A Summary of Turkey’s Last Decade: Recep Tayyip Erdogan


On July 15th, 2016, the Republic of Turkey experienced a brutal military coup attempt which failed when thousands of Turks flooded the streets of major urban centers such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir to fight against the coupists. The coup began and ended in a matter of hours, but more than two hundred civilians lost their lives while fighting elements of their own military. Soon after the failure of the coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned to his post and blamed the bloody coup attempt on a social movement known as the Gulen Movement founded by Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled cleric who resides in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Following the coup attempt, the ruling Justice and Development Party and President Erdogan started a massive campaign in the public sector. As part of this politically motivated purge, 105 thousand public sector workers have been sacked, 72 thousand detained, and 32 thousand arrested for supposedly abetting the coupists.

In light of the post-coup purge, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have reported about widespread human rights violations within the prison system. Additionally, the European Union and the United States have repeatedly asked the Erdogan regime to slowdown the purge in order to decrease the possibility of wrongful convictions. The lack of evidence which ties Fethullah Gulen and his sympathizers to the coup attempt prompted John Kerry to repeatedly ask Turkish officials for evidence in response to an extradition request from Turkey for Fethullah Gulen. In fact, when President Erdogan demanded that the extradition be treated as a political issue rather than a legal matter, “please don’t send us allegations, send us evidence. We need to have evidence which we can then make a judgment about”.

Nevertheless, dismissal of President Erdogan’s request for political favors in the United States and rest of the world have revealed a more significant problem with Turkey’s tarnished image in the international community. Over the past three years, President Erdogan’s abandonment of Turkish democratic ideals and shift towards authoritarianism have undermined the Republic of Turkey as a whole.

What does that mean?

Back in 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political party, the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) came to power, Turkey’s allies enthusiastically supported the new democratically elected government. After long periods of secular rule and several military interventions since the founding of the Republic in 1923, AKP promised to develop Turkey as a democratic Muslim majority model state for all Middle Eastern countries. This ambitious claim convinced the international community of a possible Muslim majority ally, which could work closely with the West and assume the role of regional leadership in order to eliminate extremism and anti-Western attitudes found in many Middle Eastern regimes. Put simply, overall development of the region was framed as contingent upon Turkey’s ability to reconcile democratic values with Islam. This dream, however, seems to have been completely abandoned by Turkey’s allies who no longer view Erdogan as a democratic leader. On the contrary, Erdogan is widely perceived to be an authoritarian leader who successfully established a tyranny of the majority in Turkey. In the final Presidential election in 2014, Erdogan received 51 percent of the votes proving that his message is well-received by his constituency.

Why are Erdogan’s approval ratings high?

Erdogan has proven countless times that he is a shrewd politician who knows how to manipulate societal fears in order to galvanize his voter base. In essence, Erdogan’s political methodology is based on a single factor: struggling, on a constant basis, against Turkey’s enemies. This tactic has been the cornerstone of Erdogan’s agenda since he came to power and his efforts in picking and vilifying scapegoats intensified over the past three years. As mentioned above, Erdogan has been fighting against Fethullah Gulen and the movement pioneered by him because Gulenists have held important positions within the judiciary, military, and bureaucracy. Although it is hard to determine whether Gulenists have actually been organizing a “parallel state” in order to undermine Erdogan and Turkish democracy or not, repression of their movement under the authoritarian regime proves an important point: widespread approval of Erdogan’s rule is contingent upon his ability to create enemies.

Despite Erdogan’s success in consolidating political power on a domestic level, his image among the international community has completely changed. Erdogan who once was seen as an example of a Muslim democrat is now recalled with other authoritarian leaders such as Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Hassan Rouhani. In other words, Turkey’s dream of becoming a regional powerhouse is no longer feasible.

Erdogan’s domestic schemes of power consolidation have been working so far. Yet, the massive purge of Gulenists is quickly diminishing the significance of Fethullah Gulen. President Erdogan is in dire need of a new arch-nemesis and not surprisingly he has been quarreling with the Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi over the past two weeks about Turkey’s role in fighting against ISIS in Mosul.

Why does Erdogan want to be involved in Mosul? How does a spot in the Mosul coalition serve Turkey’s foreign policies?

I will try and answer those two questions in my next piece.


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