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Coup, Counter-​coup, Consequences – Part 3: The turn towards authoritarianism

The third blog in this series looks at the transition of Erdogan and his AKP party to an overtly Islamist stance

It is hard to pinpoint with any exactitude when, let alone why, Recip Erdogan transformed from being a figure seeking to modernize Turkey and its institutions to one pursuing a backward-looking Islamist agenda. Some analysts hold that Erdogan may have been a closet Islamist from the early stages of his career.

It is a fact, however, that in 1998, after spending ten months in prison for inciting religious intolerance, Erdogan seemed to have abandoned his hitherto openly Islamist stance to found the AKP in 2001, at that time a party with a moderately conservative agenda. This party would then win its first electoral victory in 2012. It has dominated Turkish politics ever since.

Around 2012, a number of factors came together that suggested that Erdogan was relinquishing the political course with which the AKP had so far largely been identified as well as the values underpinning them.

It was in this year that the legal basis was established for the construction of what has become one of the largest residences for a head of state anywhere. The palace, more than four times larger than the White House, with over a thousand rooms, cost twice as much as budgeted (it is pictured above). Its building was energetically opposed by Turkish civil society organizations. After winning his first presidential election in 2013, Erdogan moved into the palace the following year. Turks could be forgiven for believing that a megalomaniac was now at the helm. This construction of the palace was that much more resented as it coincided with an economic slowdown in Turkey.

In 2013, a major corruption scandal emerged when recordings of a conversation between Erdogan and his son about the need to creatively hide large sums of money hit the press. Adherents of the Gulen movement played a major role in bringing the matter to the public. Whether they were moved to do so out of concerns about propriety or a lack of access to the spoils is moot.

A bright spot in this otherwise dismal picture was the conclusion of a cease-fire with the PKK, the nationalist movement of the Turkish Kurds, the year before. But this was to be short-lived. In July 2015, Erdogan announced that it was impossible to maintain the peace process with the PKK. This coincided with the Syrian Kurdish movement becoming an ever more important ally for the Americans in their campaign against Syrian President Assad.

The renewal of hostilities between Ankara and the PKK seems to have brought the desired result. In Turkey’s most recent election in November 2015, the AKP regained its parliamentary majority with 49.4 percent of the suffrage. What seems to have been decisive here was the fall in support for the Kurdish PDP party, from 13 to 10 percent, as a part of the Kurdish population took fright in face of the terrible destruction that was being visited on the Kurdish-majority populated areas in the southeast of the country.

Ankara’s concerns about the way Turkish Kurds might be “infected” by the success of their brethren across the border in Syria is just one way in which the regional and international situation began to impact Turkish domestic politics in 2012.

Mainstream Turkey has still not come around to understanding that while Kurds are not Turks this does not necessarily mean that they want to separate from Turkey. And just how would they do this with the huge numbers of Kurds now residing in western Turkey? Estimates of their representation in western Turkish cities are all over the place but it seems that some 35 percent of them now call the western part of the country their home.

But this is just one example among many. With the decision by Washington not to act on its red line about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Erdogan will have concluded that US commitments could not be taken at face value and that America had become an unreliable ally.

Then too, the overall western effort in Syria, Iraq, and Libya will have struck him as amateurish, which it most certainly was. And how will Erdogan have interpreted the failure of Turkey’s western partners to condemn, let alone oppose, the coup of General Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, a close ally of Erdogan, who had become the first democratically-elected President of Egypt the year before?

It gets worse. Erdogan will have assumed owing to the migrant crisis of 2015 that the EU is a paper tiger when it comes to developing and exercising effective policy. He will have also understood that the EU could be bought. Turkey is set to receive some three billion euros in return for its efforts to help it control the flow from Syria and places further afield.

Perhaps a last lesson that Erdogan may have drawn from the events of the last couple of years is from Russia: authoritarianism, at least for certain European and American politicians – vide Donad Trump – is something they seem prepared to come to grips with. And Russia’s support for the Syrian dictator seems to have paid off, at least for the time being.

So where do relations between Turkey and its western allies go from here? For my views on this, see the concluding piece to this series.

David Law is a Senior Associate of the Security Governance Group and a Senior Fellow of its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. He is a former Head of NATO’s Policy Planning and Speechwriting Unit. In this capacity, he also followed Greek-Turkish relations for the Secretary General.

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