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AKP and the Evolution of a New Brand of Populism in Turkish Politics

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Authors: Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal and Dr.Nanda Kishor*

The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has had several impacts on Turkish politics and Turkey’s foreign policy outlook. The political situation in Turkey today is largely dominated by the AKP. The recent conversion of UNESCO world heritage site Hagia Sophia into a mosque was one of the election promises made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His decision indicates AKP’s appeal to the people and the populism it resorts to with an assertion of religious pride and nationalism.

AKP’s initial rise in Turkish politics should be observed in conjunction with the context in which it came to prominence. The 2001 economic crisis of Turkey is recorded as one of the worst economic crises the country faced ever since World War II. Throughout the 1990’s Turkish economy largely relied upon foreign investments for economic growth. Since the government was already facing budget deficits it lacked the financial means to address the crisis. The political instability that was prevalent in the 1990s in Turkey became another factor for many foreign investors to reconsider their investment plans in Turkey. 

Several foreign business enterprises also withdrew billions of dollars during this period and it reflected in the dramatic plunging of the Turkish economy. However, the existing government pushed for several neoliberal policies that also opened the doors for privatization. Turkish economy faced serious challenges concerning its fragile banking sector and poor macroeconomic performance. This also largely led to the currency crisis. The country faced economic turmoil however some of the structural economic reforms and a successful debt-swap helped the country recover and improve investor confidence.

After the collapse of the fragile alliances, a new party came into prominence which changed the political landscape of Turkey significantly. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the Prime Minister of the country. The election reflected a clear discontentment and dissatisfaction of people for the traditional political parties. The newly formed government absorbed the direction set by the predecessor and accentuated its efforts in further transforming the economy with neoliberal measures. The government also privatized state-owned enterprises and became more assertive in implementing these measures amid political oppositions and criticisms. The economy grew rapidly during 2003-2007 however the 2008 global economic crisis slowed down the growth. A year later the country showed positive signs of economic growth although in the later years the economic crisis and the corruption allegations did cause severe discontentment towards the government.

Some of the researches have shown that AKP voters are relatively less educated than the Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters. The traditional voter base of AKP also relies much on the lower-middle-class of the society whose income levels are just below the national average. AKP also receives a critical share of votes from people who identify themselves as religious conservatives. Evaluating the recent trends, it is clear that Erdogan is more conservative in terms of religious traditions and societal norms and values whereas liberal in economic measures which the AKP inherited to an extent from the early 2000 economic reforms in Turkey.

What AKP under the leadership of Erdogan also has managed to do overtime isto create a social assistance system that has received significant popularity among economically weaker sections. One of the most popular slogans from Erdogan’s election campaigns rightly captures the perception AKP has built around Erdogan. ‘Milletin Adamı Erdoğan’ (People’s Man Erdogan) resonates with the larger aspirations of the party to project Erdogan as the leader of the common people. However, there is much pressure on Erdogan now with rising unemployment rates and new challenges from his own traditional voter base. The reaction to incidents like protests post-Soma mine disaster indicates Erdogan’s intolerance towards dissent. Crackdown on protests and dissent has become a severe concern as the government now is vying for more control over social networking websites and apps as well.

The conditions for the rise of a populist leader remain conducive in contemporary Turkish politics. With high levels of unemployment, poverty, and religious conservatism– some populist appeal still can attract certain sections of Turkish society. With the foreign policy adventures of Erdogan and his with his strong anti-Israel stance he has also managed to garner wider popularity in the Muslim world. Hence, despite Erdogan’s decrease in vote share over several elections, the Milletin Adamı remains very popular not just in Turkey but among several Muslim societies across the Middle East and South Asia.

The democratic backsliding witnessed specifically in AKP and in the state as such may not sustain for a long time. The concept of Laiklik (Secularism) which served Turkey for a long time being sidelined will further push it to be branded as a religious fundamentalist state and an autocratic one worldwide. Unlike the understanding of AKP that existed till 2013 along with the Gülen Movement with a friendly approach towards the Western Powers, Erdogan has taken anti-Western move by playing to the gallery of Islamist groups such as Naqshbendi, İsmailağa, and Menzil. His policies were not impressive enough to steer through the economic and political challenges in 2019. CHP managed to win the elections in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu is seen as a serious threat to Erdoğan. Apart from these, 2019 September also saw defection within AKP by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and their followers. This is precisely the reason why Erdogan thinks religion as a soft power that has the strength to cement his hard power.

The foreign policy challenges to Erdogan are manifold. Turkey’s role in Syria and Libya has been challenged in the region. Failure of any of these would give teeth for the opposition to further challenge him. His blackmailing of the European Union on the refugee issue may not work in the long run. After locking horns with the United States for over ten months, there seems to be some temporary respite with Erdogan and Trump both making certain amendments to their behavior. However, at the backdrop of the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, the US expressed its “disappointment” in its statement. With respect to the situation in Libya, the US sees a faceoff between Turkey and Russia as Turkey supports the Fayez al-Sarraj government whereas Russia backs Khalifa Haftar with weapons. Egypt is gearing up for a showdown with its partners and allies against Turkey in the Mediterranean and warming up ties with Iran and Qatar may not help Turkey economically.

AKP faces serious economic challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic. While Turkey is now entangled in the conflict in Libya and AKP faces dissent within the party, Erdogan has taken refuge in religion once again and aspires to get the support from the conservative Muslim factions in Turkey and the Muslim societies in the larger Islamic world. The populism he and his party are resorting to indicate elements of an authoritarian regime. This can also cater to the arguments put up by scholars pointing out that political Islam often exhibits a high incidence of authoritarianism. Turkey was seen as a light in leading the Middle East reform movements after World War I. However, in recent years, that credibility is being destroyed brick by brick by Erdogan’s populism. The idea of using religion to ‘control’, ‘eliminate’, and ‘subjugate’ the society is leading to ideological hegemony that would threaten the very foundations of the modern Turkish republic envisaged by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

*Dr.Nanda Kishor is an Associate Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. His area of experience and expertise lies in the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia. 

Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal is a Dr. TMA Pai fellow and Doctoral candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. He is a former South Asia and Middle East analyst at Jane’s and a former researcher at Centre for Arab West Understanding, Cairo

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Middle East

What is the public sphere today in Turkey?

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The concept of public sphere, which was started to be examined in Europe in the 1960s, has different meanings according to different perspectives, as a definite definition cannot be made today, and this situation creates important discussion topics about the use of such spaces.

Long debated the definition of public space in Europe, in Turkey also began to affect 1980”l year. After the 1980 coup, some communities, which were kept out of sight, fearing that the Republic project would be harmed, demanded the recognition of their ethnic and cultural identities. Thus the concept of the public sphere in Turkey, especially since the early 1990s to be addressed in various academic publications, use and began to discuss political issues.

Especially in the past years, the public sphere debates on the headscarf issue were discussed from various angles. The debate started with Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticism of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who did not invite his wife to a NATO dinner, saying “Dolmabahçe is not a public space”, and the President of the Council of Higher Education, Prof.Dr. Erdoğan Teziç; He responded by emphasizing that the public sphere is not a “ geographical definition ” but a functional concept.

Before defining the public sphere, the understanding that shows that the definition of space in the Ottoman Empire was shaped as less private, private, very private and very very private is still one of the biggest reasons for the definition of the public sphere. While expressing, it reminds that he entered the Ottoman literature in a different way in the 19th century. Thinkers who indicate the association of the public sphere with the state in general express it as the sphere that is related to the state, not the “public”. “When you say ‘public’, the state comes to mind immediately; We mean something like government administration, its organs, organizations, officials, or activities, an official domain that is owned or run under state control. However, as Habermas said, the public sphere is above all the sphere in which the public opinion is formed in our social life ”.

As citizens of the city, we observe that some projects have spread to the spaces defined as public space due to the fact that today’s public space and public space concepts have not been defined precisely and construction activities have increased due to the anxiety of rent.

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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