New Turkey and Its Paradox (Part Two)

As I tried to explain in this column last week, there is a glaring paradox about the so-called “new Turkey.” I will remind readers and clarify what the concept of “new” means exactly, but one needs to have some basic familiarity with how the Justice and Development (AKP) and its supporters define the “old” Turkey.

The old Turkey, in their eyes, was a place where the economy was in shambles — with high inflation, chronic public deficits, poor municipal services and systemic corruption. Most importantly, the military, the guardians of the system, called the shots by toppling or pressuring civilian governments. And as far as foreign policy was concerned, they believed Turkey used to punch below its weight and had almost no regional soft power in the Middle East as a model of Muslim democracy.

Those who don’t buy the rosy picture of today rightly point out that the current state of Turkish democracy in this so-called new Turkey leaves a lot to be desired. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s understanding of democracy is indeed based on a simplistic and populist notion of winning elections. His majoritarian and electoral understanding comes at the expense of individual rights and liberties, an independent media and the freedoms of expression and association. The absence of rule of law as well as problems with the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers still condemns Turkey to a second-class category among democracies. This is why, under the populist and hegemonic style of Erdoğan, the old type of Turkish authoritarianism (dominated by the military) has been replaced by a “new” one based on the tyranny of the majority and the hegemony of Erdoğan.

What about the economic achievements of the new Turkey? Although it is hard to argue against the fact that the country is a more prosperous place compared to the 1990s, the latest corruption scandals clearly revealed that political networks of tender-fixing, influence-peddling, patronage and cronyism still plagues the Turkish system. Corruption is indeed still systemic in the new Turkey. It is also important to remember that the structural reforms that changed the “old” Turkey, dominated by state-owned enterprises under import substitution, came not with the AKP but thanks to the visionary leadership of Turgut Özal in the second half of the 1980s.

However, those who don’t buy the rosy picture of the new Turkey face an important dilemma. Why is an autocratic Erdoğan still the only hope for solving the Kurdish problem? Everyone agrees that the Kurdish problem is the most daunting challenge facing Turkish democracy. As argued last week, 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. The fact that Erdoğan is the best hope of fulfilling such a promise — by negotiating a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — is indeed a glaring paradox that requires explanation.

Some argue that the peace process with the Kurds is cosmetic, tactical and hollow. They believe Erdoğan calculated in a Machiavellian way that he needs the support of Kurds to get elected to the presidency and to change the system into a presidential one after the AKP wins the next parliamentary elections. But this is a highly risky strategy since winning the Kurdish vote also means losing a significant amount of support from Turkish nationalists — an important segment of the AKP base. Another way to analyze the paradox is to actually believe that Erdoğan is genuine in his willingness to solve the Kurdish problem by adopting a more Ottoman system of multiculturalism and decentralization, where the sultan delegates power to regions.

One should also not underestimate the fact that Erdoğan manages to identify with the victim narrative of the Kurds. He, after all, has a similar narrative of victimhood based on being a pious Muslim under secular Kemalist hegemony. What we may be witnessing in the new Turkey is a coalition of pious Muslims and Kurds taking their revenge on Kemalism. In that sense, the best way to analyze the new Turkey is to remain skeptical of the rosy picture and focus on what post-Kemalism will bring to the country in terms of solving the Kurdish question. The “newness” of Turkey can only be confirmed when a more democratic and multicultural Turkey does emerge and peacefully solves the Kurdish problem in a post-Kemalist context.

This piece was originally published in Today’s Zaman.