Dissent is not an option in Erdogan’s new world

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan speaks during an election rally of his ruling AK Party in Istanbul (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan speaks during an election rally of his ruling AK Party in Istanbul (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it perfectly clear what he thinks of those critics in the European Union who recently took him to task over a crackdown on journalists.

“Whether the EU accepts us as members or not, we have no such concern. Please keep your insights to yourself,” he said last week, warming to his theme a few days later by telling its leaders to “take the trouble of coming here so that Turkey teaches you a lesson in democracy”.

Such verbal counteroffensives have come to be expected from Mr Erdogan, a man rarely afflicted by self-doubt.

Perhaps it should trouble him, however, that after the issuing of an arrest warrant for Fethullah Gulen – an influential US-based cleric who was an Erdogan ally until last year – the Turkish president is making it tough even for his admirers to come to his defence.

The move is blatantly political: an attack on the leader of a mass movement whose followers, it seems likely, were behind a corruption scandal implicating many close to Mr Erdogan, but whose head has consistently denied any ambitions for himself.

Nevertheless, the Gulenists, who run a network of schools in over 100 countries and are prominently represented in Turkey’s business, judicial and media sectors, represent a potential alternative power base – and that is something Mr Erdogan gives every sign of being unwilling to tolerate.

Indeed, it would seem that the prospects of any of his countrymen and women who challenge him are dim, as the media executives recently detained on charges of belonging to a terrorist group can testify.

Mr Erdogan was always controversial to those who doubted his commitment to the idea of the open society. But in his early years after becoming prime minister in 2003, there was much to commend him.

He challenged and broke the army’s behind-the-scenes monopoly of power, and he and the AKP gave a voice to the huge percentage of Turks who regarded the rigid secularism of Ataturk and his successors as an imposition that violated their rights and their beliefs. If they wanted to be more overtly religiously observant, why shouldn’t they be? It was absurd, for instance, that in a Muslim majority country female civil servants were banned from wearing the headscarf until October 2013.

Under him, Turkey appeared to provide an example of how Islam – and, just as importantly, mildly religion-based parties such as the AKP – and democracy could coexist perfectly well.

There have been other models of Muslim-majority democracies, Malaysia is the example most often raised.

The difference was that Turkey was making the transition into being a more freely functioning democracy, after many decades of the military intervening whenever it felt like it. That, even before the Arab Spring, was an example of great interest. Could Turkey, it was asked, offer a way forward for Iraq, Afghanistan or even Pakistan?

There were those who, perhaps over-optimistically, also thought that the AKP represented the end point of a path parties like Hamas could be encouraged to take, renouncing violence and moving from the extreme to the mainstream.

The AKP has won a series of victories in what were unquestionably free and fair elections. The “Turkish model” ought to remain one worthy of study and consideration.

Unfortunately, it is Mr Erdogan himself who, by his steady accumulation of power, muzzling of anyone who disagrees with him, and brutal handling of protests in Gezi Park and elsewhere, has so thoroughly discredited it that it is little talked of any more. All that is quite apart from the suggestion that if, as the Turkish analyst and Carnegie Endowment scholar Bayram Balci wrote earlier this year, “he seems to be heading a corrupt government”, then “neither Erdogan, nor AKP, nor Turkey can be seen as a model for any country in the world”.

Mr Erdogan has won the mandate of the people again and again, most recently in last summer’s elections to a presidency that used to be ceremonial, but which he has managed to turn into an executive post by pushing the constitutions to its limits. That should be enough. If he would like to be a leader people speak of admiringly, the least he should do is allow that internal critics hardly seem to do his popularity any harm – and that one of the reasons he did earn praise was because he opened Turkey up to areas of discussion the secularists had closed.

That praise will cease if it turns out, as his critics always said, that his long-term aim was not to open the country up to a plurality of views, but to win power, consolidate it, and then shut down the secularist space. That would make him as bad as the guardians of the old “deep state”. It is hardly encouraging that the last time Gulen was tried, for “establishing an organisation with the objective of committing crimes” – very similar charges to the current ones – was in 2000, under the old secularist dispensation.

What was refreshing about Mr Erdogan and the AKP was that they challenged the autocratic and paternalistic tendencies of the old politics. It would be a tragedy for the country if the brief “Turkish spring” turned out only to be a staging post from one form of control to another.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant based in Doha and Kuala Lumpur

Published: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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