The AKP (Justice and Development party) and its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have dominated Turkish politics since 2002. Since then, the country’s economy has tripled in size and Turkey has become an ever more influential player in global diplomacy. And yet, as the continuing protests show, many Turks are deeply unhappy with Erdogan and what his critics charge is an increasingly autocratic style of government.
What is it about Erdogan and his government that so polarises opinion in Turkey?
Here are the some of the best reads of recent years on Erdogan and the changing dynamics of his government:
“If you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million.”
“Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union’s requirements for membership negotiations,” wrote Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow in Foreign Policy. “It is just closed in an entirely different way.”
Cook and Koplow look at how Erdogan’s government has “run roughshod” over opposition to controversial projects and jailed journalists on questionable grounds, and yet remains within democratic lines – able to say “How can a government that received almost 50 per cent of the vote be authoritarian?”
“Tayyip’s not afraid of anyone.”
Erdogan may have marked himself as a moderate, but how far would he go to stay in power?
“Over the past decade, he has led an ambitious campaign to remake the Turkish state as the Europeans asked him to, overhauling the judicial system and expanding the rights of women and minorities, only to find Turkey still outside the gates.”
Dexter Filkins looks at arrests in connection with membership of Ergenekon, an alleged terrorist organisation, and how they are “part of a wider pattern of repressive tactics that have been deployed against Erdogan’s critics.”
The EU and the “magical formula of the AKP’s hegemony”
The AKP made joining the EU one of its priorities when it first came to power, but changed tack somewhat in its second term. Perry Anderson, history professor at UCLA, examined some of the obstacles to Turkish entry into the EU. On Turkey’s presence in Cyprus, he wrote:
“Refusal to recognise a member-state of the European Union, while demanding entry into it, requires a diplomatic sangfroid that only a former imperial power could allow itself.”
The piece also provides some insight into Erdogan himself:
“He embodies three of the most prized values of Turkish popular culture. Piety: legend has it that he always prayed before bounding onto the pitch; machismo: famously tough in word and deed, with subordinates and enemies alike; and the common touch: manners and vocabulary of the street-stalls rather than the salon.”
A movement that still wields a surprising amount of power within Turkey actually sits partly outside of the country. It is led by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who communicates to his millions of followers through writing and speeches. The FT’s Delphine Strauss visited a study house run by supporters of the Gulenist movement and reported on the fear that the organisation inspired:
“opinion is sharply divided between those who see Mr Gulen as a force for social mobility and tolerance, and those who suspect he is insidiously undermining the country’s secular foundations.”
The FT’s David Gardner and Daniel Dombey reported last year on the friction between the Gulenists and Erdogan’s government.
“They are well entrenched in the police, have footholds in the judiciary and seem now to have set their sights on the security services – tantamount to taking aim at Mr Erdogan himself… Certainly the prime minister’s reaction was summary: firing three prosecutors and transferring 700 police officers.”
“Democracy does not mean elections alone”
Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul has been more conciliatory than Mr Erdogan in recent days. Jonathan Tepperman at Foreign Policy spoke to him earlier this year and wrote,
“Turkey’s head of state and commander in chief has raised his stature (and popularity) by embracing seemingly contradictory principles: defending both Turkey’s Muslim identity and its pluralistic values, challenging his own government’s antidemocratic excesses, championing the rule of law, and helping reorient his country’s foreign policy eastward while remaining a forceful advocate of integration with Europe.”
During the interview, Mr Gul said “It’s not true at all that democracy in Turkey is backsliding… Of course, there are certain wrong practices, and that’s why I have drawn attention to them. I talked about these wrong practices to make sure they would not cast a shadow on the whole reform and democratization process.”