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The Love Affair with Erdogan (Part 2)

[PM Tayyip Erdogan at the Annual Meeting 2006 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [PM Tayyip Erdogan at the Annual Meeting 2006 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

[The following is part two of a two-part piece on Tayyip Erdogan.  Part one was posted Monday, 27 August.]

How, then, has Erdoğan managed to escape with his international reputation relatively unscathed, and his domestic popularity only marginally diminished? One might be tempted to argue that although his domestic record leaves a lot to be desired, it is his impressive performance in the international arena that sustains his international reputation. “Sultan Erdoğan,” as domestic and international media have often called him (sometimes with mockery, often with admiration), is said to have installed Turkey as a new Middle Eastern powerbroker, a regional (if not global) player to be reckoned with. Turkey’s assertive diplomacy, regional prestige and influence, and military power is said to pose a serious challenge to the American-European dominance of Middle Eastern politics. Buoyed by a burgeoning economy, a faltering Euro Zone, and American yearning for a regional mouthpiece that sounds like an adversary [1], Erdoğan made a decisive entry onto the regional political scene. When he spoke (at length and at every opportunity), Europe and the Middle East listened. But the more he huffed and puffed, the more obvious it became that he was not blowing anyone’s house down. Though Europe and the Middle East may still listen, they will soon realize (if they have not already) that Erdoğan’s actions do not speak as loudly as his words. But perhaps the steam that clouds the status quo is all that is expected.  

During his decade in power Erdoğan has had three notable opportunities to flex Turkey’s muscle and significantly alter the balance of power in Middle Eastern politics. The first was the war on Iraq. Despite immense popular opposition to Turkey’s participation in the war, and a parliamentary decision to prohibit American use of Turkish airspace and the İncirlik air base, Erdoğan succumbed to American pressure and both the base and airspace became a part of the American army’s supply route. Had Erdoğan taken the alternative route, Turkey could have made a significant dent in American plans for Iraq. At the very least, Erdoğan could have made a serious claim to regional leadership.

The second opportunity came seven years later. It was brought by the death of nine Turkish civilians at the hands of the Israeli military on board the Mavi Marmara, destined to break the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan was now a more seasoned statesman, invigorated by another resounding electoral victory. Expressing unbridled support for Gaza and threatening serious action if the Mavi Marmara was in any way compromised, Erdoğan came out fighting in the months following the raid. He demanded an independent investigation and public apology; he announced the withdrawal of the Turkish ambassador to Israel, and the severing of all diplomatic, economic, and military relations. For a moment it looked as if something would happen, that the balance had finally been tipped. Yet other than the downgrading of diplomatic relations and Erdoğan’s announcement of the end of Turkey’s special relationship with Israel, Turkey again failed to make a mark.    

Military and defence ties with Israel seemed to continue through to 2011, when Erdoğan again announced their definitive suspension. Economic ties, however, were maintained, if not intensified. Since AKP first formed a government in 2002, bilateral trade between Turkey and Israel increased by an average of 14.6 percent per year. Between 2010 and 2011, at the height of the flotilla crisis, bilateral trade increased by a record 30.7 percent. By 2011 Turkey’s exports to Israel were valued at 2.4 billion US dollars and its imports from Israel at two billion US dollars. Under the surface of Erdoğan’s heated speeches, it was business as usual. In July of this year, Grup Yorum (a Turkish musical band) was charged under Turkish anti-terrorism laws for, among others, protesting Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

Erdoğan’s most recent opportunity came with Syria. As on the previous occasions, Erdoğan was positioned (and positioned himself) as a key player in the conflict. With the Syrian opposition meeting and organizing in Istanbul, and Erdoğan’s angry words – which international and domestic media reported on with much diligence and enthusiasm – expectations were high. Erdoğan began expressing public concern over Syria in September 2011, urging Assad to adopt a motto of “more democracy [and] more human rights.” By March 2012 he was threatening more serious action, declaring that Turkey “could not remain quiet” in the face of the massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Asad regime. By the beginning of April he upped the ante, sending a “clear message” to Damascus. He noted that the Syrian government had not kept any of its promises and proclaimed that, if forced by Asad, Turkey would intervene before the end of April. Indulging, perhaps, in one of the moments of self-grandiosity to which he is prone, Erdoğan recounted how the Syrian refugees [2] he visited implored: “Why don’t you save us?” To an audience hanging on his every word Erdoğan announced: “This is how they see us. We must and will do something.” That was April. That Erdoğan has been largely ineffective is by now painfully obvious. For all the talk of leadership Turkey did not even take the symbolic step of calling back its ambassador to Syria until European countries had done so.

In many ways Erdoğan’s international record is more benign than his domestic one – he has not done much to upset the reigning hegemony. That he has remained in the good graces of the international community is, consequently, not that peculiar. Erdoğan has perfected the role he has chosen play, a role that suits dominant interests in the international community. Looking East, he thunders against American and European hegemony, Israel, and global anti-Muslim sentiments. Looking West, he eulogizes democracy, freedom, and rights. But his words are cheap. In the end, few feathers are ruffled, and Turkey remains neoliberal, pragmatic, and outwardly democratic -- just the kind of ally that suits dominant North American and Middle Eastern interests. Erdoğan’s signature combination of populism and pragmatism, of rousing rhetoric and a complete lack of follow through, are precisely what the international community needs from him, and what he provides with flare.

More difficult to account for is the relative ineffectiveness of domestic and international opposition and critique. Critical voices have not been absent from the Turkish political scene. There is no shortage of journalists, activists and political figures scrutinizing, and chipping away at Erdoğan’s rhetoric and AKP policies and practices. Yet a confluence of domestic and international circumstances has given the AKP greater immunity than it may have otherwise had. 

Primary, and most obvious, is the economy. During AKP’s rule Turkey -- although of course not all Turkish people, or even necessarily the majority -- has gotten richer. The neighborhood, on the other hand, has gotten decisively poorer. Erdoğan has not shied away from playing the economy card both domestically and vis-à-vis Europe. In times of global recession, it is a difficult card to trump. The charismatic authority and specific brand of populist pragmatism that Erdoğan has cultivated should also not be underestimated. Either lulled or roused by his rhetoric, many have been content to take Erdoğan at his word. What is more, as Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand observed, Erdoğan has “provided the Turks, even those who cannot stand him, with a self-confidence they lacked before.” He has made good use of both those who love him and those who love to hate him.

In addition to Erdoğan’s political and economic shrewdness, and his propensity to sue critics for libel, two features of dominant Turkish political discourse have further contributed to Erdoğan’s relative immunity from serious political challenge. The first is the dominance of the comparative framework in Turkish (but also international) analyses of AKP’s decade-long rule. The framework functions by dividing Turkish political history into two eras: pre- and post-AKP Turkey. The pre-AKP era--close to ninety years of political history--is then reduced to a single episode of political violence, corruption, military coups and economic stagnation. As part of this comparative framework, the AKP can easily appear as not just preferable, but in fact, as the antithesis of the pre-AKP era. Thus, as corruption or political violence marred the pre-AKP era, they must not exist (or be negligible) in the post-AKP era. Those who continue to point to their existence appear as ideologically motivated, resentful of AKP success, or ignorant of the past from which Turkey has been extricated. The comparative framework likewise buttresses the discourse that fractures Turkish political history into a pre-AKP era of (quasi)authoritarianism, and a post-AKP era of democratization. Critics of the current government must thus battle against an alarmingly low benchmark for democracy (authoritarianism) or the charge of political pettiness and cynicism. 

This comparative framework, through which contemporary Turkish politics are often assessed, is both analytically limited, and has the effect of stifling critical engagement with the contemporary status quo. This is not to argue that the AKP has accomplished nothing or that critical voices have been effectively silenced. However, the dominance of the comparative framework has dampened critical engagement with AKP policies, and has made the work of Turkish activists and critics more difficult. Combined with a globally dominant political discourse and practice that equates democracy with stability and economic neoliberalism, and measures it by its institutional appearance, critical voices have had to wage an uphill battle in order to make an impact.     

A second and related feature of the Turkish political landscape that has complicated the work of critics and activists is the relative narrowness of the formal (i.e. state-centered) political sphere and discourse. Although Turkish civil society is extensive and eclectic, its diversity and critical force is diluted when transplanted onto the formal political scene, or translated by dominant political discourse. The dominant discourse often translates any critique of the AKP into either tacit support for main opposition -- the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which together with the AKP dominate party politics in Turkey -- or else foolish radicalism or reckless separatism. While a significant portion of AKP critics count themselves among CHP supporters, a growing minority is finding it difficult to carve out a space within dominant political discourse. For some, the thought of being interpellated as either a CHP supporter or alternately a separatist is deterrent enough. For the increasingly vocal minority that persists, it is an uphill battle for political recognition and legitimacy.

Economy and stability go a long way – especially when sandwiched between an imploding Europe and an exploding Syria. For many, Erdoğan and the AKP seem good enough, at least for now.


[1] Erdogan seems to enjoy a close, personal relationship with Barack Obama.

[2] There are 61,450 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. Despite Erdoğan’s promise to “host and embrace” the refugees, the refugee camps are, by all accounts, in a deplorable state, lacking even basic necessities such as water. 

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