Turkey's Erdoğan makes troubling turn toward Atatürk - Foreign Affairs

The politician from whom the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially sought to distance himself, the secular-minded, Western-leaning founder of Turkey, is the one Turkey’s president has come to resemble the most, said an analysis for Foreign Affairs magazine. 

Erdoğan is the most baffling politician in Turkey’s history, polarising and popular, by turns calm and angry, and with an ideology that shifts every few years. But starting with his early years in Turkey’s Islamist Welfare Party, he steadily built a base among Turkey’s poor and conservatives, which he converted into a series of increasingly impressive electoral victories, from Istanbul mayor in 1994 to the Turkish prime ministership and finally president in 2014.

“Erdoğan has converted his popular mandate into power and used that power to remake Turkey’s relations with the rest of the world,” Turkish analyst and author Kaya Genç wrote on Monday for Foreign Affairs. “His use of power has also generated dissent among feminists, leftists, and the secular middle class. Under Erdoğan’s watch, Turkey has become the world’s largest prison for journalists.”

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1924 and modernised Turkey by force in the years that followed, building a modern bureaucracy and a Turkish bourgeoisie while convincing a Muslim nation to embrace Western modernity. 

“Erdoğan initially criticised Atatürk’s centralised remaking of Turkey, blaming him for his highhanded style of rule,” said Genç. 

But particularly since the 2013 Gezi protests, by which time Erdoğan had lost the support of the followers of Fethullah Gülen, as well as Kurds and liberals, he turned to Turkish nationalists and adopted strikingly similar methods. “He now spoke admiringly of Atatürk and his politics, described his own critics as ‘rabble-rousers’ and claimed that Turkey was under siege by the West,” said Genç.

The failed coup of July 2016 gave Erdoğan a further excuse to centralise power. Under a state of emergency he detained tens of thousands of civil servants, closed more than 100 media outlets, and cancelled the passports of 50,000 Turks suspected of having links to coup plotters.

It worked, winning Erdoğan 53 percent of the vote in the 2018 presidential election. But he had partnered with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, worrying fellow Islamists by handing key positions to their main right-wing rival, according to Genç. Former Erdoğan allies including Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan began talking about launching rival parties to challenge the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

“The feedback mechanisms of AKP’s first years no longer work,” Akif Beki, Erdoğan’s chief adviser and spokesperson from 2005 to 2009, told Genç. “The party’s old sensitivities disappeared. Instead of conducting dialogue with voters, the AKP insists on a one-way propaganda monologue. Instead of facing problems, it conceals them.”

The alarming state of Turkey’s economy remains a problem, and in this year’s local elections the AKP saw its share of the vote fall dramatically in major cities, including the capital, Ankara. 

Yet the AKP has some 11 million party members, ten times as many as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Erdoğan wields near absolute control of Turkey’s institutions. Still, Turkey’s civil society remains strong and responsive. 

“Erdoğan’s great challenge over the next decade, as individualism grows in Turkey and Islamophobic populism rises in Europe, will be to convince voters that his mixture of anger and patience is still a model to follow, that his formation story can continue to inspire, and that only his unassailable ability can steer Turkey to safety,” said Genç.