Turkey’s tectonic shift
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Since coming to power in 2002, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan undergone a gradual but perceptible change in its domestic and foreign policy, so that it is now pointing in the opposite direction to where it started. As Naz Masraff from Eurasia Group has explained, the AKP made strategic use of the prospect of EU membership to present itself as a Western, reformist, neo-liberal and secular party until it became clear that there was a contradiction between the AKP’s discourse and its policies. But by that time it was too late.

Koray Çalışkan, a political scientist at Bosphorus University, has argued that the real reason behind the AKP giving up on the EU process is that it believes it has established total hegemony in civil politics now that the army has been pushed aside. It needed the support of the EU to curb the army’s influence, which it did in a series of show trials from 2008 to 2013, but now the army’s stick has been taken away and the EU carrot has been eaten up.

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In 2011 the turn came to Turkey’s liberals, who Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, counted among Erdoğan’s “willing enablers.” As Aziz Babuşçu, chairman of the AKP’s Istanbul branch, put it: “The Turkey that we will construct, the future that we will bring about, is not going to be a future that they will be able to accept.” Andrew Duff, a leading liberal member of the European Parliament, also concluded that the AKP has replaced Kemalism as a state ideology with Islamism.  

In 2012 the first cracks started to appear in the alliance between the powerful Gülen movement, which had in particular infiltrated the police and judiciary, and the AKP. When charges of corruption were brought against top echelons of the AKP, including Erdoğan’s own family, in December 2013, this led to an extensive purge of Gülen’s followers in the police and judiciary the following year. The failed coup in July and the wholesale purge of the Gülen movement in Turkey’s public administration can be seen as a consequence.

The constitutional changes that have now been mooted, which include allowing the president to be chairman of the governing party, giving the president the right to abolish parliament and presidential control of the judiciary, are all steps towards President Erdoğan’s ultimate aim of one-man rule.       

The arbiter of Turkish foreign policy, first as Prime Minister Erdoğan’s foreign policy advisor, later as foreign minister and finally as prime minister until his fall in May, was Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu. This policy, dubbed neo-Ottomanism, aimed at restoring Turkey’s hegemony in the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans, and regarded the last century of republican rule as “a parenthesis.”

In one of the flights of fancy to which Davutoğlu was prone, he declared: “On the historic march of our sacred nation the AK party signals the birth of a global power and the mission for a new world order.” However, Turkish professor and columnist Nuray Mert has dismissed neo-Ottomanism as “an irredentist version of Turkish nationalism,” but the real damage, as she has pointed out, is that the universal values of democracy and freedoms have started to be defined as “Western values” which are alien to Turkish culture and history.

This view is supported by a keynote speech at the Istanbul Forum in October 2012 by Ibrahim Kalın, a former advisor to Prime Minister Erdoğan and now presidential spokesman. Kalın rejected the European model of secular democracy, politics and pluralism and instead posited a new geopolitical framework where Turkey plays a pivotal role.

After the collapse of Davutoğu’s vision of Turkey as “the owner, pioneer and servant of this new Middle East,” Turkey is faced with disarray both at home and abroad. There is war against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in the southeast and terror attacks from both the PKK and ISIL are frequent. Turkey’s offensive in Syria has ground to a halt at al-Bab and after Erdoğan’s apology to Putin for shooting down the Russian plane, it is clear Russia has the upper hand. The fact that Russia, Turkey and Iran – and not the USA - are ready to act as guarantors and jointly resolve the Syrian crisis also indicates the formation of a new geopolitical order.

Erdoğan’s chief advisor Yiğit Bulut has earlier urged that Turkey cut its ties with Europe and instead focus on its relations with the US and the axes Turkey-Russia-Eurasia-the Middle East as well as China-India-Iran. On a visit to St. Petersburg three years ago Erdoğan appealed to Putin: “Include us in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and save us from this bother (with the EU).” The way things are going, this may well happen. 

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.