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Turkey at a crossroads

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey originally founded itself as a secular, anti-establishment party. Now that its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has effectively eliminated institutional controls and silenced opposition, AKP has become the de facto establishment and amended its narrative and policies to capitalise on the increasingly authoritarian mood. As the global availability of cheap credit dwindles, will Erdogan’s government resort to further authoritarian measures?

January 28, 2019 - Medeni Sungur - Articles and Commentary

Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara. Photo: Borya (cc) flickr.com

“There is no difference, where aims are concerned, between a terrorist with a gun and bomb in his hand and a terrorist who has dollars, euros, and interest rates.” – Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey has been an early experimentation field for a number of political trends experienced in the Western world since the end of the Cold War. A long-time EU aspirant, Turkey entered into a customs union with the European Union in 1996. Subsequent years saw an increased institutionalisation of the state structure and an upsurge of democratic reforms, including abolition of the death penalty, deterrence against the use of torture by police and penitentiaries and the establishment of independent regulatory authorities. Turkey has been quick to catch the democratisation wave. These reforms were taken to the next level when the Justice and Development Party (AKP), of which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the leader, won a parliamentary majority in 2002. In the early 2000s, Turkey exemplified how a Muslim majority country could be secular, modern and progressive.

In a departure from this earlier optimism, certain populist elements emerged in Erdogan’s discourse long before mass migration ignited a new generation of populist movements or questions regarding Turkey’s ambition for democracy arose. Gradually, Erdogan’s name became a regular add-on in the club along with Orban, Putin or Kaczynski. The excitement first turned to doubt and later to full-blown criticism by 2010, when Turkey’s democracy and human rights scores began to dwindle.

Turkey remains an understudied case in democratisation literature. Neither the academic community nor practitioners have developed a comprehensive analytical framework to explain this shift from a democratising, westernising nation to authoritarian rule. Certain analytical categories have been borrowed from both the transition paradigm and hybrid regime literature – categories such as democracies with adjectives (e.g. delegative, majoritarian and illiberal) or competitive authoritarianism, which is often used to describe the recent Turkish situation. Although frequently cited together, no comparative analysis of Turkish “populism” vis-à-vis Hungary, Poland, France, Germany or United States exists.

To what extent is Erdogan populist?

Today, the transition paradigm is under question. Might the transition not be a linear path from authoritarian to democratic governance? Can competitive authoritarianism be a final stop rather than a station on the way to full liberal democracy? Turkey will be one of the most important testing grounds for similar questions in the coming years.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a popular personification of authoritarian populist leadership; however, most studies neglect to point out which qualities are unique to Turkish populism. These broader elements are crystallised in Erdogan’s discourse, but their roots stretch back far before his first term in power. Whether it is of the left or right, populism has been alive and well throughout the history of the 96-year-old republic (if not earlier). What makes Erdogan different from his predecessors is his ability to translate these typically divisive tendencies into a unified 50 per cent voter bloc through the transformative power of populist discourse.

Despite its wide application, populism does not have a conventionally agreed definition and is used to label different political phenomenon in different countries. However, certain characteristics of populist discourse can be traced from Latin America to Asia. These include, but are not limited to, a binary conception of the world (us vs. them), positioning on the side of “the people” vs. “the elites” and an appeal to a nostalgic, conflated past glory. More recently, with regards to political movements in Europe, the term denotes an array of contrarian positions, such as being anti-establishment, anti-globalisation, anti-Islam, anti-immigration or anti-EU. Finally, it is used to define a set of political attempts to actively undermine the rule of law, mainstream media and institutions deemed part of the establishment.

AKP was established in 2001 and positioned itself as the representative of the periphery, particularly the Kurds and conservatives, both of which have been deliberately excluded from power positions and the resource distribution mechanism through legal-institutional arrangements since the founding of the Republic of Turkey. Since then, AKP effectively adopted an anti-establishment narrative and portrayed itself as the actor most capable of correcting this historical injustice. However, a set of significant changes to the judicial structure was taken to popular vote in 2010, eliminating the impact of traditionally powerful institutions, such as the military, on civil politics. Thus AKP became the de facto establishment.

At this point, the narrative had to change, and it did so in two fundamental ways. First, the ever-present memory of historical injustice morphed into fears of the bad old days Turkey might return to should AKP lose power. Secondly, Erdogan and Turkey came to be portrayed as the “hope of the oppressed”, from Palestine to Xinjiang and other places with significant Muslim populations that have felt unfairly pressured by Western powers. Along with this sentiment aimed mainly against the West and the powers that be. The Turkish government promoted another new discourse, claiming that the “world is bigger than five” (a reference to the UN Security Council structure) and tacitly positioning Turkey as anti-establishment – this time at a global level.

No other contrarian position seen in European (or American) populist movements is significantly visible in Turkey. In fact, the European and Turkish populist movements diverge when it comes to immigration and the effects of globalisation, the lowest hanging fruits among European populists. Erdogan is not anti-immigration primarily because he, from the beginning, welcomed the Syrians and has spent at least 40 billion dollars since 2011, a position which he cannot easily retract. Secondly, the group lines have been drawn somewhat differently based on identity conceptions. Syrians are “Muslim”: in European populist discourse, this translates as “not from us”, whereas in the context of Turkey’s self-designated conservative democratic government it means “somehow from us”. Unlike most European populists, Erdogan does not exploit xenophobic sentiments nearly as much as he stresses another one proven to be equally powerful: anti-Westernism.

Moreover Erdogan’s voters are not the losers of globalisation. In fact, per capita purchasing power in Turkey incessantly rose from 9,330 US dollars (2002) to 26,504 US dollars (2017). An ordinary Turk has been enjoying the benefits of development in the form of renewed roads, better transportation infrastructure, refurnished government buildings and better public services. Since 2010, this has been complemented by the excessively cheap credit disproportionately available to Turkish consumers, translating into new apartments, new cars and new businesses. This has been possible thanks to a range of monetary decisions made by the US Federal Reserve Bank and the European Central Bank (ECB) after the 2008 global crisis that culminated in a flow of easy capital from developed to developing nations. Turkey, along with other BRICS nations, was one of the main beneficiaries.

Longitudinal data provides a strong relationship between prosperity and voter behavior in Turkey. Whenever they feel affluent, Turks support the actor that they think provides prosperity. When the riches are gone, they change their voting behavior. For example, Turgut Özal, the centre-right politician who served as the president of Turkey between 1989 and 1993, was the Erdogan of the day and received similar criticism about authoritarian tendencies; he oversaw ten years of economic growth but lost the government in 1991 once the Gulf war’s effects began to batter the Turkish economy and the government subsequently began to engage in easy capital policies that it could not sustain.

Easy capital not only translated into election wins for AKP: it also meant increased capacity for the government to provide social benefits without harming budget discipline. This is another key factor that acts as an external remedy covering for policy mistakes or democratic setbacks that would normally prove fatal for the government of a country which is highly dependent on foreign investment – especially of Western origin. Coupled with the increasingly repressive media environment and blatant attacks on freedom of expression, Erdogan was able to politically capitalise on this free flow of money.

On top of easy money, Turkish populism itself demonstrates a distinctive element which has been successfully exploited under Erdogan: anti-West sentiment. Erdogan deflects any criticism regarding democratic setbacks, imprisoned journalists and erosion of the rule of law as nothing but put-downs made by Western powers disturbed by the rise of Turkey as the voice of the oppressed. Similarly, he successfully blamed certain structural policy problems (such as the recent economic downturn) on deliberate attempts by the West to destabilise Turkey. This fabricated attack on national security distracts from and postpones the reform process, which would eventually cripple the government’s ability to single-handedly govern the country.

A Testing Ground

Turkey does not possess enough natural resources, a cheap labor pool or a highly qualified workforce to keep it a lucrative investment destination in the absence of rule of law, democratic standards or easy capital. Turkey depends on foreign direct investment to finance its 180 US dollars billion external debt and its 50 US dollars billion current account deficit. With the Federal Reserve Bank increasing interest rates, the American economy booming and the ECB ending its stimulus program, international investment is flowing back to advanced economies, leaving Turkey (and similar countries) at a crossroads.

If Erdogan takes repressive economic measures such as capital controls, fixing the exchange rate or artificially lowering interest rates to stimulate consumption, Turkey will further lose investor confidence. If he returns to the reformist agenda, it will come at the price of fostering more pluralist media, more criticism and the prospect of eventually losing control. The route he chooses to pursue, and the popular reactions to it will also be a litmus test on whether the public support Erdogan has accrued is a success of populist propaganda or a result of economic prosperity.

Medeni Sungur. Photo: Private collection

Medeni Sungur is the Executive Director of Freedom Research Association, an independent and non-partisan public policy research organisation based in Ankara and dedicated to individual liberty, peace, prosperity and free markets. 

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