Although the term “Neo-Ottomanism” actually pre-dates the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the phrase has often been used to describe Turkish foreign policy under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. However, not only is the term widely used, it is also under defined and, as a consequence, interpreted in many different ways.
For some, Neo-Ottomanism is a blanket term for Turkey’s greater involvement in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans, areas where the Ottoman Empire once occupied. This could include both diplomatic ties and economic relations. For others, Neo-Ottomanism is a more specific policy of Ankara’s, especially under Erdogan and the AKP, to not only re-engage with the Middle East, but to also position itself as a multi-regional actor rather than being part of Europe. This is in contrast to Turkey’s traditional Kemalist foreign policy which considered itself part of the West. Although fewer in number, some go as far as to define Neo-Ottomanism as an attempt by Turkey to dominate neighbouring states and expand its territory beyond the international barriers stipulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
But please allow me to add my thoughts on this subject and define how I understand Neo-Ottomanism. For the sake of clarity, and no doubt to the chagrin of you international relations theorists out there, I will do my best to limit my social science jargon unless absolutely necessary. I’ll save that for an academic article which I hope to write one day in the not too distant future. As always, feel free to email me your thoughts.
Imagine that you have been invited to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. You find yourself staying in Erbil, the KRG’s capital. You spend the night in a hotel which is Turkish owned. In the morning, you drink a cup of tea which is a Turkish brand. You go for a walk and notice that the roads were built by a Turkish construction firm. You enter a shopping mall which was also built by a Turkish company and perhaps owned, at least partly, by a Turkish firm. The shops inside the mall are Turkish chain outlets selling Turkish products. Even the food court consists of Turkish franchisees. And I haven’t even mentioned Turkish schools, universities or hospitals yet.
If one were to replace the word “Turkish” in the above paragraph with “American” or “British”, or nowadays increasingly “Chinese”, some would not hesitate to label such influence an example of neo-colonialism. I see no reason why this term cannot be applied to Turkey. Indeed, it can. And in this case, Neo-Ottomanism is the appropriate word. And let us not forget, Turkey often legitimatises its overwhelming influence in such places because of its presence of these countries during Ottoman times.
The above is how I define the central core of Neo-Ottomanism. In addition to Iraqi Kurdistan, a similar scenario is taking shape in Afrin, Syria, which was recently captured by Turkish supported forces. It is also taking place in the other area of northern Syria which Turkey captured after Operation Euphrates Shield which ended in March 2017. You might even want to include Northern Cyprus too, but you would have to concede that this predated the AKP by almost three decades and has a different historical context and military dynamic. Azerbaijan could also be included in this central core of Neo-Ottomanism, although to a much lesser extent mainly because of continued Russian influence.
Then there is a second layer, the inner core, of Neo-Ottomanism. By this I mean areas which are slighter further away from Turkey, but where Ankara is seeking to exert influence based on both military power, trade relations and cultural capital. Again, this attempt to exert influence is justified by Turkish politicians, President Erdogan included, because of Turkey’s imperial past. Specifically, I am referring to Sudan and Qatar. In December 2017, it was announced that Sudan had agreed to lease Suakin Island, located strategically on the Red Sea, to Turkey. In addition to the historical significance of the port Island during the Ottoman period, Turkey sees this as an opportunity to redevelop the island as a port, a naval dock (civilian and military), and to restore its ancient ruins. The deal represents the strengthening of Turkish-Sudanese ties in which Turkey is by far the dominant force and will give Turkey a long-term presence in the country. Meanwhile in November 2017, Turkey opened a military base in Qatar just as the energy rich Gulf Arab island was being isolated and boycotted by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for its apparent support for the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathies with Iran. Turkey saw the crisis as a means of currying favour with Doha and benefitting from the now almost monopolised purchases of Turkish goods and services. This together with a military base, translates to unprecedented influence.
Finally, there is the third layer, or outer core, of Neo-Ottomanism in which Turkey seeks a leadership role in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. In addition to having important military, commercial and cultural ties with its Muslim neighbours, Turkey again justifies its leadership role among the Muslim world based on its Ottoman legacy. After all, wasn’t the most recent and greatest Islamic empire that of the Ottomans? Sure, the Koran was written in Arabic and the world’s most populated Muslim countries are in southeast Asia, but, using a mix of Turkish Islamist tropes and ultra-nationalist thought, the role of the Turk is to be the warrior of Islam, those who fight to defend the faith. Wasn’t that what President Erdogan was essentially doing when he convened the OIC in in December 2017 to condemn Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - leading the defence of Muslim holy sites against foreign onslaught and occupation? Sites which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Regardless, Neo-Ottomanism is an aspirational policy. There are many drawbacks, not least the risk of overreach, regional opposition, and having to come to pragmatic arrangements with greater powers such as China and Russia. However, the above is the basis of how I consider and define Neo-Ottomanism, the central pillar and driver of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
Following the downturn in US-Turkish relations and the recent re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Turkish Republic, only this time with enhanced powers, some have begun to ask what happened to Turkish democracy?
But the question is misplaced. Sure, Turkey has certainly drifted from liberal democratic politics in recent years; however, the reality is that Turkey was never, ever, a democracy. It is worth having a brief historical recap in order to remind western journalists, politicians and wonks as well as some of their self-deluded Turkish counterparts of this fact.
The idea that Turkey is a democracy is a western construct. It is an invented and artificial idea based on the hopes of western policy makers (and some wishful thinking Turkish intellectuals) who, in the post 9/11 war on terror, thought they needed an example of a modern, western friendly and democratic Muslim country in order to convince the Muslim world that they were not at war with Islam. This construct was given additional impetus after the misnamed Arab Spring of 2011. Again, the international community wanted to point towards a model or example of a Muslim democracy. They pointed to Turkey, but they shouldn’t have.
Following Turkey’s establishment in 1923, Turkey was under the one-man rule of its principle state-builder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Secularist, reformist, revolutionary, moderniser and visionary, Kemal-Ataturk was, however, no democrat. There were a couple of short periods when he experimented with a two-party system, but when the politics of the opposition drifted in a direction not to his liking, he swiftly did away with it. Following his death in 1938, Kemal-Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu took over the mantle. Elections took place in 1946 which the ruling party won in a landslide because, quite frankly, they were unfree, unfair, and undoubtedly rigged. It was not until 1950 that free and fair elections finally took place and even brought about a change of government. Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party became Prime Minister. However, ten years later the military ousted him in a coup. Incensed by Manderes’ handling of the economy, his creeping autocratic nature and his popular appeals to Islam, they decided he needed to be gone for good. One year after the coup Menderes was hanging by the neck.
And like a kid with an open packet of Oreos, the military just couldn’t help itself. It staged another intervention in 1971 and another in 1980 after urban political violence was tearing the country apart. Until 1983 Turkey was led by a military junta. In addition to arresting hundreds of thousands of citizens, executing dozens and the many incidences of torture, the men in uniform oversaw the drafting of the 1982 constitution. They also vetted political candidates ahead of the 1983 elections. Even after return to “normal” civilian politics, the military retained control of nearly all institutions of state through informal networks and by heading supervisory bodies. Nothing could happen from foreign policy to television broadcasts if it were against the will of the generals.
The main challenge to the military’s grip over power was the rise of Welfare Party and its leader and Necmettin Erbakan who became Prime Minister in 1996 and advocated an openly Islamist foreign policy. No problem for the boys in uniform. In 1997 they gave Erbakan an ultimatum which made him obliged to resign. He was then banned from politics and so was his party.
But hold on a minute. As far removed from democracy as the above might sound, it doesn’t relate to the whole of the country. While all this was taking place, the southeast was a different case altogether. The 1920s and 30s were marked by insurrections and brutal crackdowns by the full arm of the state. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly dreadful as insurgency and counter insurgency claimed the lives of 40,000 citizens. Death squads roamed southeastern cities assassinating Kurdish leaders. Thousands of villages were destroyed and perhaps millions displaced. There were many instances of extrajudicial killings and torture which still remain uninvestigated let alone punished. So when you hear people talk of Turkish democracy, they are usually talking about only part of the country, the places where people go on holiday and policy makers and businesspersons visit rather than the southeast which resembled a war-zone.
It was not until October 2001 that Turkey entered a period of democratization with the first of a series of reforms geared towards EU accession. Not long after, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government. The following year, after his ban from politics was lifted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister.
This was perfect timing for the West which was in the early stages of the War on Terror. Running the show in Turkey were outwardly pious politicians whose political careers emanated from Islamist parties. They had covered wives, reframed from drinking alcohol and talked about piety, and, yet, Turkey still appeared to be pro-western and friendly. These Turkish politicians even talked the talk about democracy.
But it was all nonsense. Throughout this period, Erdogan and the AKP worked hard to undermine Turkey’s opportunity at democratization. Just a few examples to illustrate the point. In 2005, Erdogan sued Musa Kart and the Cumhuriyet newspaper for a cartoon that “insulted” him. This was while 60 academics, journalists and publishers were already in prison or facing prosecution. The onslaught against freedom of expression which would go full speed ahead ten years later had already begun. Meanwhile, the infamous article 301, which banned the insult against “Turkishness” was also in full sway and used against novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. Also, in 2004, there were serious discussions by the AKP government to criminalize adultery. Yes, you heard right – criminalize adultery! To make matters worse, the AKP got into bed with the Gulen movement who had infiltrated the judiciary and police force and laid fraudulent charges on hundreds of military officers in what turned out to be a successful bid to ouster the military’s ability to interfere in politics. It was also designed to make room for the rise of Gulenist ranks within the armed-forces. Although the military was by far an anti-democratic force, these means to supress it were contrary to the rule of law. They made a mockery of the courts.
In 2008 there was an attempt through the constitutional court to shut down the AKP for anti-secular activities. Ultimately it failed (although it did slap the party with a fine and a warning). However, in response, the AKP spearheaded the 2010 constitutional changes which began the process of eroding Turkey’s fragile system of checks and balances.
All the while, politicians and liberal intellectuals in the West and Turkey were heaping praise on Turkish democracy, and, by extension, Erdogan and the AKP. In reality, democracy in Turkey was barely in existence. And I haven’t even gone beyond 2010 when things got even worse. The myth of Turkish democracy should be understood as just that, a piece of fiction.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
Once again US-Turkish relations have reached a new low. That phrase “new low” is getting a bit repetitive and overused when describing Turkey’s relations with Europe, the US and the West in general. This in itself tells us a lot.
The current crisis came after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both tweeted that Turkey could face harsh sanctions if Ankara does not fully release Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is currently facing trial in Turkey on trumped up (no pun intended) terrorism related charges. Ankara has responded by declaring the threats “unacceptable” and is refusing to bow down to US pressure.
The sanctions that Trump and Pence have in mind are in addition to defence budget legislation which is currently being drafted in Congress and contains clauses pertaining to Turkey’s involvement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. After the draft legislation is passed by both houses it will need a Presidential sign off. Currently the bill contains a reference to Turkey’s purchase and involvement in the F35 project, calling for Turkey’s participation to be contingent with the release of pastor Brunson and Turkey forgoing its purchase of Russian S400 surface to air missiles.
Added to this impasse is the recent victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The overarching power of President Erdogan, secured after a constitutional referendum last year, is now all but sealed. President Erdogan’s power is so overwhelming that excuses for not releasing Brunson such insisting that Turkish courts are independent, just doesn't fly. Arguably, such excuses never washed anyway - let’s not forget that last year Erdogan offered the US a swap, Brunson for Gulen. This led to the detention of Brunsen to be labelled by some quarters “hostage diplomacy”.
This recent crisis is the latest of many fallings out between the two former allies. Currently at least a dozen US citizens are consular employees are being held in detention. There’s also the issue of US support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting the so called Islamic State. Ankara claims these militias are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but the Pentagon sees as an effective indigenous force against Islamic militancy. Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 Surface to air missiles, incompatible with NATO hardware, is an act that obviously strained ties. A purchase and deployment of such equipment risks the leaking of sensitive NATO military data to Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish banks, probably with the blessing of the country’s President, broke US led international sanctions against Iran. Plus, just recently Turkey rebuffed US efforts to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic, declaring that Turkey will not follow them. All of these issues alone are serious enough to strain relations for the foreseeable future. Taken together it is inevitable that relations have taken a nosedive.
In fact, relations have dipped so low that it would be foolhardy to expect that they will ever go back to how they were. Elsewhere I have recommended that the strategic component of the West’s relations with Turkey should be reconsidered. I think now more than ever that I am right. The strategy that some analysists and policy makers have recommended to either the US or European governments is continued engagement with Turkey. They believe that western countries should recognise and take steps towards meeting Ankara’s security needs while ensuring Ankara respects their own security concerns. Meanwhile, the argument goes, the sides should work towards greater cooperation in fields outside of the strategic dimension. This may have been sound policy advice a while ago, but quite frankly this method has been tried with Ankara over the past couple of years and is clearly not working.
Instead, it is time for the US and Europe to work towards a transactional relationship with Turkey when it comes to strategic issues. The first thing to do is recognise that the alliance between Turkey and the West is not one of mutual strategic interests, not is it one of shared values. However, there are some fields where western and Turkish interests converge and collaboration should be sought. Issues such as terrorism, aspects of regional security and the future of Syria are areas where there can be some cooperation and serious discussion.
However, this should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance and therefore the west should limit Turkish involvement in projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter and NATO operations until a time when relations improve and warrant an upgrade. However, when it comes to trade, businesses and corporations on both sides should be encouraged to invest, buy and sell until their hearts are content. The same goes for cultural diplomacy. And who knows, maybe they will be the harbinger for strategic convergence at a later date.
Although this state of affairs may seem disappointing, this is the nature of international relations. Alliance form and alliances collapse. A period of transactionalism and trade may be the step back that both sides need before relations become warm again because soon Turkey will discover that the US and the West make better bedfellows that Russia, Iran or China.
On Sunday 24 June, I will be glued to my TV screen to watch two historical events. The first, and by far the most important, is England’s match against Panama for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. The second, and perhaps the reason why you are reading this post, is the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey.
I have been commissioned to write a commentary for a leading newspaper and scheduled to make a TV news appearance to analyse the election results, so much of my thoughts will be expressed soon enough. However, I was recently asked by a journalism student whether I consider Turkey a democracy. My answer was negative.
On paper Turkey may look like a democracy, but in practice it is far from it. Every democratic system, whether parliamentary or presidential, contains a flaw or two whether they be the voting system, the constitutional boundaries or the role of institutions or executive branches. However, Turkey’s system (before and especially after the constitutional changes of 2017), is an amalgam of the various deficiencies that can be found in different democratic systems. The end result is a structure that resembles a democracy, but isn’t one and just doesn’t make the grade. Checks and balances? Eroded. Fundamental freedoms? Violated. Freedom of expression? Curtailed. Tyranny of the majority? Institutionalised. Civil society? embattled.
Even the electoral process is unfair, and, at times, unfree.
The elections are taking place under a state of emergency. This is the second election to be held under such restrictive conditions which have been in place for almost two years. How can Turkey be called a democracy when last year’s referendum to fundamentally transform the political system in order to entrench the rule and power of the incumbent president take place under a state of emergency? How can it be a democracy when the leaders of the third largest political party are arrested and imprisoned while still on trial without remand, in what is clearly politically motivated charges? Ahead of Sunday’s polls, the liberal and Kurdish oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is experiencing real difficulties to campaign through violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, The HDP’s Presidential candidate, selahattin demirtas, is behind bars under trumped up charges of terrorism.
In Turkey, the resources of the state are intermeshed with that of the ruling party and are used for campaign purposes. After years of co-option and censorship, the media is overwhelming sympathetic to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. Some have counted that around 90 per cent of media outlets are now pro-government. Meanwhile the state broadcaster, TRT, has devoted, by some counts, almost ten times more coverage to President Erdogan than to his challengers. Go to any Turkish city and you will see at least three gigantic AKP and Erdogan posters located in key arteries of the population centre for every backstreet opposition billboard.
Turkey’s 10 per cent parliamentary threshold is a stain on its so-called democracy. This restriction was deliberately designed to prevent Kurdish political party representation. Indeed, if the HDP wins less than 10 per cent of the popular vote, the ruling AKP will be the winner of around 80 seats, all but guaranteeing their parliamentary majority. No wonder the HDP is constantly bullied and intimidated.
The OSCE which monitors elections in Turkey releases an interim report during the election process and another after the voting is complete. Over the years each report has been more damning than the next, but yet its criticisms and recommendations go unheeded. Turkey’s election board has been filled with government allies and the safety of ballots is in severe doubt in some parts of the country, mostly in areas where the aforementioned 10 per cent threshold becomes critical. To make matters worse, ballots without an official seal will be considered valid and safeguards against fraud are not strong enough. Many doubt the elections will be free and fair. And if enough of the population doesn’t believe that the process is transparent, then there is a serious problem.
The opposition has to be congratulated for competing in such an environment, let alone giving President Erdogan and the AKP a run for their money. Some commentators have gone so far as to raise the prospect of a governmental defeat. This is unlikely. Erdogan will probably win the presidency in either the first or second round. It would be a bonus for President Erdogan to have an AKP majority in parliament, but not essential. The new constitution was conceived to give the President enough authority to get things done without parliament causing too much trouble. And what it can do – refuse to authorise the budget and reject presidential decrees, Erdogan will overcome through backroom deals and manoeuvres with a handful of key parliamentary deputies whose support will be required to swing a vote.
Still, the opposition parties and candidates have done well in the circumstances, especially in a system designed to keep them in opposition.
With upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, one would think that Turkey is awash with excitement and fervour. But the election season has been a rather subdued affair. Turks seem to be suffering from election fatigue. Let’s not forget that this is the sixth big vote in Turkey in just four years. The campaign period also coincides with the holy month of Ramazan – Erdogan apparently ordered electioneering to be somewhat calmer. Hmmm.
Let’s not forget just how high the stakes are. If incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wins the presidential race, with the new constitution in place it would mean he will be an elected autocrat with unprecedented power. And if his Justice and Development Party (AKP) gain a majority in parliament, Erdogan will be able to use his powers to their maximum potential. Indeed, this is an election that is worth campaigning for, regardless of which party you sympathise with. Although there is now a little bit of a buzz after the holiday period and ahead of polling day, compared to previous elections, it still remains the pretty calm affair.
The candidate and party which seems to be suffering from the most amount of election fatigue is that President Erdogan and his AKP. No doubt, they will almost certainly win, but the AKP needs to fight in order to get 50 per cent of the vote so that it may dominate parliament to rubber stamp the will of the President. Meanwhile, Erdogan will win the presidency but would prefer to do it in the first round rather than in a second round two weeks later. Yet, Erdogan is looking tired and his campaign lacklustre. Some of his rallies have been visibly empty and his tongue lashings against opponents and the international conspiracies against Turkey is less venomous than previous years. The billboard campaign of both Erdogan and the AKP appear duller by the day. Apparently, CHP Presidential candidate Muharrem Ince scored higher ratings than Erdogan not only on television, but also on the internet. No doubt because Erdogan and what he stands for is clear, the other candidates who lack media exposure are, therefore, more interesting especially when they mock Erdogan’s lack of university degree and his use of teleprompter which has been hit by system failure.
This leads to the question, is Erdogan’s popularity waning. Has the man who has dominated Turkish politics for the last 15 years, lost his shine?
Many have described Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a charismatic leader so it is worth consulting Max Weber, one of the three founding fathers of modern sociology, about this matter.
In looking at the world around him in turn of the last century, Weber characterised the nature of societal order and political authority. In other words, why do people obey? Why do we abide by laws rather than rebel or resist? Often this comes down to the question of power – people with more power control us. But the use or threat of force cannot be used all the time. More often than not, people obey political elites because they respect authority, meaning that they recognise that those in power have legitimacy to rule.
Weber was interested in different types of authority in political societies and identified three. The first is rational-legal authority, which in basic terms means the presence of rules, laws, institutions and bureaucracies that govern based on consensus, not unlike modern democracies. Secondly, there is traditional authority which is when leaders base their legitimacy on past traditions of patrimony, often this would take the form of a monarchy. Finally, and here comes the interesting bit, Weber identified the phenomenon of Charismatic authority.
The term “charisma” is religious in origin, Greek for “divine gift”. Put another way, an individual with a god-like quality or aura. That’s the origin of the word, but Charisma is also a word we use colloquially. We know what it means, but it’s hard to define. We use it to describe celebrities, board room managers, politicians and popular people. For example, George Clooney, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Adolf Hitler, Will Smith and Barack Obama have all been described as charismatic.
A few things I am sure you have noted from the above list. One, all of the aforementioned are men. Two, it lumps together the good with the evil, the profound with the superficial. Thirdly, charisma is in the eye of the beholder. For example, Obama may be charismatic for me, but not to you. Ditto Steve Jobs and Adolph Hitler.
Nevertheless, with all the problems associated with the term charisma, Weber still noted the preponderance of charismatic leaders in some countries. They often emerge in a society which has experienced turmoil or an existential crisis. In this context, an individual appears, perhaps from the ranks of the military or a religious group who has exceptional organisational and oratory skills and manages to unite a society and head them towards a particular direction or vision. This is the basis for his (rarely her) authority. That’s right, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is an almost ideal example.
But in some respects so is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He emerged at a time when Turkey was experiencing one of its worst economic crises in its history, there was uncertainty about the future direction of Turkey, and from the perspective of the pious and conservative population, a sense of victimhood. In this context Erdogan rose to the fore offering Turkey, or at least the demographic of Turkish society he represented as well as disenchanted liberals and capitalists, a vision of a “New Turkey”, one in which a pious generation would arise. This new Turkey would be economically prosperous, technologically and infrastructural advanced and a world leader. Women could wear headscarves to university and the organs of the state would represent and work for the real Turkish majority, those from the socially conservative Anatolian heartland and the urban poor while also benefitting the economic elite.
But that was then and the excitement of the Erdogan years of the past 10-15 years is waning. Weber predicted this would be the case in societies where charismatic authority is the source of legitimacy. Charismatic appeal is only temporary. Indeed, the rhetoric of Erdogan has been heard before. The vision is clear as is the direction. It is no longer novel and what is real can be mundane. Mega projects? The third bridge is open and so is the Marmaray. Despite all the hype, they turned out to be pretty lacklustre (some would say failures). Kanal Istanbul and the third airport now seem less exciting. Yes, Erdogan may get his new powers and promise a stronger Turkey, but what he will do is already known. Simply put, more of the same.
Weber argues that at this stage, a process begins which he called the routinization of charisma. This is when charismatic authority shifts to either traditional or legal-rational authority, a result of the need to maintain power and is often facilitated by the group around the charismatic leader. Sometimes this is achieved by building monuments and creating new rituals. To some extent we have seen this routinisation process begin with the narrative and commemoration of the “martyrs” of the attempt coup of 16 July 2016.
Regardless, what is clear is that although Erdogan and the AKP will no doubt win the forthcoming elections, we are entering a period of the routinization of Erdogan’s charisma, the process of which will dominate the work of Erdogan and the AKP and be institutionalised through the new powers of the constitution. Not much to get excited about, even if you support him.
There are many embattled democracies in the world today, but How Democracy Die is primarily a book about America. It is a warning to Americans to never be complacent about their democracy, regardless of how robust and dynamic the oldest democratic constitution in the world may appear to be; the foundations of even the strongest of constitutions shake when an autocratic demagogue is committed to smashing the liberal democratic order.
In this book, Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky examine international examples to illustrate how autocrats use legal means to kill democracy. Professor Ziblatt is a historian of Europe from the nineteenth century to the present day and Professor Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world. You can’t get more qualified than that to write a book about how democracies die.
With the exception of its snowy neighbour to the north and its transatlantic Anglo sidekick, many who live outside of the US reside in countries where democracy has either died and been reborn, or is experiencing a difficult process of democratization. Others are witnessing the death of their own democracy in front of their very eyes. It is therefore imperative that Americans, regardless of their level of education, political views or social status, pay heed to the political histories of other nations in order to prevent the misfortune of others to be repeated in America. This is especially true while Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. Sure, he was elected fair and square, but there are facets of his character and policies that raise alarm bells.
Borrowing and updating the work of Juan Linz, Ziblatt and Levitsky highlight four key indicators of authoritarianism. They are 1) rejection or weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration of encouragement of violence, 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media. Note that Trump falls into each of these four categories.
In recent times the death of a democracy is less likely to occur through a military coup or by a violent revolution. It’s not that there aren’t any good old-fashioned military coups anymore (Thailand, Ecuador), but it is increasingly the case that demagogues obtain power through the ballot box, and once there slowly but surely push democratic norms to the point of collapse in a bid to solidify power. Often this achieved by eroding the checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy through the combination of nullifying the legislative power of parliament, filling the judiciary with sycophantic or co-opted judges, attacking the critical media and delegitimising political opponents. Such has happened in Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Argentina, Russia, and Hungary to name but a few. Then there is, of course, the examples of Germany and Italy earlier in the century. In the case of the United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that over time America’s democratic fail safes have been eroded including party gatekeeping, institutional forbearance, self-restraint and mutual toleration. This has led to the situation of today. A US president who has no qualms about railing against the free press and calling for his political opponent to be locked up.
It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps that’s true for those who choose to ignore the past. This is why a book like this is so important. Americans can no longer afford to be complacent.
As close observers of Turkey already know, the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was very much tied with the economic performance of the country. The 2001 economic crisis was a significant factor for the electoral success of Erdogan and the AKP in 2002. Their ability to maintain growth ensured their longevity.
Bearing this in mind some have insinuated that with Turkey’s economy on the ropes with the devaluation of the lira against all major currencies, Turkey’s current account deficit, inflation, the lack of independence of the central bank and the President’s unconventional instance that low interest rates reduce inflation, could lead to the opposition doing well in the polls. Some say perhaps they might even win if not the Presidential elections, then at least prevent the AKP from having a majority in parliament.
But at this exact moment Turkey is not in recession or financial crisis, but rather on the proposes of one. There are dark clouds on the horizon but they are not quite on top of us yet. Therefore, the extent to which economic uncertainty will be detrimental to Erdogan and the AKP depends on the success of their political campaigns as well as those of the opposition. A couple of weeks ago I touched on an important component of electoral campaigns, political branding. But now, allow me to discuss the importance of the political slogan.
In simple terms, a slogan is an effective, easily identifiable and repeatable refrain or motto which encapsulates the message or ideology of the candidate and/or political party. Just like a brand it is supposed to capture an emotional and intellectual connection with voters and accompany them into the voting booth. It can be chanted at campaign rallies, feature on billboards and uttered by politicians in a speech.
There have been some excellent political slogans over the years. Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 “Labour isn’t working” managed to capture widespread public discontent with Britain’s ruling Labour party’s inability to get to grips with the recession. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” was simple, uplifting and catchy. Love it or hate it Donald J. Trump’s “America First” was effective, albeit terrifying for the student of history. Perhaps the greatest of all time was the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”, a rallying cry against British imperial rule during the 18th century and currently used by residents of DC who strangely find themselves constitutionally without congressional representation. My personal all-time favourite slogan is “Up Yours, Delores!”. Not affiliated to a particular party per se, it was first featured in a 1990 British tabloid newspaper headline. The phrase was then chanted at demonstrations in reaction to the French politician Jacques Delores’ advocating the ECU, the precursor to the Euro.
A couple of weeks ago, President Erdogan handed the opposition a slogan on a silver platter when he stated that all the Turkish people had to do was say “tamam” and he would step down, in this context “tamam” meant “enough”. And sure enough, millions of Turks were tweeting #Tamam.
The good news for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party of the National Alliance (CHP, IYI, SP, DP) and its presidential candidate Muharrem Ince is that they used a variation of “tamam” in their slogans – “Artik tamam” meaning “enough already” is an obvious allusion to the hashtag. The CHP’s other slogan, “Millet icin geliyoruz!” roughly meaning “we are coming for the nation” is also a play on the Erdogan speech where he says all the nation has to do is say enough. Another CHP and Ince slogan is the rhyming “Turkiye’ye guvence Muharrem İnce”, roughly translating to "Muharrem İnce, an assurance to Turkey".
Quite catchy with clear messages, the CHP’s slogans have so far been ok, not bad, pretty good. But they are not exactly wow either. Although certainly an improvement on the CHP’s lame June 2015 election slogan, “Milletce alkisliyoruz" meaning “we clap as a nation”, the CHP’s 2018 message does not hit hard enough, especially not on the economy. A really good political slogan finds the incumbents’ weak spot and presses it hard and relentlessly until something gives way.
A good example of this is another all-time great, Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. Coined by James Carville, one of the best politically campaigners of the modern era, the Clinton slogan was able to beat the incumbent US President George Bush Snr in the 1992 elections. The fact that Clinton won was remarkable as he defeated an incumbent US president who was basking in the glory of the successful Gulf War. In 1991 Bush enjoyed a whopping 90% approval rating. However, having found Bush’s weak spot, the recession of the previous year, Clinton was relentless on economic issues until slowly but surely Bush’s popularity all but evaporated. With this in mind the CHP’s slogans, quite frankly, need to be better, especially on the economic downturn on the horizon.
Now let’s evaluate the slogans of the current ruling party and president, the dominant forces of the People’s Alliance, a coalition between the AKP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the smaller Great Unity Party (BBP).
So far, the AKP’s election slogans, just like its campaign in general, have not exactly been thrilling. “Vakit Turkiye vakti” roughly translating as “the time is Turkey’s time” is somewhat effective in that it relates to the time conscious period of the holy month Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day and break bread at sundown. The use of religious motifs in AKP electioneering is not new. Back in November 2015, one of the AKP’s main slogans was “Haydi Bismillah", a common religious refrain in Turkey. The AKP’s other current slogan is “Guclu Meclis, Guclu Hukumet, Guclu Turkiye” meaning “Strong parliament, strong government, strong Turkey” which echoes President Erdogan’s ambitions to transform Turkey’s political system.
But this message has already been made, especially during last year’s constitutional referendum. The slogan is therefore rather dull. Not only did the AKP already win the constitutional referendum, but the slogan also recycles the June 2015 AKP phraze “İstikrara oy verin" (vote for stability). Back then, the AKP only won just under 41 per cent of the popular vote, something which the AKP will hate to repeat this time round. The stability card in my opinion, is quite desperate, almost as needy as the November 2015 election re-run slogan of “İlk gunku askla" which roughly translates to “with the same love of the first day”, as if the people’s relationship with the AKP was one of a married couple trying to rekindle the magic of times past. Erdogan and the AKP needs to up their game if they want to win their majority in parliament and the presidential run-off in the first round.
Let’s have a look at Meral Aksener and the IYI Party, part of the National Alliance. The slogan "Türkiye ve milletimiz iyi olacak", which roughly translates to “Turkey and our nation will be good” is certainly cheesy, but it’s not terribly bad either. It suffers the same problem as the CHP in that it does not hit hard enough about the economy, the soft underbelly of Erdogan and the AKP. However, the underlying message is one of positivity, and it has the potential to make the voter link their patriotic views of Turkey with the party whose very name means “good” when it’s time to cast a vote.
The best political slogan in this race is that of the HDP, “Senle degisir”, meaning “it changes with you”. It is a very empowering phrase and encapsulate the liberal and democratic spirit of the HDP. It is also clever as words can be put in front of the slogan, for example, “one man rule, it changes with you” or “everything, changes with you”. This is not unlike the 2014 election slogan of Selahattin Demirtas, "Bir Cumhurbaskani Dusunun" meaning “imagine a president…” a phrase left open ended so that another word or two may be added such as “who unites”, “brings peace”, “doesn’t discriminate”, etc. Obamaesque, no doubt. Also for the 2018 election there’s the rhyming “Yurttas, Yoldas, Arkadas Demirtas” (countryman, comrade, friend, Demirtas). This is also quite effective too. The problem of the HDP and Demirtas is not their slogans or branding, but their ability to campaign which is severely crippled due to security constraints and politically motivated attacks against this largely Kurdish party. Yet the HDP might just get past the 10 per cent threshold if they continue to do and say the right things.
As the campaigning continues I’m sure you will notice that some slogans will be dropped and others adopted. It is always interesting to observe what catches on and how the nature of campaigning evolves during an election cycle. I’m sure some new slogans will be ringing in our ears over the next few years. I can’t wait to hear them.
While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was visiting the United Kingdom last week, I wrote a piece about UK-Turkish relations which was published by the EU Observer and can be found here. Some of you might be aware that I am currently working on a research project about UK-Turkish relations at the Istanbul Policy Center. My main thinking about the subject will be available in a full policy report in a couple of months, but let me take this occasion to make a few brief comments about President Erdogan’s UK visit.
In my view UK-Turkish relations are entering a golden age. Bilateral trade is flowing at its highest level, ministers are regularly meeting and goodwill has never been higher. So, it was pretty obvious that Downing Street would give President Erdogan the red-carpet treatment including the pleasure of meeting Her Royal Majesty the Queen.
Indeed, it was this audience with Britain’s hereditary sovereign which was the most controversial aspect of President Erdogan’s visit. It should be remembered that as soon as Erdogan called snap elections other European nations ruled out the possibility of ministerial visits for campaign purposes, leaving only Bosnia as part of Erdogan’s international campaigning.
But President Erdogan’s visit to London was planned well before the snap elections were announced. However, it was not planned as a state visit, meaning that London was not obliged to stick the baked bean (that’s cockney for Queen) before the Turkish head of state. However, Lizzy was not busy and so London was able to provide Erdogan a great photo op while he is fights what is increasingly becoming a tough presidential and parliamentary election race next month.
But it didn’t quite work out so smoothly, at least not for Erdogan. The footage of the meeting between Erdogan and the Queen was not heavily circulated by the Turkish press, even pro-government outlets. Perhaps this was because Erdogan appeared to be making a very low bow before the Queen in the photograph? Obviously, one is supposed to make a humble nod of the head before blue blood, but it remains the case that at 1.85 (6ft 1) Erdogan towers over Elizabeth II whose height stands at a regal 1.63 (5ft 4). In other words, in order to make eye contact and shake the hand of the head of the House of Windsor, President Erdogan had little choice but to make a deeper bow than what looked good.
A slightly different case with the Turkish first lady Emine who was accompanying her husband in his royal visit. Looking rather overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, Emine had the advantage of being about the same height as her regnant host, and their handshake looked like one between equals. This was the photo the Turkish press chose to publicise more widely.
Also, Erdogan made a disastrous interview with Bloomberg while in London, stating that he would tighten his grip on the economy including ensuring that interest rates remain low. This was the opposite of what investors wanted to hear and contributed to the Lira plunging against all major currencies including the dollar, euro and pound sterling. The visit can hardly be described as a boon before the elections.
This aside, there are questions that need to be raised about this visit. Last year the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on the UK’s relations with Turkey which stressed the importance of not just strengthen its relationship with the ruling governing party but all segments of Turkish society. Absolutely right. But upgrading the nature of Erdogan’s visit to London hardly meets this goal, especially without the UK making some kind of gesture towards the opposition or fostering stronger ties with Turkish civil society. The question still looms, how can Britain forge ties with all segments of Turkish society without angering the governing party and President? For real long-term durability in bilateral relations, Britain has to diversify the nature of its engagement with Turkey.
However, from Turkey’s perspective, this recent visit affirmed what I have thought all along - in Britain, Erdogan and the AKP has found a perfect ally. Although Britain’s international standing has diminished, it still remains a significant medium international power that is able to punch slightly above its weight. Turkey’s ties with the UK are unlike that of, say, Germany. British leaders do not go on about human rights, the state of democracy or the rule of law. They mention it a little bit of course, but they in no way make political relations and economic engagement contingent on such matters. Also, as a supporter of Turkey’s EU accession and a country that has been the most sympathetic towards the ruling government after the attempted 2016 coup, Britain has earned Erdogan’s favour. Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May even used the term “Kurdish Terrorism”. You don't hear that too often from European leaders.
The UK is eager to shake hands and make deals whether that be in the defence, services and pharmaceutical sectors or new emerging industries. London's hope is that during the period of Brexit, UK-Turkish relations can stand as an example of beneficial trade and diplomatic relations with other countries outside of the EU and thus maintain the Global Britain brand.
Much more to come about this subject in a couple of months when my report is released.
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