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Turkish democracy is under assault. The increasingly conservative rhetoric of the AKP, the country’s dominant political party, is fueling widespread concern that the secular Turkish Republic might soon be supplanted by an Islamist regime. The end result, many worry, could be a repressive state dominated by sharia law—one similar to Iran.
But a different geographic analogy might be more appropriate. The AKP’s conservative leanings notwithstanding, Turkey isn’t about to go Islamist. In fact, the party’s systematic campaign to eliminate political rivals is rooted not in religious fervor but in the secular aspiration to retain and consolidate power. A deeper look at Turkey’s political trajectory under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggests that he is steering Turkey in an authoritarian but secular direction, toward a state not unlike President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
THE TURNING TIDE
Perhaps the reason so many observers suspect the AKP of pushing Turkey toward an Islamist future is the party’s historical legacy: the AKP is the offspring of a long line of Turkish Islamist movements. The AKP’s two immediate predecessors were the Welfare Party, active from 1983 to 1998, and the Virtue Party, from 1998 to 2001. Both were widely considered pro-Islamic—a reputation that led to their eventual dissolution—and continue to be remembered as such today.
But the two parties’ Islamism loomed larger in the perception of their secular political opponents than in their actual political and ideological stances. The closest Welfare ever got to pursuing Islamist policies were its proposals to eliminate interest-based banking and to cement economic ties to other Muslim-majority nations. Virtue maintained an even more secular agenda. Yet many political elites—particularly in the military and the judiciary—suspected the parties of harboring a secret desire to overthrow the existing secular order. Turkey’s Constitutional Court ultimately shut both parties down for violating the state’s principle of secularism.
By the time the AKP was born, in 2001, the history of political Islam in Turkey had been fading for several generations. Even more so than its predecessors, the AKP worked to create a platform that emphasized citizens’ rights and minimized references to religion—a strategy that helped propel it to power. At the time of its creation, the AKP was, at most, a post-Islamist party; in the context of a traditionally secular country, it would probably be described as center-right. Although many of its leaders were genuinely religious, their stated social, political, and economic agendas centered on capitalism, good governance, and the expansion of individual freedoms.
But after more than 12 years in power, the AKP is no longer the party it was. It has become the personal instrument of Erdogan as he has embarked on a systematic campaign to eliminate political rivals and consolidate power. Earlier hopes that other AKP leaders, such as the former president Abdullah Gul, would manage to challenge Erdogan's autocratic turn have proved to be in vain. Increasingly dominated by Erdogan’s whims, the AKP has come to embody the very flaws of Turkish politics that it had once pledged to eliminate: cronyism, repression of freedoms, and disregard for the rule of law.
Admittedly, some of the AKP’s recent policies and projects have had a distinctly Islamist tint. They have included, for example, greater restrictions on the consumption and advertising of alcohol and the construction of a giant mosque on one of Istanbul's highest hills. And Erdogan's own rhetoric has acquired a more pronounced religious and socially conservative character; he has vehemently spoken out against birth control, abortion, and the notion of gender equality.
These developments, particularly the emphasis on more religious education and traditional female gender roles, have caused some observers to predict that Turkey's secularism will soon become a thing of the past. They fear that Erdogan’s desire to raise a new “pious generation” could bring about mandatory hijabs for women and a complete ban on alcohol and abortion. One founding member of the AKP who has since become its critic, Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, recently expressed the prevailing view of Turkish secularists. Speaking about the rise of religious schools, he claimed that “the ‘New Turkey’ … will be a place dominated by Islamic thinking.”
But such dire predictions miss a key fact: Erdogan’s actions are driven by a commonplace hunger for power. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to compare today’s Turkey to Russia in the early to mid-1990s, when its fledgling democratic principles came under assault. Russia’s wobbly postcommunist government reacted to the attempted 1991 coup (organized by members of the old Politburo) by rolling back some new political freedoms. In the process, the Kremlin set the stage for the weakening of political opposition, and, ultimately, for Putin’s repressive policies.
In a similar fashion, Erdogan has used the pretense of fighting the antidemocratic elements within the Turkish state to eliminate political rivals. His government began by targeting the Gulen movement, a former ally of the AKP that has been challenging the party and likely helped precipitate the recent corruption investigation (which entangled many of Erdogan’s close allies, including his own son). The AKP’s response was to launch an all-out war on the movement and its leader, the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, seizing the movement’s bank and calling for Gulen’s extradition. As the movement’s influence has faded, the AKP proceeded to lob accusations of antigovernment activity at other political actors threatening its dominance, such as the still relatively independent judiciary.
In this context, AKP’s shift to a more Islamist-friendly agenda represents little more than a means toward a political end: strengthening the party’s support base. Most Turks hold conservative views and consider themselves to be pious Muslims (even though they overwhelmingly reject the idea of sharia law). As just one example, most believe that drinking alcohol is morally wrong. By using Islamist rhetoric, the AKP is playing to the sensibilities of its supporters while trying to divert attention from the many pressing problems plaguing its rule, including widespread corruption and the purging of much of its police and judiciary. Putin has similarly used the Orthodox church as a political tool and catered to popular social mores, such as anti-gay sentiment.
And just as Putin has worked tirelessly to chip away at Russia's liberal institutions, Erdogan and the AKP are taking no chances when it comes to potential competitors. Likely facing pressure from the AKP, the Constitutional Court recently upheld the 10-percent election threshold that political parties must meet to obtain parliamentary representation. This decision dealt a blow to the increasingly popular Kurdish HDP party, a liberal organization that emphasizes gender equality and enforces a 50 percent quota for female representatives. The AKP has also taken steps to nip new political movements in the bud. Supporters of the 2013 Gezi protests, in particular, have found themselves under fire; protest leaders and even some of the nonpolitical groups that took part in the demonstrations, such as soccer fan clubs, have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
In a generation, these and other policies could turn Turkey into a single-party state—a Russia with a Muslim-majority population. In this new Turkey, the remaining free press would be quashed, and any semblance of parliamentary debate and political competition would end. But although piety would be encouraged, adherence to the personality cult of Erdogan would assume greater importance. Power and profit, not Islam, would become this state’s religion.
A CALL TO ACCOUNT
Turkey’s transformation into Russia can still be stopped, but the window of opportunity is shrinking. Although Erdogan has no plans to retire from politics anytime soon, he has already started grooming a cadre of political allies, particularly Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who support his illiberal aspirations.
Western countries should do what they can to prod Turkey in the democratic direction. As a first step, the European Union must, after years of deadlock, move to open new accession chapters for Turkey. Even if the likelihood of Turkey's eventual EU accession is low, the opening of new chapters would help to highlight the current administration's failings in the areas of human rights and the rule of law. The international community must also carefully watch Turkish general elections this coming June and speak out against any plans to change the constitution in order to consolidate power in the president’s hands.
Above all, despite their increasing and understandable frustration with the Turkish government, both the EU and the United States must remain engaged with the country. Political isolation will only quicken Turkey’s descent into autocracy.