Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist politician who has restyled himself as a conservative democrat, has made use of Islamist-tinged populism in the past. But a recent burst of activity apparently designed to please the prime minister’s Islamist base is alienating Turkish liberals, a group that is numerically marginal, but which exerts huge influence over Turkey’s intellectual life.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have attracted the attention of reformers in the Arab world of late, with Turkey being heralded in some quarters as a role model for the political evolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. But while seeing his popularity rise abroad, Erdogan’s image at home has taken a hit in the eyes of some of his more democratically minded supporters.
Since the start of the year, Erdogan’s government has pushed through legislation banning alcohol sales to individuals under the age of 24 and issued an order for the demolition of a statue symbolizing peace between Turkey and Armenia. Erdogan also created a stir by publicly suggesting that, economically, Turkey and the Middle East are "enough for each other."
Liberal support for Erdogan and the AKP over the last decade has played an important role in strengthening his hand immensely both at home and abroad. But it now appears that the AKP is in the process of losing this important constituency.
"I supported the AKP because I saw a government working towards the European Union and a more modern Turkey," says Faruk Birtek, a leading sociologist. "Now I am scared, scared of the prime minister's tone, scared of his refusal to tolerate dialogue."
In a month that saw Turkey's television watchdog warn filmmakers for "breaching the privacy" of a sultan who died 450 years ago by showing him drinking and womanizing, some think Erdogan is showing a growing tendency to model himself on his imperial predecessors.
"Where else do leaders dole out stadiums to the soccer team of their choice," asked Mehmet Demirkol, a prominent soccer columnist, referring to Erdogan's hint that he could confiscate a new stadium from Turkey's biggest team, Galatasaray, because some fans booed him at the January 15 opening ceremony. Government-aligned media outlets lambasted the supporters' behavior as "shameful" and "ungrateful." Cowed, Galatasaray's chairman said the club would identify "disrespectful" supporters and ban them from attending games in the future.
The spat that best sums up the disagreement between Erdogan and the liberals is the row that erupted mid-January between the prime minister and the chief editor of Turkey's hardest-hitting liberal daily. A best-selling author of light novels, Ahmet Altan had given unflagging support to the AKP's efforts to reign in Turkey's powerful army, with his newspaper, Taraf, publishing scoop after scoop on alleged plans for military intervention. But on January 11, Altan attacked Erdogan for criticizing the Turkish-Armenian peace statue, accusing the prime minister of having no sense of taste. When Erdogan made oblique, disparaging remarks about Altan's family, the editor erupted, accusing Erdogan of breaking a code of honor.
"People supported you because you were honest and brave ... and the AKP was making Turkey a freer and more developed country", Altan wrote on January 15. "We will miss your former bravery and honesty. You will one day miss your old self too, as the policies you follow take you away from the side of the oppressed."
Erdogan promptly took Altan to court for libel, demanding damages of 50,000 lira (US$32,000).
In subsequent columns, Altan continued his criticisms, arguing that, with general elections due before this summer, Erdogan had turned to crowd-pulling populist rhetoric to hide the fact that he and his party no longer are proponents of change, but have turned into defenders of the status quo. "Turkey does not need such an Erdogan," he wrote on January 18.
Liberal Turks, such as Altan, have framed an argument that has dominated Turkish political debates for the last decade; the main thrust of the argument is that Turks, oppressed for years by a secular elite ensconced in the country's civil and military bureaucracy, now will invariably vote for politicians offering democratization and change. Erdogan's AKP, the argument goes, got elected and remained in power because it strengthened civil society against the state. The argument’s corollary is that the AKP will be tossed out by the electorate if it stops working on behalf of building civil society.
The Liberal Turk argument played a key role in legitimizing the AKP in the eyes of Western leaders searching for a "moderate Islam" in the wake of the September 11 terrorism tragedy, and has informed Western analysis of the country since.
But now some liberals are wondering whether the argument’s line of reasoning is accurate. A columnist from a pious background similar to Erdogan's, Nihal Bengisu Karaca has her doubts.
"The desire for change is not the only dynamic that defines the mass of people supporting the AKP," she said. More important is the "fairy tale manifest in Erdogan's personality," the image he presents of a humble man, unashamed of the handicap of his religion and class, who now has the world at his feet.
Liberal criticism that Erdogan has stopped being a man of the people and become a man of the state, she claims, misses the point. Even after eight years of AKP government, ordinary people still see Erdogan not as "a ruler of the state, but as a people's champion who has stood up to fight it."
What they see above all in his rags to riches story is their dreams of "stability and a great Turkey," Karaca goes on. She concedes that is a dream that does not always go hand in hand with democratic development, not in a country as divided as Turkey, at least.
Amid hints from some leading conservatives in Turkey that the AKP should now brush its liberal allies to one side, Cihan Tugal, a professor of sociology at the University of Berkeley, argues that, paradoxically, the liberals should be seen as the real victors of the alliance.
During their tenure in power, Tugal notes, Erdogan and his colleagues have been transformed from fiercely anti-Western Islamists into outspoken defenders of Western-led globalization. "They have been absorbed into Turkey's semi-secular, semi-religious system, a perpetuation of existing state and power structures," Tugal said.
In purely theoretical terms, Tugal adds, the paradigm of civil society against the state defended by Turkish liberals since the 1980s is now "bankrupt." As domestic political rhetoric, however, he thinks it still has plenty of years left in it. "It is a good way of denigrating your opponents", he says, referring to pro-AKP newspapers' fondness for insisting any opposition to the government must have links to "coup plots."
"This is not an honest discourse any more: it is being used in a very manipulative way," added Tugal.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.