It is no secret that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “New Turkey,” which was hailed five years ago as the shining model of a Muslim democracy, now looks rather bleak. Turkey makes the news today not because of its domestic reforms and regional “soft power,” but because of its increasingly authoritarian regime and frequent terror attacks.
But why did “New Turkey” fail? In a sense, it’s simple: intoxication by power. When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it was a party of aspiring former Islamists who needed to prove themselves as democrats to both secular Turks and the Western world. They faced many checks on their power, as the bureaucracy was dominated by “Kemalists” — followers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s secular founder. But after the initial years of AKP rule, these Kemalist institutions — including the most important one, the military — were either defanged or subdued.
This looked like a process of democratization, but in practice resulted in unchecked AKP power. And this unchecked power made the AKP more corrupt, ambitious, and arrogant.
Moreover, Erdogan’s governing philosophy is on its way to becoming Turkey’s new “official ideology,” as Kemalism was for almost a century. Some Turkey observers call this ideology “Islamism,” but that’s not the whole story. It rather seems to be — just like its predecessor, Kemalism — an ideology centered around a cult of personality: Erdoganism.
This ideology has been crystallized in the past three years, making Erdogan the most powerful Turk since Atatürk. He has dominated the ruling party, the government, the Parliament, key positions of the judiciary, at least three-fourths of the Turkish media, and even established some control over business through the channeling of state contracts to preferred companies. “He controls the money,” a proud Erdogan supporter told me recently in Ankara. “That is why he is a great man.”
Erdoganism also has rewritten the rules of Turkish politics, spawning a language all its own to describe the country’s heroes and villains. Understanding Erdogan’s new Turkish state requires deciphering the new concepts and slogans undergirding it. Here’s a dictionary to help get oriented.
Anti-government protestors in Taksim Square on June 8, 2013 in Istanbul. (Photo by URIEL SINAI/Getty Images)
If you think Erdoganism is a rejection of democracy, you would be wrong. It actually venerates democracy, but a crude kind. Accordingly, “democracy is nothing but the ballots,” as Erdogan and many of his supporters have repeatedly said. The winners of the ballots represent the “national will” in this discourse, which is a kind of metaphysical truth that cannot be limited by any law, tradition, international norm, or universal value. Moreover, those who oppose the “national will” are illegitimate. They are either soulless degenerates or, worse, fifth columnists serving the interests of foreign nations.
For example, the Gezi Park protests in June 2013, which were sparked by opposition to the government’s decision to turn a public park into a shopping mall, were defined by the AKP as opposition to the “national will,” and thus as a “coup attempt.” This propaganda demonized the protesters, who were subsequently dispersed by the police, sometimes brutally, leading to seven deaths.
Supporters in Istanbul try to touch then Prime Minister Erdogan, far right, on August 10, 2014 during the presidential election. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
This is a title used for Erdogan by his supporters. He is the first popularly elected president of the Turkish Republic, they point out, thanks to a 2007 constitutional amendment that made the presidency an elected position rather than one appointed by Parliament. The key point is that the “man of the nation” is in fact the embodiment of the nation — he alone represents the national will.
The practical consequence of this is to link Erdogan’s fortunes with that of Turkey as a whole. “Erdogan is Turkey,” one of his supporters wrote in an op-ed. “Turkey’s fate is inseparable from Erdogan’s fate,” another argued. Most recently one of Erdogan’s advisors declared, “No one should do politics in Turkey except Erdogan.”
Since the “man of the nation” is the nation incarnate, “insulting him” is a serious crime. For that reason, more than 2,000 people, some of them journalists, have been sued for “insulting the president” since Erdogan became president, and many received heavy fines. These “insults” can range from calling Erdogan a “tin-pot dictator” to likening him to Gollum from Lord of the Rings. “Insulting the president” can also result in losing a job. A professor was fired from her university merely for saying Erdogan was “rude and crude.”
The opposition Cumhuriyet daily's editor-in-chief Can Dundar (R) and Cumhuriyet daily's Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul (L) smile after being released from jail on February 26, 2016. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
This concept, inherited from the Kemalist era, is the bogeyman of Erdoganism. It was devised by liberals to define and criticize the overbearing role of the military over elected politicians. But when the military’s tutelage was finally erased, this proved insufficient for Erdogan and his supporters: They also began condemning the “judicial tutelage,” the “media tutelage,” and the “liberal tutelage.”
Basically, any court decision, media stance, or liberal critique against the man of the nation has been condemned as a sinister attempt to establish an illegitimate “tutelage” over the glorious national will.
For example, Turkey’s Constitutional Court has angered Erdogan in the past few years by lifting a ban on Twitter that Erdogan had called for, annulling a law that closed certain private schools that Erdogan wanted to get rid of, and releasing two imprisoned journalists who were condemned by Erdogan because of their exposure of Turkish arm shipments to Syria. In return, both Erdogan and his supporters not only condemned these decisions but questioned the very legitimacy of the Constitutional Court — an institution that, in their words, reeked of “tutelage” over the “national will.”
Erdogan poses for a photo with the leaders of the participating countries prior to the opening session of the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit Istanbul on April 14, 2016. (Photo by VELI GURGAH/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Erdogan tossed this term into the public debate about two years ago when he suggested there was a “mastermind” — or, more literally, “upper-intellect” — that controls the political developments in the Middle East. This meddling power conspires against the innocent people of the region, and especially their awaited savior: the “New Turkey.”
Erdogan’s supporters soon expanded on the theme, identifying the “mastermind” as the United States, United Kingdom, or Zionism and mapping out their endless conspiracies. For example, the Islamic State is the product not of Islamist ideology or the turmoil of Middle East, according to some of these propagandists, but the secret plans of this “mastermind.”
Critiques of Erdogan in the Western media are also seen as a part of this plot, uniting Erdoganists even more firmly behind the man of the nation.
Turkish riot police clash with protesters on June 9, 2016 in Istanbul during a demonstration against protests and death threats towards Turkey's main opposition Republic People's Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu following the funeral of two police officers killed on a June 7 attack in Istanbul. (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Treason against Turkey is a fundamental theme in pro-Erdogan propaganda. There are two kinds of traitors: Many are outside the AKP, including liberals, leftists, and Kurds who work for the evil mastermind. Others are within the AKP, and they show their true colors when they dare to criticize Erdogan or disobey his orders.
Two of the three men who founded the party 16 years ago — former President Abdullah Gul and former Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc — have recently been condemned by hardcore Erdoganists in the AKP and the pro-AKP media as traitors within the party. A hardcore Erdoganist commentator, the editor in chief of the pro-Erdogan daily Milat, even dubbed Gul as “Gulizabeth,” implying that he is a collaborator of the British Crown. Even the former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was recently replaced by Erdogan, was accused of treason in a mysterious blog, which is believed to be written by a journalist close to Erdogan.
A protester holds up a banner with pictures of Erdogan (left) and the United States-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen (right) during a demonstration against government on December 30, 2013 in Istanbul. (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Among the traitors to the nation, the “parallels” are the most wicked ones. The term is a reference to the Gülen movement, which is Turkey’s largest Islamic community. The movement has many members active in education, charity, and media across Turkey — and, most importantly, in the government bureaucracy.
The movement had a particularly strong presence within the judiciary and the police, and was in fact once Erdogan’s best ally against the secularist establishment. However, it turned into his worst enemy when police and prosecutors, who are widely believed to be Gülen followers, launched an earth-shattering corruption investigation against key members of the government in December 2013.
Since then, Erdogan has condemned the corruption investigation as a “coup attempt” and slammed the Gülen movement for attempting to create “a parallel state” within the state. He also launched a total war on the movement, calling it a “terrorist organization,” and detained thousands of its members over the past two and a half years.
The covert organization of the Gülen movement within key bureaucratic institutions was a real problem for Turkey, but the regime’s witch hunt is now a bigger one. It has allowed Erdogan and his supporters to dominate virtually every institution in the country, using rhetoric reminiscent of the hunt for “Trotskyites” in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The “parallels” are under every stone, behind every imagined sabotage. Even those who have nothing to do with the Gülen movement can be branded as “crypto-parallel” and purged from the party, the bureaucracy, or even the media, a great portion of which is under the direct control of Erdogan.
Erdogan attends Friday prayer at Istiqlal Grand Mosque on July 31, 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Photo by Jefta Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Islamism is not the only facet of Erdoganism, but it is one of its main components. Yet this is an Islamism adopted to the Turkish context. Since it came to power, the AKP never advocated the introduction of shariah, or Islamic law, into the legal system — only the reinterpretation of Turkey’s constitutionally mandated secularism in a more Islam-friendly way.
But Erdogan has increasingly used religious themes and symbols heavily in his propaganda. He has presented himself as the hope of the umma, or global Muslim community. At the same time, he has employed a divisive us-versus-them rhetoric, where “us” refers to the good, pious Muslims, and “them” refers either to the imperialist West, which “loves seeing Muslim children dead,” or secular Turks, whom he at times depicts as “alcoholics,” those who “promote miniskirts,” or are even “fed by blood.”
Erdogan seems to hope to “Islamize” the nation gradually by introducing more religion in public education, minimizing alcohol consumption through heavy taxation and a ban on alcohol advertisements, and rigorously supporting Islamist organizations. Whether all this effort will lead to a more pious nation or a secular backlash remains to be seen. At this point, it certainly has helped build a more polarized nation, where most religious conservatives are joyfully united behind Erdogan’s triumph and most secular Turks are worried about the future.
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Erdogan give a salute at the International Service held at the Canakkale Turkish Martyrs' Memorial Abide on April 24, 2015 in Seddulbahir, Turkey. (Photo by TRISTAN FEWINGS/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Erdogan’s Islamism is connected to a powerful emotion among Turkey’s religious conservatives about reviving the glory of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Middle East from its capital in Istanbul. Before their empire collapsed at the conclusion of World War I, the Ottomans were the standard-bearers and protectors of the Muslim world for centuries.
Now Erdogan presents Muslim Turks as coming back to the world stage to fulfill their destiny of Islamic leadership after 90 years of being lost in the wilderness. Erdogan, of course, is the leader of this great revival who holds in his hands the grand ambition of “making Turkey great again.” That is why all his opponents and critics are nothing but degenerates, traitors, spies — or agents of the West.
By looking at all this, it seems safe to say that Erdoganism belongs in the array of populist authoritarianisms similar to Peronism in Argentina, Chavism in Venezuela, and Putinism in Russia. It has already made Turkey, at best, an illiberal democracy where free elections take place but liberal values and institutions languish and decay.
What is the future of Erdoganism — and Turkey? Few Turks doubt that Erdogan wants to stay in power as long as he lives. He also wants to turn what Turkey’s prime minister has already termed a “de facto” executive presidency, one unconstrained by any parliament, into a constitutional reality.
Since he is only 62 years old and seemingly in good health, all this means that Erdogan could have a couple more decades at the center of Turkish politics. For that, he needs to sustain popular support, which requires him to keep dominating the national narrative.
For this reason, it is very hard to see Erdogan reversing his authoritarian rule. We will probably see more confiscations of opposition newspapers and crackdowns on political protesters, further subduing of the judiciary, and a continued conflict with Kurdish militants that will keep bleeding Turkey but also help Erdogan justify a constant state of emergency. A “New Turkey” will have thus been achieved – just not the one Erdogan promised to create.
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish writer and a senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.