What ought to be the new political vision of the AKP opposition? I think the vision of a new, vibrant, progressive, and inclusive political party is best captured at the moment by the People’s Democracy Party (hereafter HDP) under the leadership of Sırrı Süreyya Önder who was the only politician that actively participated in the May-June 2013 Taksim Gezi movement. HDP consciously includes women and youth, prioritizes social welfare over economic profit, and is socially progressive. Had I been in Turkey, I would have voted for them because of what they aspire to do. March 31st election results demonstrate, however, that Turkish nationalism is a larger obstacle impeding HDP’s transformation into a mainstream party than I thought. Since HDP has its origins in the equally progressive yet only regionally active Peace and Democracy Party (hereafter BDP), it is too much identified with the Kurds of Turkey. I personally have no problem with such a connection especially given their progressive stand on all issues. But it seems that HDP members need to work harder to forge networks not only with women and non-Muslim minorities as they already have, but also with liberal white Turks. Only then will they be able to expand their ranks throughout society to become a viable opposition to AKP. So among the existing opposition parties at the moment, I think HDP has the most potential in eventually challenging AKP.

I think there is, however, a dire and desperate need for another center-right opposition party, one that will be able to organize and mobilize the progressive middle class as well as the rising urban bourgeoisie in major cities – just the way AKP initially did in the provinces. Why has not there been one until now? The problem is rooted in our republican history. After the systematic and violent destruction of the non-Muslim bourgeoisie, the state created a national Turkish bourgeoisie under its strict control. As such, not only was the republican bourgeoisie totally dependent on the state for survival, but it also could never translate its economic resources to political power. Think about the very prominent, well-educated business families like the Koç, Sabancı and Eczacıbaşı as well as other business elites in Istanbul and Izmir – almost no one has ever gone into politics, not even daring to join a political party. They have not done so because the Turkish state in general and the military in particular controlled access to the political sphere; the most educated business elite were kept aside while the less advantaged who passed republican scrutiny formed the bureaucratic elite. The business elite were kept away because the bureaucratic elite knew if the business elite also attained political power, they would overthrow the hegemony of the state and military officials once and for all.

That is indeed what almost happened with Democrat Party (1946-60) rule under the leadership of Adnan Menderes. The party was violently extinguished by the first military coup in republican history. Another great missed opportunity emerged with the New Democracy Movement and later party (1994-97) headed by businessman Cem Boyner. I think this presented an incredible opportunity to form such a center-right opposition party, but it too was again virulently opposed and destroyed by the state and military officials. All the while, religiously oriented parties exhibited a checkered presence in Turkish political life as they were periodically shut down. Yet each closure was followed by a newly founded party because, unlike the business elite, these party members had no economic resources to lose. They kept trying all the way to AKP. And AKP finally succeeded because it was able to mobilize the provincial bourgeoisie that had started to accumulate economic resources especially in the aftermath of the Cold War. Since Turkey had to open to the world markets then, state and military officials could no longer sustain their control over the bourgeoisie. While the provincial bourgeoisie mobilized with AKP and came to power, the progressive urban bourgeoisie of Istanbul and Izmir stalled. They stalled because they had stayed out of politics for so long that they could not immediately realize how much the political stakes had gone up in charting the future course of the country.

Now is the time for the progressive urban bourgeoisie and the business elite to mobilize. They can no longer afford to remain apolitical. If they want to continue living in Turkey, they not only have to participate in politics, but they also need to help build a political party within the next decade, one modern and progressive enough to challenge AKP rule. (They could also possibly join forces with HDP, but I do not think HDP would be willing to move that far to the right). Only by acting right away and for at least a decade will they be able to guarantee a future Turkey that is still oriented toward the west, one that is still based on fundamental human rights and the rule of law. Otherwise, they will have to painfully watch Turkey slip into a mediocre Middle Eastern state under authoritarian rule.


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