Sunday, March 16, 2014

Erdogan, Gulen and Power of Nationalism?

Not long ago, Turkey was an island of stability with Europe facing financial collapse on one side and Middle East experiencing revolutions on the other. Not any more. Since Gezi Park protests last year, Turkey has been rocked by regular protests and scandals that have made people worry about Turkey's political and economic stability. Erdogan's support and his ability to win elections has been questioned by analysts both outside and inside Turkey. This year is particularly crucial with local, presidential and possibly general elections happening before December. What might also be decided this year is whether Turkey would have a parliamentary or presidential system and whether the Kurdish 'problem' will be resolved after almost eighty years. Not surprisingly, this year is being called Turkey's year of destiny (See 2014: Turkey's year of destiny).

What has particularly made the coming local elections on March 30 a wide open contest is the rift within the pro-Islam or pro-religious camp. Gulen/Hizmat movement and Erdogan's AKP supported each other from 2002 to 2012, despite some differences. They won local elections, general elections and constitutional referendums together and defeated the political force that had dominated Turkey since independence, the Turkish military. AKP promoted organizations linked with Hizmet and these organizations in turn delivered money, support and votes.

So, how important are March 30 election results? To bring down the hype, following are the percentages of votes AKP got in the local and general elections since 2002.

General election 2002:  34.3%
Local election    2004:  42.2%
General election 2007:  46.6%
Local election    2009:  38.8%
General election 2011:  49.8%

Looking at the these figures, it is obvious that a dip in AKP votes on March 30, while important and certainly disheartening for AKP and invigorating for the opposition, does not means the end of Erdogan. AKP lost support in 2009 local elections and its vote remained below 40% mark but it still won big in 2011 general election. For my wish (i.e. Gul takes over AKP from Erdogan) to be granted, the dip in votes would have to be big, maybe around 30% with the loss of municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul.  

The situation is, of course, different now than in 2009 when last local elections were held. Two groups, youth and the religious, that supported AKP before are now divided. What is perplexing for many is Erdogan's strategy to win in 2014? 

One can disagree about Erdogan's morals or corruption but not about whether he wants to win this year. Again, very few will argue with the statement that Erdogan is one of the most intelligent and savvy political leaders of the Turkish Republic. So, if most analysts can understand that a little humbleness, a little less confrontational talk, and a little sympathetic attitude toward opposition can help him win again, why can't he understand this simple equation? Moreover, this is not a new strategy for him; he practiced it from 2002 to 2010. 

One way to make sense of this situation is to argue that Erdogan has changed. He has become arrogant after all these years in power. We have seen this happening before, haven't we? Popular leaders, at the height of their power, making stupid mistakes and sinking into obscurity and oblivion.

Another way to make sense of this situation is to see a method in the madness of 'prince of Istanbul'. As a student of Turkish nationalism, what I find pretty interesting was Erdogan's reference to a 'second war of independence'. Add it to his constant refrain about conspiracies/foreign powers and one can clearly see that Erdogan is trying to use 'Sevres Syndrome' (the fear of dismemberment of Turkey by foreign powers as they did in the Treaty of Sevres [1920] after World War I). For an Erdogan supporter, and maybe many other Turks, it can be seen as a coded message, a dog-whistle. Add to it the fact, how Erdogan policies during the last decade map Turkish history hundred year before Sevres. Maybe it is a figment of my imagination but do read.

The 19th century Ottoman history was all about Westernization and 'modernization'. Even Sultan Abdul Hamid II (Reign: 1876-1909), who is usually considered an Islamist, did not stop the Westernization project. Ottomans gradually gave Christian minorities in Europe more rights in the hope that they would not rebel and Empire will remain intact. However, most of the Christians did rebel and the West supported them. Ottomans were left with only their Asian/African possessions by the end of Balkan Wars. Ottomans/Committee of Union and Progress then tried to save this rump empire but Arabs, despite being Muslims, revolted and again Western powers supported them. Ottoman Turks were only left with Anatolia. However, outside powers were not ready to even allow Turks to have Anatolia and invaded Turkish mainland and forced the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of Sevres. It was Ataturk who then fought with the West and saved the current Turkish state. 

Now, relate this history to Erdogan's twelve year rule. He first tried to cozy up to Europeans/West. Although he was an Islamist, he introduced many reforms that to Westernize the country so that Turkey could join the European Union (EU). However, despite his efforts, French and Germans made it clear that Turkey could not join EU. Then, Erdogan changed his direction and tried to have good relations with Muslim countries. He was berated and castigated by the 'White Turks' as well as by the West, but he continued to try to have good relations with Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya etc. However, he was also rejected by the Muslim Arabs and Iran. His outstretched hand was rejected by the 'outside powers' both in the West and the East, just like Ottomans were rejected a century before. And now, like at the time of independence, as Erdogan keep saying in his speeches, foreign powers are not ready to leave Turkey to Turks and are trying to destroy Turkey financially. 

Many have described all this talk of 'outside powers', which now includes even foreign airlines, as nonsense.

Erdogan has called it a second “independence struggle,” invoking the real war that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk fought to prevent Greece, France, Britain and Russia from carving up the heart of the collapsed Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s. He’s even hinted that the U.S. ambassador in Ankara is behind an international conspiracy to unseat him. Nonsense of this sort threatens Turkey’s most important security relationship -- and who will it convince in any case? The investigators may be politically motivated, but the evidence they’ve collected is reaching the public and the wrongdoing they seem to have uncovered can’t be so easily dismissed.(See Turkey Needs Erdogan’s ’Master Period’ to End)

However, it is important remember that Sevres Syndrome is still powerful in Turkey. Turkish society have been described as ultra-nationalist. Surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Turks believe that Western powers are trying to dismember Turkey as they have done in the past (See Turkey: A Conspiratorial State of Mind and Sevres Syndrome). Who are these Turks who believe in these conspiracy theories? Are they voters of CHP, AKP or MHP? Clearly, majority of AKP voters and most of the MHP voters belong to this group. So, Erdogan is trying to mobilize his base. People do not come to vote in local elections and economy is also not doing that well so how to get your people to come out to vote--you play to people's innate/instinctive fears. 

So, how can Hizmet outplay Erdogan? It cannot change the Sevres Syndrome in the next few months, so it can highlight its Turkish and Islamic credentials to show that it is not part of a foreign conspiracy. So, are interviews/articles in Western media the best strategy, considering the fact that majority in Turkey do not read them and probably mistrust them? I do not know. What do you think? Here is what Erdogan said about foreign media a few days ago, clearly implying conspiracy:

My dear brothers, these [media] organizations have always stolen the will of this country. They are stealing the resources and energy of our country...Is it only the BBC? Also The Wall Street Journal. Who are the bosses of these newspapers? Who owns these newspapers? (See Troubled Turkey Looks to Conspiracy Theories for Answers)

What about the power of nationalism and the national myths, such as Sevres Syndrome? How can these be countered? Turkey is, of course, not unique. Many in India and Pakistan also believe other countries have set their minds to destroy them. Putin uses nationalism and fear of West/foreigners to continue to rule. As Emre Erdogan writes 

This situation is not unique to Turkey. You can replace “Turkey” and “Turks” with another nationality’s name in the region; the meaning does not change. A historical narrative based on a highly exploited trauma and the close proximity of potential enemies seems to be the norm for nation states, particularly in this part of the world. (See The Unbearable Heaviness of of Being a Turkish Citizen)


Anonymous said...

This may be a stretch analysis but I see Erdogan doing everything to solidify his base in Anatolia among the most conservative members in order to continue a political integration with the Kurdish minority. Erdogan knows he most do this as this represents a possible breakup of the Turkish state if some political accommodation is not achieved. No state can prosper if it is at war with such a large embedded minority. When a deal is finally struck watch him move back to the middle to clean up his legacy for the history books.

Raja M. Ali Saleem said...

This is my hope and the hope of many others who are worried about the current state of affairs in Turkey. What you are alluding to is the only way Erdogan's behavior during the last twelve months can be somewhat explained (although still not justified). Let's hope it is a ploy, a farce directed by Erdogan and will end soon.