New Turkey and Its Paradox (Part One)

Supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who often use the term “New Turkey” believe that the 12-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has opened a new phase in Turkish history.

They are partially right. Even those who resent Erdoğan’s autocratic discourse need to recognize that the country has come a long way in the last decade in areas such as health-care, infrastructure, fiscal discipline, inflation, municipal services and civil-military relations. The big question that continues to polarize Turkish politics, however, is whether the new Turkey is more democratic than the old one.

Again, the supporters of the AKP answer this question with a resounding “yes.” In their eyes, the AKP represents the will of the people and, for the first time in modern Turkish history, the military is unable to exert real influence behind the scenes. The critics of the AKP, however, strongly differ. They believe Erdoğan’s understanding of democracy is based on a simplistic and populist notion of winning elections. To them, this is a majoritarian and electoral understanding that comes at the expense of pluralism and liberalism. Such electoral autocracy does not pay attention to freedom of speech, the rule of law and the separation of powers and, thus, condemns Turkey to a second-class category among democracies. For them, this is exactly why the new Turkey of Erdoğan resembles the old one, where the military used to call the shots. In other words, the old type of authoritarianism has been replaced by a new one.

It is important to note that the West — mainly the United States and the European Union — tend to agree with the critics of Erdoğan. In the wake of recent local elections, it was hard to find a single editorial in Western media praising the “new” Turkey’s democratic standards. Instead, the focus was on corruption scandals and the bans imposed on social media like Twitter and YouTube. There is now a general consensus among Westerners that Erdoğan’s growing authoritarian style has eroded the positive image of the Turkish model that was praised only a few years ago. Under such circumstances, the question that most Westerners ask is simple: Why is an increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan still winning elections? The answer to this question is equally as simple: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

The AKP voters come from the largest segments of Turkish society: the urban-rural poor as well as the lower-middle classes aspiring to upper-middle class status. These masses amount to probably 60 to 70 percent of Turkish society. In their eyes, bread and butter problems take precedence over the Twitter ban, political freedoms, the independence of the media, crony capitalism or separation of powers. What really matters for most of these AKP voters are economic services and living standards. The fact that they come from conservative and nationalist backgrounds and share the patriarchal culture of the prime minister is the icing on the cake.

As a result, it should not be surprising that Erdoğan will keep winning elections as long as the economy performs reasonably well and adequate socioeconomic services are provided to these large segments of society. This is also why the real paradox of the new Turkey is to be found beyond the economy and elections.

The real paradox of the new Turkey is the following: If Erdoğan is indeed becoming increasingly authoritarian, why is he the only hope of Turkey for solving the Kurdish problem? This paradox is even more puzzling, since solving the Kurdish problem requires the opposite of what Erdoğan seems to provide: democracy, freedom of speech, rule of law, separation of powers, liberalism, decentralization of decision-making and less patriarchal governing structures.

Can Erdoğan provide all these attributes with his more authoritarian style? If the answer is “no,” why do the Kurds seem ready to support him? To answer this paradox, we need to analyze the pragmatic and Machiavellian side of Erdoğan. We will do so next week.

This piece was originally published in
Today’s Zaman