03/11/2015 12:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Embracing Turkey's Moderate Middle

Photo Credit: Erol Yayboke

The solution to Turkey's current political turbulence lies squarely in the middle of two polarized factions. It is in our best interest to support the rise of the radical moderates.

Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rose to national power in 2003, riding a decade-long wave of discontent with the revolving door of secular (and often corrupt) politicians. He unified half of the country with soaring rhetoric, strategic populism, and an appeal to a large--and previously not-politically-active--pious Anatolian population (i.e. not the urban elite who had ruled Turkey for 80+ years). Almost overnight, Turkey's electorate segmented into two groups: those unified in support of Erdoğan and his Justice & Development Party (AKP) and those that were not. The latter group, not unified on anything other than a dislike of the AKP and a fervent belief in the sanctity of secularism, dove headlong into a decade of obsolescence that facilitated Erdoğan's systematic dismantling of all opposition. Without checks to his power, the sky was the limit.

Sprouting Seeds of Discontent
The world, until then supportive of Erdoğan's 'reforms' and 'mild Islamism', finally raised a collective eyebrow in 2013 when an otherwise local protest in a small park in central Istanbul erupted into the most serious challenge to Erdoğan yet. Turks of all ilks took to the streets primarily in refutation of Erdoğan and the AKP; however, their presence also signaled discontent with the inability of opposition parties to counterbalance his increasingly visible authoritarianism. Some Turkey watchers (including yours truly) had ominously predicted the national protests that began in Gezi Park; the problem was that moderate Turks--Muslim, Kurdish and secular alike--had no voice. When parties (like Atatürk's own Republican People's Party or CHP, today the most visible of the incompetent opposition) tried to assume de facto ownership of the grassroots protests, they were brushed aside. A growing number--I'd argue a critical number--of moderate Turks had had enough.

More trouble came for Erdoğan when a long-time ally--the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania--subsequently ratcheted up the rhetoric against the then Prime Minister's increasingly autocratic (and allegedly corrupt) tendencies. What was once a unified half of the country was now fractured (though admittedly, as I explain below, AKP continues to perform well in the polls).

Since the Gezi protests Erdoğan has responded in typical style by cracking down on Gülenists, protestors and the media; though in doing so he may have created an opportunity for moderate Turks to play a more pivotal part in Turkey's unique democratic journey.

Clinging to Power in a Shifting Landscape
Thanks to the protests, the newly fractured religious bloc and a corruption scandal involving Erdoğan himself, by 2014 the landscape had shifted. Gone was clean battle between the unquestioningly loyal AKP electorate (the 'Anatolian' pious politically and economically marginalized pre-2003) and the non-AKP (the staunch secularists that led Turkey from independence to 2002) that Erdoğan found at the beginning of his reign.

Nevertheless Erdoğan continues to rule (now as President), though now he feels he must do so in increasingly autocratic ways--he has a habit of calling dissenters terrorists and shutting down Twitter. He is able to do this because the opposition remains impotent and he has successfully taken over the judiciary and the legislature. Thus, he will likely maintain power in the near term and a significant number of apologists (and voters) will continue to overlook his cronyism and autocracy in hopes of continuing the (admittedly stellar though not without warning signs) economic growth and stability Turkey has achieved under his tenure.

Opposing Erdoğan, a sizable element of staunch secularists will continue to distrust, to their own continued political peril, anything even hinting of AKP or Islamism. His autocracy of late seemingly vindicates their early warnings about Erdoğan and only reinforces their (incorrect) belief in the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. However, the distrust is mutual. CHP has never been able to connect with the AKP's rural pious constituents. Much as evangelical voters in the U.S. form a formidable constituency, so too do Turkey's practicing Muslims; and CHP has done little to address their concerns. AKP's recent electoral victories--despite the protests, the fractured religious coalition and the corruption scandal--thus demonstrate that the non-secular voting bloc is more willing to vote for a party with which they have concerns about autocracy (AKP) than one with which the mistrust runs deep (CHP).

The Future Brings an Opportunity for the Moderate Middle
The future of a more democratic Turkey lies in neither the Erdoğan apologists nor the unbending secularists. Both cling to outdated ideologies and deep-seeded hatred for the other. Neither represents the young, vibrant, tolerant, and increasingly politically active class of moderates from both religious and secular backgrounds.

The future of Turkey is in the organization of these (what I call) 'radical moderates'. Younger generations everywhere bring new priorities and new ideas along with a refutation of old biases. My parent's generation rejected segregation just as my peers--Republicans and Democrats alike--refuse to let gay marriage divide us as it once did. Turkey's moderates carry the same sense of historical obligation to create a better future.

It is true that a strong and unifying leader--so important in a modern Turkey born out of Atatürk's high flying rhetoric and charisma--is yet to emerge. Erdoğan, himself a compelling orator, is yet to face serious political opposition. He is yet to face someone able to unite the critical mass of moderates. But as Erdoğan increases his autocratic tendencies alongside the power of his presidency (through constitutional changes replacing a ceremonial position with an active head of state), his delusions of grandeur may ultimately result in a deluge of historical change.

This change is coming. The seeds of discontent that sprouted organically during Gezi Park as a refutation of the status quo have opened up a window for such a leader (or group of leaders or even a new political party) to emerge. Those like the U.S. with vested interest in Turkey maintaining its 'beacon of democratic hope' status in the Muslim world should not ignore these voices.

International pressure on Erdoğan to reform his ways is generally met with nationalist rhetoric by a man who believes that Turkey is more important to Europe and the West than vice versa. Thus, while a consistent message of discontent over his authoritarian tendencies can and should be maintained, the U.S. and its allies should also support the foundations of a new future. Turkey rarely conforms to history, choosing to blaze its own trail through a tough neighborhood with a diverse population. In keeping with this trend Turkey--and its allies everywhere--should look into the future to a growing cadre of radical moderates.