Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Ian LesserExecutive director of the Transatlantic Center and senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a tough, savvy, and experienced politician, with substantial reserves of support within Turkish society. It would be unwise to write him off, even as he faces unprecedented waves of protest over policy and style.
In all likelihood, what is “finished” is a decade of co-existence among competing visions for Turkey’s future. That goes well beyond the caricature of secular versus religious inclinations, although this is surely one of the key fault lines. Also at play are questions of class and resentment over the visible disparities that have accompanied a sweeping increase in overall prosperity. As Turkey has become a richer place, sensitivities to differences and the stress of living in an increasingly fast-paced consumer society have grown.
Traditionally, many groups and individuals have had grievances against the Turkish state. After more than a decade in government, with weak and fragmented opposition, the ruling Justice and Development Party is intimately connected with that state. That is an ironic twist given the party’s success in driving the military from its former role as the arbiter of state policy.
In short, Erdoğan’s high-handed style has become the flashpoint for pent-up anger. Looking beyond the headlines of protest and political calculation in Ankara, Turks—and Turkey’s international partners—may have to reckon with a return to a more fragmented and chaotic, if ultimately more democratic, Turkey.
Turkey has evolved into a country with parallel elites. The current protests make it clear that it is also a society with multiple, parallel public preferences.
Maria LipmanEditor of Pro et Contra at the Carnegie Moscow Center
Though parallels with Arab Spring may be many, the situation in Turkey does not suggest that Erdoğan will face the same fate as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak or former Tunisian leader Ben Ali.
Unlike his Arab counterparts, Erdoğan is not a dictator who has stayed in power too long. Instead, he is the man who defeated the military dictatorial regime that ruled Turkey for several decades. Erdoğan’s tenure has been marked by robust economic growth. His rule may not be soft, but it’s certainly more democratic than its military predecessor. Turkey does not have a well organized opposition such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which draws on decades-long experience of resistance. In a sense, Erdoğan’s Islamist government that replaced the secular autocracy is the ”Muslim Brotherhood” of Turkey.
The Turkish protests also show parallels with large-scale rallies in Moscow in 2011–2012, as well as with President Vladimir Putin’s response to them. Like Putin, Erdoğan is dismissive of the protesters, doesn’t regard them as a political force, and apparently expects their energies to wane, allowing him to remain in power. In another similarity to Putin, Erdoğan obviously does not want to relinquish power after his two terms as prime minister are over. He is expected to run for president afterward, but he reportedly also wants to broaden the presidential authority granted by the Turkish constitution.
But that is where the similarities end. Putin scrapped the promise of democracy that existed in the 1990s and built a system of political monopoly, so today he gets away with his shift to a repressive mode of governance. Unlike Putin’s Russia, Turkey has become more democratic under Erdoğan’s tenure. If, after a decade in power as a democrat, Erdoğan opts to carve out a strong presidency for himself, he may face an opposition much stronger than the defiant urbanites of today.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK Europe minister
The post-Erdoğan era of Turkish politics has begun. That is because the country’s prime minister is falling victim to the “rule of ten”: after ten years in power, no one can run a major country any longer.
In a remarkable parallel to what is happening now in Turkey, France’s postwar president Charles de Gaulle had a ten-year stint in power from 1958 to 1968 before hitting the events of May 1968—a mixture of students, post-proletarian workers, trade unions, and anyone who just couldn’t stand de Gaulle’s domineering figure any longer.
Like de Gaulle, Erdoğan tries to dominate the media—though, unlike de Gaulle, he may not be able to rely on the army, which has so far been strangely silent in this crisis. Like de Gaulle, Erdoğan has presided over strong economic growth and the creation of an open-market bourgeoisie. That will keep him in power for a time, but not indefinitely. And just as de Gaulle cut France’s Gordian knot over Algeria, Erdoğan appears to be ready to make peace with the Kurds and talk to the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.
The current demonstrations show that Istanbul and other Turkish cities resemble the European capitals that gave rise to big social protest movements in the last half century. Turkey is not on its way to becoming another Syria, Egypt, or Iran—at least, let’s hope not.
The rule of ten applies to everybody. The UK’s Margaret Thatcher, Germany’s Helmut Kohl, and France’s François Mitterrand all faced major political opposition after a decade in power—as have Russia’s Vladimir Putin and now Erdoğan. How sensible of the Americans to limit their chief executive to just eight years at the top.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
For his conservative electors or in terms of opinion polls, Erdoğan is certainly not “finished.” Yet, his style of governance has been heavily criticized in the streets and has elicited differing opinions within his Justice and Development Party.
Internationally, Turkey’s image abroad has been seriously damaged by the turmoil. Shocking images of police violence have been beamed around the world, the country’s stock market fell by 10 percent on day one, and the image of a dynamic, prosperous country has been dented by a brutal response to a peaceful call for consultation and respect. Suggestions of influence by foreign actors and heavy criticism of social media seem to indicate a genuine misreading of popular discontent.
That being said, Turkey’s ruling party has a solid popular base and is unlikely to lose the upcoming municipal elections because of the current turmoil. The problem with Turkey’s democracy has less to do with the ballot box than with the country’s democratic culture. The events of recent days signal substantial dissatisfaction among large parts of the population, which is linked to the authoritarian exercise of power, restrictions on the media, a lack of consultation with civil society, and the treatment of minority groups. The clear reaffirmation that there is no democracy outside the ballot box will result in a vastly increased polarization of Turkish society, which runs against the country’s stability and prosperity.
Unless the government accepts that democracy does not consist in one strand of society taking revenge against the others, the internal social and political situation will remain tense. At the same time, the country as a whole will be perceived as moving further away from the Western and European concept of democracy. The international consequences of that may be as bad as the current internal discontent.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Erdoğan is not finished, but “Erdoğanism” is.
Turkey’s prime minister managed to steer his country as a “moderate Islamist” without antagonizing the United States and Europe too much. He stretched—up to a point—Turkey’s traditional diplomatic aplomb, and got caught in a cat fight with Israel, but overall his “moderate” style was not damaged.
From a domestic point of view, however, things were different. What looked like “tame” from abroad was increasingly testy at home. Analysts and citizens alike confirm that many sectors of Turkish public opinion have lost patience in the government.
Then came the big, sudden social explosions. The protest movement and the political opposition still lack a coherent platform, yet Erdoğan’s reaction has been petty and petulant, ranging from restrictions on alcohol consumption to restrictions on social media.
Erdoğan’s political season is over. It is not clear how long—and violent—its sunset will be.
Shimon SteinFormer ambassador of Israel to Germany and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University
Is Erdoğan’s political future threatened? Certainly not at this stage, at least.
In an attempt to understand the reasons for the ongoing demonstrations in Turkey—and in particular Erdoğan’s reaction—I looked up the definition of the word “hubris.” According to the dictionary:
“Hubris means extreme pride and/or arrogance. It often indicates the loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.”
This definition seems to describe the conduct of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan in recent years. His attempt to turn Istanbul’s popular Gezi Park into a huge shopping center—together with his defiant reaction to the people who demonstrated against it—is the latest example of his attempts to solidify his power, irrespective of any voices of dissent. Capturing that feeling was one demonstrator who said: “We want the government, and certainly the prime minister, to listen to the people.”
Erdoğan continues to enjoy a broad power base with no serious political opposition; the Turkish economy is performing well; and the country plays an important geopolitical role on the international stage. Those are all strong arguments in favor of a prime minister who, despite his megalomaniac ambitions, has shown pragmatism and a willingness to change course when necessary.
After receiving a “yellow card,” Erdoğan will certainly demonstrate pragmatism again.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
The recent demonstrations in Istanbul are a sign that democracy is alive, if not well, in Turkey. The Erdoğan years have been remarkable in terms of transforming Turkey into an economic showcase in a troubled region, but the record on developing a liberal order is very mixed. Erdoğan deserves credit for reigning in the military and establishing civilian control over it, but the verdict on media freedom and basic civil liberties is not good. The return of the state to the role of promoting religion is a real danger to liberal values.
The current turmoil probably does not represent a majority of opinion in Turkey, and Erdoğan is very likely to survive it. But the protests do send a clear signal that power must be limited, and that uncontested power results in hubris and corruption. Given the country’s fragmented opposition, elections are not an effective check on the government. Protest is one of the few real options for limiting state power.
Finally, beyond the immediate case of Turkey, the protests reflect a deeper problem plaguing most Western societies: the rise of market societies and a focus on growth at the cost of all other considerations. Governments have to play a stronger role in balancing growth with other important social values.
Nathalie TocciDeputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali
Ostensibly, the recent protests in Istanbul were only against the demolition of the small Gezi Park in Taksim Square in order to build yet another shopping mall.
But secularists, Alevis, environmentalists, and elite city dwellers all have particular grievances about recent moves by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. What unites this disparate group of dissenters, which rapidly mushroomed beyond Gezi Park to the rest of the city and further afield, is the growing frustration with the government’s—and particularly the prime minister’s—authoritarian rule. What brought tens of thousands on to the streets was Erdoğan’s perceived disdain for compromise, his majoritarian understanding of democracy, and his noninclusive leadership.
Do the recent protests mark a turning point in Turkish domestic politics?
Noteworthy as the demonstrations were for their resilience, their numbers hovered around the tens of thousands. One has to admit that Erdoğan has a point when he defiantly rebutted: “I would . . . gather 200,000 where they gather 20, and where they gather 100,000, I would gather 1 million party supporters.” When it comes to sheer numbers, the government still enjoys a solid majority in the country.
Yet the protests have deeper implications, which cannot be washed away by crude headcounts. The Turkish government is currently enmeshed in a double gamble: securing peace with the Kurds and seeing through a new civilian constitution. There are reasonable chances that it will succeed on both fronts. Yet these two challenges are not one-shot deals, but drawn-out processes in which “Turkey, Inc.” must be brought on board.
Majority rule, particularly when it is as solid as that enjoyed by Turkey’s ruling party, can do miracles for breaking taboos, be it on the role of the military, the interpretation of Turkish secularism, or the Kurdish question. Yet seeing these processes through to a happy end requires a reversal of the current approach. Erdoğan needs to engage openly with all elements of Turkish society.
Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Erdoğan is definitely not finished.
The current protests are against his top-down, noninclusive, and polarizing style of governance. But, unlike during the Arab revolutions, nobody is challenging the government’s legitimacy.
In fact, even after the current demonstrations, Erdoğan is likely to remain Turkey’s most popular politician. He received 49 percent of the vote at the 2011 elections and his party has been polling near that level ever since. The main opposition party barely reaches half that figure. So, even if the protests have dented the prime minister’s large support base, he is set to remain firmly at the helm of the government until the 2015 parliamentary elections.
The protests will, however, have other consequences for Erdoğan. First will be his tarnished image internationally. Most of the global commentary about the recent events in Turkey blame Erdoğan for failing to compromise. But, more importantly, it will be increasingly difficult for him to continue to formulate policy in the way that he has been used to. Now that a considerable part of the Turkish population realizes the power of street activism, the continuation of Erdoğan’s nonconsensual style of politics can only give way to the emergence of another wave of mass protests. From now on, Turkey’s prime minister will have to take this unavoidable factor into consideration.
Finally, these protests have, in all likelihood, killed off any prospects of introducing the executive presidency that Erdoğan had been championing.