Three days after a failed coup in which nearly 300 people lost their lives, Turkey’s government has arrested 6,000 people in a crackdown the president says will “cleanse the virus from all state institutions.”
As factions of the Turkish army attempted to overthrow the government last Friday night, many observers were already predicting that if the coup failed, Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan would hit back hard and continue on his path to undermine democracy in the country.
What happens in the coming weeks and months will not only be significant for Turkish politics, but also for political Islam as a whole. Critics maintain that Islamist parties are incapable of playing the democratic game, while those on the other end of the debate insist that Islamists have shown ample proof that they are able to operate with parliamentary democracies and rule of law when given the chance.
When Erdogan’s Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, he was supposed to be the face of a new Turkey, moving the country away from the past dominated by the principles of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which included Turkish nationalism, negation of minority rights, and disengagement from the Middle East.
His party has since succeeded on many fronts. The AKP have contested and swept elections, winning almost every time with more and more votes. They promised to negotiate with the EU for membership. They have engaged positively with Turkey’s neighbours (even if their foreign policy wasn’t always a radical departure from the past), including attempts to mediate the conflict concerning Iran’s nuclear program. They entered into dialogue with the Kurds to reach a meaningful peace agreement; and forced the army to retreat from dominating the country’s insititutions.
But the president has also undermined these achievements.
The government’s policy of having “zero problems” with neighbours took a 180-degree turn when Turkey actively turned against the Assad government following uprisings in Syria. The Turkish army shot down a Russian plane that had entered its territory and escalate tensions with Moscow, even though Turkey’s economy is highly dependent on Russian gas and tourists. Erdogan sparred with its NATO ally Israel over the Mari Marmara incident, though there is no way Turkey could have successfully challenged a fellow member without support of the entire block.
The Turkish government seems not to know its geopolitical limitations. In the case of Russia, Turkey had to back down and apologize, and it is hard to tell what Turkey gained from straining relations with Israel. In recent weeks, there are signs that Turkey might have to backtrack on its Syria policy as well.
While the disputes with Russia and Israel have had short-term diplomatic ramifications, the policy towards Syria may have a long lasting impact on Turkey’s social fabric and peace, let alone on a Syrian populace that has been ravaged by civil war. Turkey became a highway for all sorts of militants going into Syria to fight, with spillover effects in the shape of terrorist attacks. The fear is that if Turkey changes its position on Syria, militant groups might take revenge for this perceived betrayal, it they haven’t started already.
As for the Kurdish question, a peace deal has not been reached despite initial progress when secret dialogues began between the government and the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in 2013. This unresolved issue is a legacy of Kemalism and the racial nationalism it espoused. A breakthrough on the issue would have been a welcome break from that legacy. Even though the PKK deserves a fair share of the blame for killing the peace process, Erdogan has not helped with his obsession over the gains the Kurds have made in Syria, seeing it as a threat to Turkey’s internal security. One of the reasons why Erdogan suffered a setback in the June 2015 general elections, losing his majority in parliament, is that he lost Kurdish votes due to his reluctance to assist Kurds who were besieged by ISIS in the Syrian city of Kobane.
In his bid to amass more power and turn Turkey into a presidential democracy, Erdogan has also adopted harsher rhetoric against the Kurds in order to attract votes from Turkish nationalists. Nonetheless, the AKP still retains the pro-Kurdish vote, confirmed after its electoral victory in November last year when it won back the Kurdish votes it had lost in the June 2015 elections. This is because out of all the main parties in Turkey, the AKP is the only one that has made minority rights a priority. It would be a shame if personal ambitions and Turkey’s Syria policy are allowed to get in the way.
As far as membership in the EU is concerned, Erdogan has used Syrian refugees as bargaining chips in order to obtain visa-free travel for Turkish nationals going to the EU. Turkey has taken advantage of the pressures on Europe, sidestepping the crucial issues of rule of law and freedom for the press, which are required for EU membership.
Can Erdogan be a statesman?
After President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in Egypt in a coup in 2013, it was observed that Islamists lack long-term vision and overestimate their own powers. The Muslim Brotherhood’s mistake was that it took their electoral victory as a licence to do whatever they wanted, instead of working within their limitations. As soon as they tried to take control over the company that manages the Suez Canal, the symbol of Egyptian national sovereignty, they overstepped the boundries set by the army. Morsi also tried to play on the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and one of his first foreign policy initiatives was to revive its links with Hamas, as though domestic issues were not the first priority.
Erdogan evidently has more support than Morsi, and the Turkish army is weaker than its Egyptian counterpart,thanks to the current government’s initiatives. The main opposition parties in Turkey have no vision for the people, which is why they fare so poorly in the elections, leaving the field wide open for the AKP, which, despite its many faults, has more dynamism to offer. The pro-Kurd HDP, despite a progressive platform, does not have the organizational strength of the AKP and hasn’t been able to convincingly outmanouever the AKP even for the Kurdish votes.
If Erdogan takes the coup’s defeat as a blank cheque to do what he will, as he already has started to do, it will suggest that even parliamentary Islamist parties aren’t capable of political moderation. The result will be great damage to what remains of political Islam’s credibility.