The End of the Turkish Model

Women protest in Istanbul against attacks on Kurds. Avni Kantan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The Wall Street Journal

Erdogan’s moderate Islamist AKP party promised reform and growth but has turned instead to consolidating power

Five years ago, Turkey was a beacon of hope for the troubled Middle East—not only one of the world’s fastest-growing economies but also the biggest success story in the Muslim world. Edging toward membership in the European Union and attracting waves of foreign investment, Turkey had a newfound swagger. Western and Arab leaders were hailing its ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for fusing Islamism and democracy inside a secular constitution.

Women protest in Istanbul against attacks on Kurds. Avni Kantan/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Women protest in Istanbul against attacks on Kurds. Avni Kantan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Now, as Turks prepare to vote on Sunday in their fourth election in 18 months, the Turkish model has unraveled, giving way to increasingly violent polarization in this strategically vital country. Social tensions once muted by robust economic growth and more inclusive governance have flared anew.

“The old elite are trying to reclaim power, and we won’t allow it,” said Ali Bodur, a 38-year-old hardware store owner in Istanbul’s conservative dockside neighborhood of Kasimpasa, where Mr. Erdogan grew up. Less than a mile up the hill, in the liberal Galata district, a 24-year-old student named Ozge Ulusoy also struck an uncompromising stance: “The reality is the Erdogan era needs to end before the country goes further off the rails…He is a dictator.”

First elected prime minister in 2003, Mr. Erdogan spent most of his first two terms focused on modernizing the economy, bringing stability to Turkey’s erratic politics, taming a military that had launched four coups in as many decades and empowering the long-subjugated pious majority. As his power has grown, however—he became president in 2014, after more than a decade as prime minister—so did his ambition to create a “New Turkey” in the image of the Ottomans. He sidelined reformers and technocrats and tried to centralize authority in his own hands. When he met resistance, he used the levers of state power and loyalist media outlets to brand his critics as enemies and traitors.

At the same time, many of the sources of Mr. Erdogan’s early popularity have shrunk away. Turkey’s once humming economy has slowed sharply, and the country’s currency has lost 25% of its value since January. A three-year peace process between Ankara and Kurdish militants has collapsed, leaving hundreds dead. And Turkey is falling deeper into neighboring Syria’s civil war. Adding to the general sense of insecurity have been three suicide bombings over the past year, including twin blasts in Ankara that killed 102 people at a peace rally last month.

Meanwhile, political discourse is supercharged: Opposition parties warn that Mr. Erdogan has brought the country to the brink of civil war, while AKP officials say that only they can prevent chaos. The atmosphere is so toxic that many of the thousands of Turks who returned home from abroad in recent years are again considering an exit.

“It is becoming very difficult to breathe in this country because of the polarization,” said Okan Demirkan, who came back to Turkey from London early in the AKP era to establish his law firm, Demirkan Kolcuoglu. “We see more green-card applications than ever, and many are applying for passports in the U.K., Portugal and Spain. That’s our future walking away.”

The AKP rejects such criticism and says that Turkey remains a stable democracy, while some of its supporters see Western plots behind the country’s recent woes. But in many respects, the country has started to look more like its troubled Arab neighbors. Some observers hoped that the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world would turn those states toward the seemingly successful Turkish model. Instead, Turkey seems to be falling into Syria’s vortex of sectarianism and proxy war. Turkish broadcast news now offers a daily diet of angry commentators and scenes of conflict between Turkish security forces and both Kurdish rebels and Islamic State cells.

Mr. Erdogan’s government “wanted to be a leader in the Middle East, and so we walked the country into a burning building…Now we’re getting burned, and we’re not leading anything,” said Ceylan, a 32-year-old Istanbul lawyer who refused to give her surname for fear of retribution.

U.S. and EU officials once hoped that the example of the AKP might encourage moderate Islamist parties to emerge as democratic allies. Those hopes now lie dashed (except in Tunisia). Indeed, Turkey’s downturn has boosted those who argue that Washington should back autocratic stability in the Middle East, rather than democratic groups allied with Islamist parties.

At the center of the shift stands Mr. Erdogan himself, who has become increasingly sectarian and intolerant in his rhetoric and actions, railing against foreign powers and domestic critics and muzzling opposition media.

Five years ago, the AKP could still be considered a conservative-dominated coalition that included liberals and technocrats. But Mr. Erdogan quietly but decisively retooled it to reflect his vision of conservative Islamism. “What started out as an impressive political journey is now heading toward disaster,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, a former AKP lawmaker. “A huge opportunity has been lost, and it didn’t have to be this way.”

Long-standing social rifts have been widened by the government’s response to perceived threats. Nationwide protests in 2013 and a corruption probe that implicated Mr. Erdogan’s family were branded as foreign plots and met with police crackdowns and wider judicial and security powers.

Paradoxically, the unraveling of the Turkish model hasn’t reduced Turkey’s role in a roiling region. Western powers still look to Ankara as a bulwark of stability, however alarmed they may be by Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic impulses.

Exhibit A is the EU’s response to the refugee crisis flooding outward from Syria. European leaders who chide Mr. Erdogan for his authoritarian rhetoric also embrace him as an ally in helping to halt the record wave of migrants. Meanwhile, U.S. war planners still see Turkey as a key actor in the battle against Islamic State, despite friction over Turkey’s targeting of Kurdish groups in Syria and Mr. Erdogan’s more accommodating stance with some radical Islamist groups.

Still, Turkey’s strategic importance can’t suppress worries over the country’s recent trajectory. The divisions were spotlighted earlier this month at a soccer match between Turkey and Iceland in the conservative Anatolian city of Konya. As the teams stood, heads bowed for a moment of silence to commemorate the victims of the recent Ankara bombings, parts of the crowd erupted in jeers and boos, shouting right-wing and religious slogans.

The attack in Ankara “was our 9/11, but it didn’t unite us,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It divided us.”