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Islamism is dead in Erdogan’s Turkey

There are moments in the political life of every nation that mark the breaking of an old order, even if the new order has not yet been built. Last weekend’s local elections in Turkey marked such a fracture with the beginning of the end of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 22 year rule....CONTINUE READING

Erdogan has bestrode Turkish politics so confidently and so long that it can be hard to remember what the country was like before he transformed it.

Back in 2002 Turkey was a chaotic democracy mitigated by frequent interventions from the ultra-secularist military. The wearing of Islamic headscarves was banned in all public offices, schools and universities, and the public celebration of Ramadan was officially discouraged. The media were free, but wildly partisan and often controlled by powerful business interests. Turkey’s politics were focused on joining the European Union, and its foreign policy closely aligned with Washington’s.

Erdogan changed all that. Though a mild Islamist by the standards of the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah, Erdogan encouraged public religiosity, boosted religious schools (whose graduates went on to take top positions in the administration and judiciary), systematically converted museums into mosques and quietly cracked down on alcohol consumption.

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More dangerously, he launched a series of Putin-style shakedowns of independent media companies and used public funds to create a local political machine that made his AK party near unbeatable in multiple elections and referendums, each of which gave more power to Erdogan.

On the international stage Erdogan forged an on-again, off-again friendship with Putin, massively beefed up Russian gas imports from Russia, and in Syria ignored Nato allies to pursue his own war against the Kurds.

Along the way he also blackmailed Europe by threatening to open his borders to let hundreds of thousands of refugees flow into Greece and Bulgaria, jailed over 100,000 political opponents in the wake of an abortive military coup in 2016 and created a cult of personality second only to that of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan recently shook down Nato for as many concessions as he could extract as he delayed the accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance.

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Yet for all his authoritarianism, Erdogan failed to kill off Turkish democracy. As the weekend’s shocking results showed, voters in Western and northern Turkey firmly rejected the AK Party. The big winner was the secularist Republican People’s Party or CHP, founded as the party of government by Ataturk’s first prime minister.

But there was worrying news in the results too, as the strongly Islamist Yeni Refah Party came in third.

Mismanagement of the economy was the proximate cause of Erdogan’s defeat, with runaway inflation making even basic foodstuffs unaffordable for pensioners and anyone on a fixed salary. But there was clearly a strong ideological backlash too. In extraordinary scenes, tens of thousands of people came out on the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir to chant “Turkey will be secular!”

Erdogan is not finished yet. Despite rumours of poor health, he still has four years of his presidential term left to run – and if he can fix the economy and tame inflation, he has a good chance of repairing his broken popularity by 2028.

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Nonetheless, this weekend had marked a tipping point. Erdogan’s uninterrupted run of electoral success has finally crashed against popular resistance. Even his usually ebullient, hectoring tone had visibly changed in the aftermath of his defeat.

“Turkish people have spoken, it has sent a signal to the political leaders,” Erdogan told supporters. “Turkish democracy proved its maturity. Today’s elections are a turning point, not an end for us.”

Turkey’s political path matters to all of us. It is the region’s largest Muslim democracy, has the second largest military in Nato, and has deep influence in the European continent’s two most explosive political axes – Russia/Ukraine and the Middle East. We need a stable Turkey that is on our side.

A politically humbled Erdogan will hopefully be a little more mindful of the value of good relations with Nato and the EU, and be a better friend to the West.