How Erdogan’s Turkey Is Changing From Conservative Democracy to One-Man Rule
Valeria Giannotta interviewed by Federica Zoja 15 June 2016

The strange couple consisting of economic dynamism and social conservatism is unique to Turkey, at least as far as the Mediterranean area is concerned. What is your opinion, as a scholar who has lived and worked in the country for seven years?

To tell the truth the driving force of Turkish economic development and its political launch at an international level was the Anatolian middle class;  a conservative force, representing traditional values that Erdogan’s government has legitimised by opening the country to international scenarios. In Turkey, they are called the Anatolian tigers. Since it came to power, the AKP has been the flag bearer for conservative democracy, traditional by culture and liberal as far as the economy is concerned. One could speak of a sort of Islamist Calvinism, with a very powerful mercantilist spirit that has seen growth rise to peaks of +11% and that now, in spite of talk of a crisis, is still +5%.

Can one speak of an Islamisation of society or is it the external observer who had not perceived in the past the fire smouldering under the ashes?

I would not speak of an Islamisation of Turkey because these conservative Islamist elements have always been present in the country. It is just that they were alienated and contained by other Western oriented forces. Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s strength was that he interpreted the ideas of the average Anatolian Turk, the people who generally live far from the great cities and are interested in tangible improvements to everyday life.

It should be said, however, that the AKP has changed over time; it was founded as a party formed by various elements, including Kurds, liberals and moderates; it is now more nationalist conservative.

So until two years ago one could say that the AKP was successful both at a domestic and foreign level. Nothing like the Egyptian Islamists, for example.

Yes, as soon as they were able to, the Turkish liberal conservative forces exploited the moment in a business oriented spirit.
Then, over the past two years, they had to address serious internal issues that distracted them.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, until the Arab Spring, they had excellent relations with neighbouring countries, primarily the Syrians. In agreement with Damascus all visas had been abolished and it seemed that this friendship would not waver. The same applies to Europeans, whose investments were encouraged without hesitation.

One must not forget that until the year 2000, the most popular motto was “A Turk’s best friend is a Turk” and that Turkey was an isolated country. Erdogan demolished this mind-set.

The internal developments you mentioned earlier, however, seem to have resulted in the Turkish leadership losing its mental clarity and farsightedness. In your opinion, is there still a plan for Turkish conservative democracy or has this idea fallen by the wayside?

I would say that business is still what matter most. The overall plan is still the same. But power in now in the hands of one single man and, for example, new appointments made in the Central Bank were to his advantage. But everything that happens in neighbouring countries is also obviously reflected at a domestic level.

Was the fact that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu abandoned the political stage come as a surprise to those following Turkish politics?

From the exterior one could not observe all these break away points with the presidency. One was always under the impression that Erdogan was more of a politician and Davutoglu a man of the state. The prime minister was chosen by the president and was loyal to him. I believe that Davutoglu probably did not wake up every morning thinking of presidentialism, while for Erdogan it was, and still is, an obsession. Even if de facto presidentialism is already here. For the moment there is not a sufficient majority in parliament but there probably will be after the coming early elections.

So the president appears to be uncontested and incontestable. Is that correct or are there different opinions within the party resulting in a political debate?

Abdullah Gul and the old establishment, later disposed of, come to mind.
In all official statements, however, everyone, including Davutoglu, limit controversy and, in one way or another, renew their loyalty and closeness to Erdogan. There is also an awareness that the AKP is very charismatic; it is the only party that has managed to bring together very different social elements. I would say that it has been transformed from the dominant party to a “predominant” one, also in the social sphere, in education and the media.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, do not seem able to seize opportunities, such as street protests, or changes in society. Neither their leadership nor their rhetoric has changed since the seventies.

At times they play in favour of Erdogan, as in the case of taking parliamentary immunity away from Kurdish MPs. They too have great responsibilities.

According to the European Union, Erdogan will most probably be the only interlocutor for a long time. Is it still in the Turks’ best interest to keep thinking of joining Europe or is it a dream that has vanished over time?

Europe is needed in regional terms because, and I am speaking as a political analyst, it is the only source of democratic inspiration. Turkey does not have an old democratic tradition. Even Ataturk’s modernisation project had a long-term democratic vision and a short-term authoritarian organisation.

Europe, in my opinion, has great responsibilities regards to Turkey. When Ankara was doing its homework, and did it well, and its objective was full EU membership, there was a change of direction and it was offered a privileged partnership.

Now that there is a bit of everything under the great umbrella of the Law on Terrorism, it is the worst possible moment for negotiations with Turkey, which has omissions as far as human rights and freedom of speech are concerned. And at this time in history, Europe is on its knees. I do not, however, believe that it is right to mix everything in the negotiations, such as the points the Turks must respect, about seventy, of which some are unacceptable for Ankara, and the question of visas as well as immigrants and the 3 billion euro EU funding.

What about the young generations? What is their opinion of Brussels?

I discuss this at times with my students and many believe that Europe has slammed the door in their face on various occasions. They also think that Turkey does not need Europe at an economic level. On the other hand, the new minister for Relations with the European Union, said in his first official speech that, “our only option is the European one.” He will probable work, so to speak, on “differentiation”.

So what has replaced the European dream?

The idea that it will never be part of the European Union is ingrained in the Turks. So, to quote some possible partners, Ankara wants to become Iran’s first official partner and in some way its relationship with Russia will be readjusted.

Iran’s political reinstatement is a significant opportunity for Turkey.

One must say that the normalisation of relations with Tehran took place exactly with Erdogan and the AKP in 2002, when the party came to power. These were Cold War style relations; I use the word “frenemy”. The two countries observe one another with suspicion, but also manage to cooperate. Cooperation is “compartmental”, just as happens in Cold War scenarios. Trade has reached $10 billion, with imports worth $6 billion and exports at $4 billion. Trade agreements are increasing and 20% of Turkey’s gas comes from Iran. There was a Turkish mission to Iran last month and memoranda of understanding were signed for sectors as were joint ventures aimed at investing together in China and Japan.
In the past year the number of Iranian tourists has risen by 7.5%, replacing the Russians.

In Syria, however, their ideological imprint is the opposite and each restrains the advance of the other. In my opinion this will not result in a direct clash, because both countries know perfectly well that the cost of a war would be far greater to that of maintaining the status quo.

How do the young see Iran?

In rather a negative manner. Among the more secularised fringes there is often a return of the fear of “ending up like Iran”, hence as an Islamic Republic. But even the most conservative Turks have never been 100% conservative and so I doubt this will happen. When given an opportunity to vote for an Islamist party, for example, they did not. The Turks are pragmatic. And then there is the fact that the economic issue is another story.

What is it like to work on academic research in Turkey at the moment? And working as a university professor?

One works in an extremely polarised context, as I can observe when listening to students. When one discusses current affairs, for example, and comments on events such as the prime minister’s resignation, one notices instantly that there is a rift between the students. Some cannot stand Erdogan and some immediately express profound displeasure when hearing their companions’ criticism.

I have not had any problems; of course one has to be diplomatic and any opinions must be set in a more organised analysis with the students. I try and emphasise that this is a moment of transition and suspend all judgement.

What is problematic at the moment – also because it is a mind-set that has so far been extraneous to everyday life in Turkey – is that one continuously receives warnings about what areas of the country should be avoided for security reasons. Such a context was more Middle Eastern in the past and let’s hope it is temporary.

Translated by Francesca Simmons