Journal Essay

Erdogan's "New Turkey" Slides into Turmoil

Jeremy Salt

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Dr. Salt has taught at the University of Melbourne, Bosporus University and Bilkent University in Ankara (Department of Political Science and Public Administration). He now writes independently on Middle East issues.

Turkey is passing through a particularly critical phase in its history. Thousands of people have died so far in the renewal of the war being waged against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the southeast. In February and March 2016, scores of people died when a Kurdish faction struck back with suicide and car bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, one targeting military personnel and the other, people waiting at a bus stop. The Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), a splinter group from the PKK that some commentators say is still part of the organization, claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, involvement in the Syrian war has rebounded savagely on Turkey: close to three million Syrians have crossed the border to escape the fighting, and Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers have taken the lives of hundreds of people in attacks along the border and, again, in Ankara.

Other consequences of this war include conflicted relations with the European Union (EU) over the fate of the Syrian refugees and the awakening of the Syrian Kurds. Relations with neighboring countries (Iran and Iraq) have been damaged, while the downing of a Russian warplane brought Turkey close to open conflict with Russia. In the meantime, Turks are deeply divided over the direction their country has been taken under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While fissures run in many directions, the primary divide is between those Turks who seem to adore their president and those who abhor him.

Thin-skinned, pugnacious and vindictive, Erdogan hurls thunderbolts at his enemies from parliamentary and public platforms and the Turkish equivalent of Mount Olympus, the palace he had built on the land that once belonged to his secular antithesis, Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk." Cunning in his climb to power, he has been ruthless in its exercise. He is no statesman: the list of foreign leaders he has irritated with his abrasive remarks is a long one, but domestically he is the most successful practitioner of politics in Turkey since the establishment of the multiparty system in 1946. Proud of his upbringing in the working-class Istanbul suburb of Kasimpasa, he has shown a sound grasp of how to play to the needs and aspirations of his AKP (Justice and Development Party) government's supporters and (it might be said) playing off their susceptibilities.

When Erdogan first became prime minister in 2003, he was regarded in Europe and the United States, somewhat condescendingly, as a good example of a "moderate" Muslim leader. Even in his own country, many secular liberals were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now the words commonly applied to him are authoritarian, dictatorial and even despotic. The margins for dissent seem to shrink a little bit more every day: the distinction between the critic and the enemy has all but disappeared. Increasingly, it seems there is no collective "Turkey" any longer but only the will of one man as repeated and reinforced by cabinet ministers and the government's information and propaganda network.

Since Erdogan was elected president in 2014, close to 2,000 people have been charged with insulting him (the precise number given early in March was 1,846, but there have been further arrests since then). The crime of lèse-majesté — insulting the king — still exists on the statute books of many European countries but is rarely used. Through the centuries it was invoked mostly to punish those who insulted the dignity of the monarch, so perhaps it should be no surprise that it is being used widely in a country whose president is often compared to a sultan. Under Article 299 of the Turkish penal code, anyone caught insulting the president of the republic can be imprisoned from one to four years, with the penalty increased by a sixth if the crime is committed in public. The law would seem to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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