How naïve they sound 10 years later, now that Turkey has morphed into a handbook case of illiberalism where one can be jailed for as little as articulating the obvious — that the government has grown autocratic. How could a democratic experiment in the Middle East go so wrong?
Dimitar Bechev, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, started writing Turkey Under Erdoğan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West in lockdown in North Carolina, finishing it at Oxford’s St Antony’s College, where, years ago, he had first immersed himself “in all things Turkish.” That year-and-a-half-long effort was supplemented by more than a decade of “researching, writing and thinking about Turkey.”
Perceptive and seasoned with statistics, Bechev’s treatise not only identifies the disease but also prescribes the treatment. Bechev has no axes to grind; his volume isn’t an “I-told-you-so.” Instead, his perspective remains coolly detached, even as he concludes that Turkey’s current trajectory, symbolized by its presidential system, is heading for a crash.
The tale begins in the 1980s with a portly politician named Turgut Özal. Bechev excavates Margaret Thatcher’s quip, delivered at a 1988 dinner banquet in Turkey: “1987 was obviously a vintage year for elections,” the newly reelected Iron Lady said. “We had one in June; yours was in November, and the outcome was extremely satisfactory in both cases. In Britain, the electorate thoroughly endorsed my Özalite policies.”
Thatcher cheered on Özal and his Motherland Party for their belief “in enterprise, in initiative, in incentives, in giving people something to go for.” A former employee of Turkey’s State Planning Organization, Özal won plaudits in London and Washington by slashing import tariffs, abolishing trade quotas, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and sketching a neoliberal precept that Turks follow to this day. Under his stewardship, Turkey submitted a membership application to the Customs Union and liberalized the capital account. Boosting growth and attracting foreign investment, Özal’s reforms enriched some sectors of society. By 1986, the Turkish GDP had expanded by seven percent. Western consumer goods became widely available in shops, Warner Bros. blockbusters replaced Turkish films in local cinemas, and Jurassic Park–themed Happy Meals mesmerized us with their toy gifts. Brokers, bankers, and billionaires rose to fame; the government and public services shrank, all of their air seemingly transported to religiosity.
Özal embodied state power while undermining it. His Motherland was a big-tent party where liberals, nationalists, Islamic conservatives, and social democrats aligned. To the rest of society, it left a stark legacy. The destruction of financial discipline led to steep inflation; the idolization of rapid growth and increased consumption ended with widespread poverty. Worse, Özal masterminded the Turkish presidential system, ignoring critics who warned of a Latin American type of presidencialismo. Instead, Motherland spin doctors marketed Özal’s stubbornness as an alluring asset.
The 2001 financial crisis depleted Turkey’s coffers. At the peak of the economic meltdown, one US dollar climbed from 688,000 to 950,000 liras. The beneficiary was the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, whose founders pledged to reform and Europeanize. The immediate past became Eski Türkiye (the Old Turkey), a parenthetical era of secularism between Ottomans and Islamists; meanwhile, the AKP was ushering in a Yeni Türkiye (the New Turkey), the holy land of milk and honey.
The populist message garnered the AKP 34.42 percent of the vote in the November 2002 election. Bechev has an exemplary anecdote from 2004 when, on a visit to St John’s College, the AKP’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, delivered a speech titled “Why the European Union Needs Turkey.” There, “[f]lanked by Kalypso Nicolaidis, a French-Greek professor of European politics, and the late Geoffrey Lewis, the doyen of Turkish studies at Oxford, the swaggering Erdoğan pledged ‘to make European values Ankara’s values.’” His message was a hopeful one: Turkey was “doing its best to carry out democratic reforms, confront the ghosts of the country’s troubled past, improve human rights and deliver economic growth.”
Many bought that. For its supporters, the AKP has come “as a breath of fresh air,” leading conservative Turks to see Erdoğan and his ilk “as part of their own.” Yet what set them apart from other right-wingers? Bechev quotes a famous speech by Erdoğan: “In this country there are White Turks, as well as Black Turks. Your Brother Tayyip is from the Black Turks.” The polarizing rhetoric of them against us was there from the start.
In its first term, the AKP lifted bans on Kurdish language education, delivered better health care, improved infrastructure, and increased access to education. Enrichment accompanied democratization. Between 2002 and 2007, Turkey’s GDP expanded at an average rate of 7.2 percent. By 2004, the EU had awarded the AKP’s reform agenda by giving Ankara “a conditional go-ahead” to kickstart membership negotiations. The Islamist-rooted Prime Minister Erdoğan and his sidekick, President Abdullah Gül, found themselves tasked with Europeanizing Turkey. When “the gradual weakening of Europe’s pull towards the end of the 2000s” erased the AKP’s reformist spirit, “the party instead began to consolidate power.”
The conservative voter base grew (today, every eighth Turkish citizen is an AKP member), helping them morph into “the natural party of government.” What did Turks get in return? “World-class hospitals, highways, glitzy shopping malls, gargantuan airports, and towering housing estates, all for the people,” is how Bechev summarizes it. By the end of its first decade in power, “Islamic Calvinists” became the AKP’s new moniker.
Ahmet Davutoğlu, a bookworm professor of international relations, stepped on stage in 2009 as foreign minister. Under his captainship, Turkey’s foreign policy focused on its neighbors in the Middle East and the Balkans. As Europe’s love for Turkey cooled, Ankara reimagined itself “as a regional hub as well as a player in its own right, rather than a supplicant forever stuck at the gates of the EU.” This Davutoğlu called the “Strategic Depth.” Lifting visa requirements for Syria (2007), Jordan (2009), and Lebanon (2010), Turkish authorities now talked about the birth of a “Levant Quartet.” Ankara also activated its cultural arsenal to win hearts and minds in the region via soap operas that underlined how morally uptight the Ottomans were, to the chagrin of historians.
Vladimir Putin got interested. The autocrat’s investment in Turkey took the shape of a gas pipeline that helped Russia turn into an energy superpower serving foreign markets. As Turkey began to float away from the West, Ankara’s decision-makers considered Russia and Turkey to share a similar plight: “[I]mmersed in the European economy yet kept out of the EU’s institutions and often cast as ‘the Other.’” They were increasingly joining, according to Fiona Hill and Ömer Taşpınar, in “an axis of the excluded.” The Arab Spring tilted Turkey further to the East. As Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad tested their powers by popular uprisings, Erdoğan visited Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in 2011, “basking in glory, with history on his side.” In Cairo, he preached secularism instead of Islamism. Turkey’s experiment with exporting democracy went hand in hand with doing business. By November 2012, Ankara had signed 27 agreements with Cairo and extended a $2 billion loan.
Syria was another “business opportunity.” The civil war was supposed to reveal what an exemplary democracy Turkey was. “We either could maintain ties to these oppressive rulers, or we could support the popular uprisings to secure basic democratic rights,” proclaimed Davutoğlu, seeing Turkey “on the right side of history.” In 2012, he predicted the Syrian government would fall “not in a matter of years, but weeks or months.” The government recklessly followed his lead. Yet, with the end of the Arab Spring, “Turkey’s star lost its sparkle.” Ankara had placed all its chips on the losing number.
In 2013, a group of protesters pitched tents at Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and everything changed. Under tear gas and police batons, Turks learned the truth behind the AKP’s “advanced democracy” firsthand. In response, the government staged a “Respect for National Will” rally where party leaders came up with a new fascistic mantra: “One state, one nation, one fatherland, one flag.”
From then on, the AKP embraced majoritarianism wholeheartedly. As Bechev writes, “Democracy boiled down to the will of the nation (millî irade) expressed through the ballot box, and not to constitutional checks and balances protecting individual and minority rights.” The party’s new allies would be the far right. Meanwhile, opposition parties diversified. Dissidents who first communed in Gezi Park formed a coalition of “environmental activists and middle-class professionals, ultranationalists and Kurds, hippies and old-school trade unionists, the CHP base and LGBT+ rights’ campaigners, fans of all three major Istanbul football clubs and a group styling itself ‘anti-capitalist Muslims.’” Occupying Turkey’s public squares, protesters “simply demanded that the authorities listen to their voice.” They didn’t.
Over the past half-decade, Turkey, a key NATO member founded on republican principles from Europe, began to tilt toward Beijing and Moscow. Accompanying this was a second friendship with the king of reciprocity, Donald J. Trump. Despite his threat to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy with sanctions in October 2019 (moments after @realdonaldtrump’s tweet, the Turkish lira depreciated by 1 percent), Ankara enjoyed four years of direct access to the Oval Office, happy to see an administration similarly indifferent to democracy.
The introduction of the presidential system in 2018 turned things even grimmer. “Erdoğan was gearing up to what U.S. historian Arthur Schlesinger once called an imperial presidency,” writes Bechev, noting how the new system was showcased in Beştepe, which, rather than a residence, was meant to be “the fulcrum of state power.” Its compound was “erected on land deemed sacred by Turkish secularists — a plot carved out from the Atatürk Forest Farm which Mustafa Kemal founded in the mid-1920s,” not attempting to erase the Kemalist legacy “but rather appropriating and refashioning it in ways fit for the new era.” Freedom House quickly downgraded Turkey to “not free” under the new system. Sinking by 31 points in its ratings, Turkey had the second-worst performance after Burundi. For the past seven years, Turkey has banned pride parades. In June, Erdoğan called Gezi protesters “sluts.”
Bechev’s story has a sad arc, yet he finds a silver lining in this failed democratic experiment. Despite the aggressive anti-Western posturing, Turkey’s economy remains deeply integrated into the EU. Britain, the much-despised villain of Islamist imagination, is Ankara’s second-biggest trading partner after Germany. Opposition parties seem determined to follow this European path. For many years, CHP, Turkey’s oldest party, “drifted in a nationalist direction,” Bechev says, speculating that, had the CHP not turned into “a cheerleader for what Islamists and liberals alike decried as ‘the tutelage system,’” the AKP might have lost its power long ago. One of Bechev’s scenarios involves the AKP continuing to lose support and in turn “entering into compromises with the opposition, or even sharing power.” This could entail “a switch back to a parliamentary system, scrapping presidentialism altogether or at least recasting the constitutional balance of power.” He compares this scenario to Southern Europe and Latin America’s third wave democratization trajectories over the 1970s and 1980s. And the AKP’s opening in the early and mid-2000s? It represented “much more than a squandered opportunity,” muses Bechev. “Democratic momentum coupled with rising levels of prosperity transformed society’s expectations and reshaped the political scene.” In just over 40 years, Turkey had come full circle. Today, people living in its “reshaped political scene” are increasingly weary of losing their rights to wealth, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For a growing number of its citizens, the “New Turkey” never seemed this old.
Kaya Genç is LARB’s Istanbul correspondent.