Journal Essay

Erdoğan and the Decline of Turkey

Michael M. Gunter

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Dr. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and the author of 14 books on Kurdish and Armenian issues.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — Turkey's current president (elected 2014) and former prime minister (2003-14) — in his first decade in power, won three parliamentary elections by ever-larger shares of the popular vote because he had helped to build Turkey into a burgeoning economic powerhouse and a moderate Islamic democracy. In the past half-decade, however, despite winning Turkey's first popular election for president in August 2014 and presiding over another great parliamentary victory in November 2015, Erdoğan's increasing authoritarianism has helped precipitate the disastrous decline of the nation as well as his own inevitable fall from power. What happened, and what lessons can be gleaned? Can Turkey's decline be reversed and its progress revived?


Erdoğan created the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP), or Justice and Development Party (JDP), as a moderate, social-conservative party with Islamic roots in August 2001 after the two previous Islamic parties — the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) and the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) — had been banned, along with their longtime leader and Erdoğan's former mentor, Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011).1 Erdoğan had already earned an admirable reputation for honesty and efficiency as the mayor of Istanbul during the mid-1990s. Having apparently learned a lesson from his earlier political experiences as an Islamist politician, Erdoğan specifically declared that the AKP did not have a religious agenda and would work within the secular-democratic framework. Barely a year later, in the parliamentary elections of November 2, 2002, the AKP swept to victory. After solving a brief problem concerning an earlier conviction for having publicly read lines from an Islamic poem,2 Erdoğan became prime minister of Turkey in March 2003, a position held until becoming the first popularly elected president in August 2014.

When he first assumed power, many critics warned against Erdoğan's supposed secret Islamic agenda. This did not materialize, though the economy kept expanding, to the advantage of many who had usually been left behind. Erdoğan seemed to have proven his critics wrong; indeed many began to compare the AKP with Europe's democratically-oriented and economically progressive Christian Democrats. In addition, Erdoğan began to tame and then politically defang the military, Turkey's ultimate political arbitrator.3

One of Erdoğan's goals in reforming Turkey's political and economic situation was to win membership in the European Union (EU), with which accession negotiations began in October 2005. The effort eventually foundered,4 but as a reward for his worthy accomplishments, the international community too sought to reward the Turkish leader. The West held him up as a moderate Muslim alternative to the Islamic extremism plaguing much of the Middle East.5 And to his credit, Erdoğan achieved real successes: a record 7.5 percent average annual growth rate, foreign investments that jumped from $1.2 to a record $20 billion and a decline in inflation. In addition, AKP social-welfare networks played an important role in reducing the negative consequences of a shift to a market economy. Turkey's chronically inflation-ridden currency was replaced by a new lira that held its value. As the economy took off and incomes sharply rose, so did Erdoğan's popularity. He was duly rewarded with even more votes in the national elections of 2007 and 2011.6

Erdoğan also sought a solution to the Kurdish problem by emphasizing Islamic unity. As a result of skillful positioning in the ideological marketplace and portraying itself as the party of opposition to the "system" while being "sensitive" to the Kurdish problem, Erdoğan's AKP was able to secure an amount of support in the ethnic Kurdish regions.7 In August 2005, he also famously stated publicly in Diyarbakir that Turkey had a "Kurdish problem" and needed more "democracy" to solve it.8 After his AKP won an even greater electoral victory in July 2007 against strong military opposition and elected his then-friend and colleague Abdullah Gul as Turkey's new president, however, Erdoğan and his party were soon put on the defensive by a nearly successful attempt in the Constitutional Court to ban them as a threat to Turkey's secular order.

Having barely survived this threat to his political existence, Erdoğan and the AKP seemed to lose their reformist zeal and became a party of the status quo. Addressing the Kurdish issue during the campaign for the local elections of March 2009, Erdoğan called on his Kurdish opponents in the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) to love Turkey or leave it.9 This remark by the security-oriented prime minister of 2009 provided a sharp contrast to the one who in 2005 had called for more democracy to solve the Kurdish problem.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan engaged in negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) from 2008 to 2011 at meetings in Oslo (the Kurdish Opening).10 In addition, on June 30, 2012, Erdoğan met with the iconic Kurdish political spokeswoman and member of parliament (MP) Leyla Zana, who declared that she had confidence in his ability to solve the Kurdish problem.11 However, this meeting caused a great deal of bitter debate in the Kurdish community. Furthermore, Erdoğan advanced few concrete proposals, and the Kurdish Opening eventually closed.

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