The End of Political Opposition
by Soner Cagaptay*
Turkey was undeniably transformed by last July’s failed coup. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having barely survived an attempt on this life, has become a Turkish Muslim messiah in the eyes of his supporters: he is the unchallenged leader of the nation, charged with reinvigorating the Muslim umma, the global Muslim community. Opposition has become blasphemous. Those who refuse to support him are anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim and therefore enemies of the state. This is terrible news for Turkey’s democracy, which requires a healthy opposition to survive.
Erdogan, a right-wing leader, first came to power as prime minister in 2003 through his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He became president in 2014. In that time, especially during the last decade, he has delivered economic growth, which has helped him increase the AKP’s vote share. More insidiously, he also demonized electorates unlikely to vote for him, including seculars, liberals, social democrats, leftists, and Kurds. This strategy built Erdogan a large base made up of conservatives and political Islamists.
After 2014, Erdogan strove to transform the Turkish political system into an executive style presidency in which he, as president, would consolidate the powers of head of state, head of government, and head of the ruling party. This seemed a tall order; Erdogan needed to win a popular referendum to change the constitution before he could become omnipotent, but his AKP had never received more than 50 percent of the vote.
Almost two years later, Erdogan’s presidential ambitions were reanimated through a crisis that threatened to destroy him entirely: the July 15 coup attempt. Before that, Erdogan had already been one of Turkey’s most powerful leaders. By surviving an attempt on his life and subsequently defeating his enemies, especially the Gulen movement—a former ally that seems to have played a key role in the coup—he only gained in stature, which he then leveraged in a snap constitutional referendum to achieve his political ambitions.
Following the coup, Erdogan was faced with the options of reconciliation or further polarization. He made what the writer Busra Erkara described in the New York Times as the “unmistakable choice to blow up, rebrand and capitalize on the collective anxiety instead of soothing it.” And anxiety there was: the country’s capital city of Ankara, which had not come under attack since Tamerlane raided it in 1402, was repeatedly bombed by coup plotters, who directly struck the parliament. Erdogan’s attempts to use that fear have unleashed forces unprecedented in the history of the Turkish republic.
FEAR AND ANGER
The coup attempt, by directly targeting the Turkish state, stirred existential fear and anger among the government and its supporters. Although the coup was averted within hours, the ensuing purge of alleged Gulenist plotters morphed into a witch hunt that continues today and has been broadened to include all Erdogan opponents: liberals, leftists, Kurdish nationalists, and anyone else who defied Erdogan.
As far as Erdogan’s right-wing and Islamist supporters are concerned, the coup attempt was not only a domestic attack but also a plot by scheming “foreign allies” to overthrow Erdogan through their Gulenist proxies. His supporters insist that it was simply the latest in a series of historical attacks the West has launched against the Turkish nation and the umma, stretching back to the Crusades. According to this line of thinking, by targeting Erdogan and the Turkish state simultaneously, these nefarious foreign interests inextricably linked the future of the country to the fate of the leader: without Erdogan, Turkey cannot become a great nation again or fulfill its historical mission of restoring the dignity of the umma.
Consequently, in the eyes of his supporters, Erdogan’s response to the coup—becoming more authoritarian and locking up dissident journalists—is well justified. Turkey cannot be a great power without him, and Muslims’ grievances cannot be addressed in his absence; those who do not support Erdogan can be neither good Turks nor good Muslims. Their oppression is therefore well-deserved. Political Islam, authoritarianism, and Turkish nationalism are now integral pieces of Erdoganism.
Although Erdogan’s AKP has always attracted political Islamists, the coup of July 2016 propelled them to the center of Erdogan’s constellation of allies. As the plot unfolded, Erdogan stoked religious zeal in the country to mobilize his supporters into launching a counter-coup. On his orders, calls for prayer were issued from Turkey’s over 80,000 mosques at 1:15 a.m.—not a time when people normally pray. The strategy worked, the call to prayer rallied supporters to action, and religious Turks took to the streets to shed their blood for Erdogan and thwart the coup.
Nearly 250 civilians died that night, mostly killed by the coup plotters. The Erdogan supporters who went out on the streets that night continued to rally across the country for days after the coup. They are not the garden-variety conservative AKP supporters. Many are Islamists, and some are even jihadists.
Erdogan is well aware that Islamists saved his life. He has accordingly elevated their profile in the country and throughout the government. For instance, following the coup, the president made Adnan Tanriverdi, a former general forcibly retired from the Turkish military in the 1990s for his political Islamist views, his chief advisor. Tanriverdi’s mission is apparently to restructure the secular Turkish military.
Meanwhile, the government has arrested many of Turkey’s most liberal journalists, such as renowned columnist Kadri Gursel, on the Kafkaesque grounds that they are connected to the conservative Gulen movement. Most recently, Erdogan has denounced as illegitimate the ongoing protest march from Ankara to Istanbul, organized to oppose Erdogan’s media crackdown and led by Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). He has even threatened to detain Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP, and he has already arrested Selahattin Demirtas, the head of Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), the third largest faction in the Turkish parliament after the AKP and CHP. It is clear, too, that he isn’t finished.
THE PEOPLE’S WILL
Erdoganism blends post-colonialist theory with anti-Westernism. According to Erdoganists, after World War I, Ataturk’s cohort of secular republican founders struck a deal with the Allies to subjugate Turkey under Western interests. The tradition of subjugating the people’s will to the West continued under various secular parties that governed Turkey until the AKP took over almost a century later.
The coup attempt of July 15 threatened the people’s will once more, according to this story, but this time, the people fought back. The state-owned Anadolu Agency reported, “In twenty-first-century Turkey, where coup attempts against governments elected through the free will of the Turkish people are a vestige of the past, the biggest consolation was that the armed coup attempt on July 15 was suppressed before it could succeed.” July 15 was proof that the people’s will needed a resurrection, or Dirilis.
The revolutionary language of Dirilis gave Erdogan the opportunity to renew his fight for an executive presidency with fresh fervor. In the months following the coup attempt, pro-Erdogan civil society organizations held numerous panels and conferences about the failed putsch across the country with titles like “July 15: From Resistance to Resurrection.” When the AKP organized a constitutional referendum on April 16 to elevate Erdogan’s powers, its ad campaign capitalized on this language, declaring, “July 15 Resurrection, April 16 Risorgimento [Resurgence].”
Gearing up for the referendum, Erdoganists denounced all opposition with sweeping accusations of promoting Western interests or allying with terrorists. The conservative daily Yeni Safak presented the resulting tension between Turkey and the West as a civilizational struggle. The decision by Germany and other countries to ban certain pro-Erdogan rallies among the Turkish diaspora, they argued, only proved the point of political scientist Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.
The West and the Islamic world are thus pitted against each other, and Muslims require a leader for victory. Since the July 15 coup attempt, Erdogan has positioned himself as that leader—all the more so after the victory in the referendum on April 16, 2017. This date constituted an unmistakable break in Turkish history—one in which a new ideology, Erdoganism, came to dominate the political landscape.
The problem with Erdoganism, as I wrote in The New Sultan, is that although half of Turkey adores Erdogan, the other half loathes him. Since Erdoganism delegitimizes all opposition, 40 million of Turkey’s 80 million inhabitants are left on the outside. This is a recipe for social upheaval in Turkey not seen since the late 1970s, when hard-left and hard-right groups fought a civil war-like battle on the streets. In short, Erdoganism has set Turkish democracy on a path to self-destruction, and there seems to be no exit.
*This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.