Turkey’s downward slide under Recep Tayyip Erdogan

30 June 2016

Distinguished Professor Amin Saikal, Director of the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies

Turkey has moved from a state of certainty, stability, development and democracy to a position of confusion, instability and power centralisation. As a critical link between Europe and Asia, and as a NATO member, it is now plunged into a crisis of direction. Unless the country's leadership changes course to arrest this downward slide, the challenges facing Turkey could prove to be overwhelming.

When the Justice and Development Party won the 2002 general elections and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan took over as prime minister, it marked a promising turning point in Turkey's historical evolution. This was the first time in the history of not only Turkey, but the Muslim world, that a moderate, Islamist-rooted party had democratically come to power in a country that was founded on secularist principles almost a century ago.

The AK and its leadership quickly proved to be energetically reformist. Within eight years, they succeeded in elevating Turkey from a state of political inertia and social and economic stagnation under long periods of secularist and at times military rule to a position of democratic and social-economic progress. They successfully managed to reduce Turkey's inflation rate from two digits to one, stabilise and invigorate the economic situation and attract massive foreign investment, making the Turkish economy the fourth largest in Europe and sixteenth in the world. They also made strenuous efforts to stamp out corruption, improve human rights and reach an accommodation with Turkey's substantial but discriminated and rebellious Kurdish minority.

Although partly stimulated by an earnest desire to join the European Union, they were nonetheless driven by a reformist zeal, which paid off, with the AK winning three more elections and Erdogan emerging as a widely respectable and popular leader. This led some analysts in the West to view the AK model of politics and governmental system, which harmoniously placed moderate Islamism and secularism within a democratic framework, as something that other Muslim countries could possibly emulate.

However, all of this has lately taken a downward trajectory. Turkey's domestic situation has become fragile, characterised by rifts within the AK and political instability, economic stagnation, conflict with the Kurds, ambiguity towards the so-called Islamic State, and foreign policy contradictions. There are several issues that underpin this development, of which three are most relevant.

The first concerns the powerful ambitions of Erdogan, who electorally shifted his position from prime minister to that of president in 2014. He did so with the specific aim of transforming the Turkish parliamentary system into a strong presidential one, with himself as the most powerful at the helm. The result has been a serious rift within the AK's leadership, which was recently manifested in the disagreement between Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who found it necessary to resign his post two months ago, only to be replaced by one of the president's loyalists, Binali Yildirim.

With this and his control of the AK as the governing party, the president has sought to gain primacy over both the executive and legislative bodies. This, together with his success in subordinating the military, which had acted as the custodian of the secularist legacy of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal in politics for too long, has empowered Erdogan to lead Turkey down the path of what many analysts have branded as concealed authoritarianism.

Yet this has been achieved at the cost of growing tensions within the governing system and society, as it is opposed by many liberalist and secularist forces, not to mention an old ally of the president, Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the United States and who, along with his Hizmet-Gulen movement, have become the target of Erdogan's recrimination.  

The second issue is the Syrian crisis and Ankara's handling of it. Despite cultivating close relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the past, since the advent of the Syrian conflict in early 2011, Erdogan has sided with the Opposition to the regime. In the process, until recently, he remained quite lenient towards IS for combating not only the Assad regime, but also the Syrian Kurdish minority as an alleged source of support for the Turkish Kurdish separatist militant PKK group. As part of this, when he finally actively joined the US-led coalition against IS last year, his main targets were also the Syrian Kurds and the PKK, which resulted in a breakdown of the truce that had been in place between Ankara and the PKK for some years.

As a consequence, Turkey has been subjected to violent operations by both IS and the PKK, with the latest carnage occurring at Istanbul airport this week. Meanwhile, Turkey has had to cope with the enormous burden of the Syrian refugees and their outflow to Europe, which Erdogan has been keen to leverage in order to enhance the chances of Turkish entry into the European Union.

The third is that, while caught out between mounting domestic problems and the fallout from the Syrian conflict, Erdogan has not been terribly deft in managing Turkey's foreign relations under trying circumstances. Troubled by Russia's intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime, which was coupled with Turkey's air force shooting down a Russian jet fighter late last year that invited the wrath of the Russian leader Vladimir Putin (who is as power ambitious as his Turkish counterpart), Erdogan has now apologised to Moscow.

This has been accompanied by another "about face" with Israel. After a six-year split over a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish ship delivering aid to Israeli blockade Gaza Strip in 2010, Erdogan has found it expedient to restore full ties with Israel in return for Israel allowing some Turkish aid to Gaza, but not for the lifting of the blockade that Turkey had originally demanded. This cannot but make many in the Muslim world lose faith in Erdogan as a once strong supporter of the Palestinian cause.

Erdogan and Turkey are now faced with serious domestic problems and foreign policy complications. The challenge is how the situation can be arrested to avoid deeper instability.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Sydney Morning Herald. Read the original article.