Imagine a country whose ruling party boasts that it will remain in power for another 57 years, while breathlessly describing the grandiose projects it intends to carry out during that period. Imagine its prime minister claiming that the transformations wrought by his party will last “until Judgment Day.” No, the country I am referring to is not a jingoistic nation from pre-World War 2 Europe, but today’s Turkey, a candidate for membership in the EU.
Since 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been the ruling party in Turkey, under the leadership of former prime minister and newly-elected president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Curiously, although Erdoğan has been his country’s most powerful figure for over a decade, his speeches these days frequently refer to the concept of a “New Turkey.” 2071, the 1000th anniversary of the coming of the Turks to Anatolia, is being aggressively promoted as a landmark year for this “New Turkey.”
Unfortunately, Turkey’s increasingly serious domestic and foreign problems cannot wait another half-century for a solution. In particular, Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy fell into a quagmire under the stewardship of Ahmet Davutoğlu, who served as minister of foreign affairs from 2009 to 2014 before becoming prime minister. How Turkey will get back on track is anyone’s guess. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Davutoğlu described his vision of erasing the defunct borders of the Middle East and creating an Islamic Union in their place. An AKP-led Turkey was to be a guiding light for the Islamic parties filling the power vacuum left by the region’s toppled dictatorships. It has now become clear that this was all a daydream. For the past several years, Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has been waging a proxy war in order to overthrow the Assad regime. This has caused the Syrian opposition to fall into the hands of more and more radical groups.
One such group is ISIS, which seized Turkey’s consulate in Mosul in June and has held 49 Turkish diplomats hostage for the past three months. ISIS is a grave threat, not just to Turkey, but to the entire Western world. Indeed, the fight against ISIS was a key topic at last week’s NATO summit. As much as Turkey wishes to rid itself of ISIS, it is the only NATO country to share a border with that radical group. Hundreds of ISIS militants are known to be present in Turkey. Understandably, therefore, Ankara is apprehensive about the possibility of these militants carrying out terrorist attacks within Turkey in the event of a NATO intervention.
Then there are the refugees of Syria’s civil war, more than a million of whom have fled to Turkey, and whose plight has become increasingly serious. Recently, there have been reports of tensions and even clashes between the local population and the refugees, especially in cities in Southern Turkey. Nor are Turkey’s foreign policy problems limited to Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s relations with the post-coup Sisi regime in Egypt are quite strained; due to the Palestinian issue, so are its relations with Israel. In short, Turkey – acclaimed as the future leader of the Middle East just three years ago – now finds itself isolated from the rest of the region.
Turkey is also at odds with the West. This is due, in part, to Turkey’s use of police violence to suppress the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, as a result of which eight young people lost their lives and hundreds were wounded. In addition, the Turkish government has obstructed the judiciary and police force in order to silence corruption allegations, extending to the highest echelons of the state, which surfaced in December of last year. Consequently, the AKP – seen by the West as a pioneer of democratic reforms when it came to power in 2002 – is now regarded as an increasingly authoritarian party which covers up allegations of corruption. However, the recent NATO summit made it clear that the West needs Turkey in order to fight ISIS, and is therefore willing to overlook these problems for the time being.
Erdoğan has won every election in which he has run over the past 12 years. The main factor in his success has been the Turkish economy. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has witnessed a veritable boom in sales of homes and automobiles. In 2002, fewer than 200,000 homes were built in Turkey; that number has now reached 600,000, an increase of 300%. Similarly, in 2002, annual automobile sales stood at 91,000; by 2013, they had reached 665,000. In a sense, Erdoğan is making good on capitalism’s promise of “a house and a car for every family.” However, this success has come at a high cost. In order to purchase all these cars and houses, Turkish families have become heavily indebted to banks, with consumer credit increasing 125-fold over the past 12 years. In recent months, there have been reports that the construction bubble has started to burst – an ominous sign for the Turkish economy.
The greatest beneficiaries from these developments have been the wealthy, capital-owning classes who control the production sector. Crony capitalism has flourished in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Conglomerates with ties to the ruling party have made huge profits from the frenzied construction of new homes and roads, and from the privatization of education and the health sector. In the past few years, these conglomerates have purchased television channels and newspapers, preventing the media from criticizing the ruling party or reporting on corruption investigations and street protests. As a result, the media did not even address the government’s responsibility for the deaths of 301 miners in the Soma coal mine in May, one of the deadliest workplace accidents since the Industrial Revolution.
Nor is there any discussion in the Turkish media of the 49 Turkish diplomats held hostage by ISIS. Rather than debating serious issues which concern society, the media is painting a rosy picture of present-day Turkey; this goes a long way towards explaining Erdoğan’s success in the elections. An analogy made by a friend of mine in marketing may shed some light on the workings of Erdoğan’s New Turkey: “Give me the most ordinary detergent on the market. Provide me with an unlimited advertising budget and the chance to disparage my competitors in my ads, but don’t allow them to market their own brands. Before long, I guarantee that my detergent will have 80% of the market share.” Careful management of how the ruling party is perceived has kept Erdoğan’s share of the vote within the 45%-50% range, despite his country’s domestic and foreign problems. However, as time passes, Turkey’s problems are becoming too urgent for such “perception management” to sweep under the rug.
*Behlul Ozkan is an Assistant Professor at Marmara University, Istanbul. He is the author of the book From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan published by Yale University Press in 2012.