Commentary Five Questions: ‘Turkey is no longer a democracy’

Turkey’s polarizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won a decisive victory in the June 24 elections. He will serve his latest term as a more powerful head of state, wielding extensive executive powers approved in a controversial referendum last year. Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, spoke to Reuters editor Arlene Getz about the implications of the poll outcome.

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GETZ: Given the curbs on opposition access to the media, changes to some electoral rule and allegations of intimidation, can this be described as a free election?

EISSENSTAT: On the day of voting there were reports of violence, intimidation by security services, and irregularities in voting procedures. These issues were serious, but do not seem to have been on a large enough scale to fundamentally alter the outcome of the elections.

However, it is important to understand that free and fair elections are not just determined at the ballot booth, but throughout the campaign. And here the problems were much more acute: campaigning was undertaken under a state of emergency, opposition media have largely been shut down and much of the leadership of one major opposition party, the HDP, is in prison.

Meanwhile, the ruling AK Party used state resources and its control of the press to ensure that its message was the one people heard. The election was contested. But the ruling AKP played with loaded dice.

Erdogan’s main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) –considered center-left and secularist – says that Turkey has now “fully adopted a regime of one-man rule.”

Turkey was effectively an authoritarian state before the election. It remains one today. Through the referendum last year and these elections, [Erdogan] has put into law what was already the practice. I don’t see the election as doing more than consolidating an authoritarianism that was already in place.

What are the broader implications of Erdogan’s win? Is he trying to rebuild the Ottoman Empire?

I don’t see any fundamental change in Erdogan’s approach to either foreign or domestic policy because of the elections, which means that he’ll continue to press the Kurdish YPG [People’s Protection Units] in Syria and against its sister group, the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], in Turkey, and to the extent he can manage it, against its strongholds in Iraq as well. Turkey and the United States both categorize the PKK as a terrorist organization, however, while Turkey not unreasonably views the PKK and YPG as interchangeable, the United States has a de facto alliance with the YPG in Syria. In the past weeks, Turkish forces have launched operations against PKK forces in Iraq, which was certainly popular for the election, but is also part of a broader “get tough” policy that Erdogan has followed since 2015. 

A lot of people talk about Erdogan’s “Ottoman ambitions” and, certainly, Erdogan believes that Turkey should retake a leading role in the Muslim world and indulges in a fair dose of Ottoman nostalgia. But I’d be careful about pushing the metaphor too far. Erdogan’s sense of Ottoman history is, after all, pretty fuzzy and no good guide for understanding his policy decisions. He does, however, have a distinctive foreign policy vision.

Like most Turks, he believes Turkey has a larger historic role to play and should walk larger on the world stage. Second – and again like most Turks – he believes that Western nations have been diffident friends and that Turkey should take a more independent line. Erdogan sees Turkey as playing a leadership role for Muslims, to be sure, but under his leadership Turkey has also increased its role in Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa. His relationship to the West in all of this is a bit more complex: he still takes Turkey’s ties to NATO, for example, seriously. But he doesn’t trust the West and believes that the United States needs to be confronted. This helps to explain his growing engagement not just with Russia, but also with such states as Venezuela.

How should Europe and Washington be dealing with Erdogan right now? The Trump administration recently delivered its first F-35 stealth fighter jet to the Turkish air force in spite of Ankara’s rapprochement with Russia. Is that the right approach?

There is a significant effort in Congress to stop the F-35 deal, but it is a tricky one. I don’t know how it will work out.

I think the West should recognize, first off, that Turkey is not the country it was and likely will not be again. Second, Western leaders need to be unified in addressing some basic rule of law issues in Turkey, for example the detention of U.S. and European citizens there on political charges, or unsavory acts abroad, such as the Turkish security forces’ confrontations with anti-Erdogan demonstrators in Washington in 2016 and 2017. This does not mean that ties should be broken. Turkey remains a NATO ally and there are ways in which meaningful cooperation can and must continue. But Turkey is no longer a democracy and it is not likely to be a friend to Europe and the United States. The West should seek cooperation where cooperation is possible. But there will be no reboot to the old days of close friendship and the relationship is likely to remain contentious despite our diplomats’ best efforts.

Erdogan is a devout Muslim who has been criticized by his opponents for bringing religion back into public life. Do you see his entrenchment as the end of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkey?

I don’t. Firstly, because I think that Erdogan’s relationship to Turkish secularism is pretty complex: he resents the way secularism was imposed under the republic, but nonetheless has subsumed many of the assumptions and expectations of the Turkey he grew up in, which was devout and secular simultaneously. In many ways, he’s more “social conservative” than Islamist, at least when it comes to domestic issues. There is also good evidence that despite the AKP’s efforts at broadening the place of Islam in the public sphere and its support for religious education, secularism is alive and well in Turkey. This may change over years or decades, but we have not seen radical shifts in thinking yet – and the AKP has been in power since 2002.

About the Author

Arlene Getz is Editor in Charge, Reuters Commentary. Prior to joining Reuters, she was an editor, reporter and foreign correspondent for publications including Newsweek and the Sydney Morning Herald. @arlenegetz

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.