Can Turkey Survive Erdoğan?

06/02/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
Gokhan Tan via Getty Images

On June 7, Turkey's democratic system will be deeply tested in a fateful parliamentary election. At stake is preservation of rule of law and liberal democracy against an increasingly authoritarian-minded president.

Bottom line: if President Erdoğan's AKP party is able to win big, the entire system of separation of powers in Turkey will likely reach breaking point. Erdoğan will have gained the carte blanche he seeks to mold, shape and steer the state any direction he wants in a semi-legal form of one man rule. And this comes at a time when his presidency has become ever more erratic, arbitrary, error-prone, corrupt, vengeful and out of touch.

I find it surprising to be writing this. My book published one year ago, "Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East," examined the extraordinary first decade of the AKP party in Turkey under Prime Minister Erdoğan's leadership. Up until 2011, it may have been the best government Turkey has ever had since it adopted democratic rule in the 1950s. Erdoğan's successes can be measured in terms of deeper democratization, astonishing economic growth and prosperity, expansion of social services, the successful removal of the military from politics, the forging of an expansive and visionary foreign policy (with new emphasis on independence from failing U.S. policies in the Middle East) and a modern reconsideration of what an Islamic-leaning government can mean in a democratic order. At that time, Turkey became the preeminent model of success for a region that possessed little leadership, vision or progress.

"If Erdoğan's AKP party is able to win big, the entire system of separation of powers in Turkey will likely reach breaking point."

A great degree of the credit for Turkey's foreign policy successes -- a huge expansion of the range of Turkish ties, interests and outreach -- belongs to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief architect of these policies. Under Erdoğan's AKP Turkey underwent profound, and, I argue, irreversible change in reinventing itself as a major regional power extending its activities and interactions across all of Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa and even into Latin America. Turkey accepted and normalized its Islamic heritage. The AKP had won three successive elections with growing proportion of votes each time -- unprecedented in Turkish political history due to broad public satisfaction with the party's accomplishments.

But it was not to last. After 10 years in power, few governments anywhere can remain immune from corruption. By 2011, some degree of dissatisfaction began to crystallize against Erdoğan's policies. Early protests over a local Istanbul environmental issue were treated by Erdoğan with haughty arrogance and excessive force that helped expand the protests around the country. It was the first major sign that he had grown increasingly isolated from the real world around him. Erdoğan has now built a lavish palace for himself, this time as president, reflecting delusions of grandeur. He now persecutes opposition voices within the political order with harsh, extralegal and even illegal means.

Strikingly, Erdoğan also turned on the Hizmet movement of Fethullah Gülen, a massive civic Islamic movement that preaches tolerance and dialogue between religions and emphasizes secular education as the key to the future advancement of the Muslim world. It has established highly regarded schools in over 100 countries including in Europe and the U.S. -- a key element of Turkey's soft power abroad. The Hizmet movement is also rich and powerful, with a formidable media empire with a substantial following in the bureaucracy. The once-good relations between Hizmet and Erdoğan began to fray sometime around 2011 as Hizmet began to be critical of some of Erdoğan's policies and style; Erdoğan feared its clout and perceived it as a rival voice for Islamic values in society. He began to show genuine paranoia about the ability of Hizmet to criticize him and his policies on the level of both secular and Islamic values. Erdoğan now conducts an obsessive witch hunt against Hizmet, even accusing it of "terrorism" -- an absurd charge in the face of Hizmet's total rejection of violence.

Erdoğan has considerably intimidated or muzzled the press, fired journalists, and forced the expulsion of other critics from their jobs via political pressure; he now brooks no opposition. He has purged the judiciary, politicized it, blocked its ability to investigate him, and hobbled its powers to act independently. He has transformed the office of the presidency -- constitutionally required to be above politics -- into an overwhelmingly politicized office. He has arrogated the de facto powers of the prime minister (former Foreign Minister Davutoğlu) to himself, stripped him of his independence and humiliated the office itself in treating it as his own appendage. Davutoğlu, an intellectual and foreign policy visionary and activist, is now regrettably perceived as little more than a puppet of Erdoğan; Davutoğlu's reputation has been much demeaned -- a sad end to his distinguished career.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan's ruling style has become increasingly erratic, even quixotic, almost out of touch with reality. His remarkable economic accomplishments are beginning to wane. In foreign policy he has abandoned the successful precepts of his earlier years to now cripple Turkish foreign policy through his obsession to remove (former ally) Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria -- a policy that is now distorting Turkey's policies and credibility.

Yet, Turkey remains a nominal democracy. The elections coming up this week are real, and have traditionally been honest. Erdoğan's dictatorial style -- some compare him to Putin (although his control of the state is far from absolute) -- has been bolstered by legitimate victory in three honest elections in the past.

"He will have gained the carte blanche he seeks to mold, shape and steer the state any direction he wants in a semi-legal form of one man rule."

No one doubts that the AKP will win this election -- at least in the sense of gaining a plurality. But that is not enough for Erdoğan. He is determined to gain an absolute majority, which would enable him to change the constitution in order to legitimize the sweeping new presidential powers that he seeks to exercise. The key hope for those seeking the restoration of checks and balances to Turkish politics is to deny Erdoğan a sizeable majority. In that case a coalition government might emerge that would severely constrain Erdoğan's ambitions to exercise what are now extralegal or even illegal powers and the crushing of all criticism.

Ironically, it is a rising Kurdish party, the HDP, that now represents the best hope for blocking Erdoğan's unlimited ambitions; the HDP is now appealing to a broad range of Turkish voters who have come to fear Erdoğan. If the HDP can garner enough votes to cross the 10 percent threshold, Erdoğan's supreme -- indeed dangerous -- ambitions, may be contained.

It is extraordinary -- and saddening -- to see such a record of accomplishment and change that the AKP demonstrated in earlier years, now being squandered due to its leader's emerging loss of touch, loss of self-control and loss of vision.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official and the author of numerous books on the Muslim world. His latest book is "Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American's crisis of conscience in Pakistan."

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