Turkey’s Problem is Erdogan, not the Akp
Cengiz Aktar talks to Ada Pagliarulo 13 June 2013

We discussed the current protests in Turkey with Cengiz Aktar, professor of Political Science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University where he chairs the Department of Relations with the European Union. Aktar is one of the four Turkish intellectuals who, in 2008, launched a petition known as the ‘Appeal for forgiveness’ made to Armenians for the 1915 genocide. In recent years he has often spoken of the need to leave behind what he calls “Turkey’s deleted memories”. The country, he wrote in 2009 , “has been changing profoundly since the 90s and this phase was emphasized in 1999 by the prospect of joining the European Union.” In 2011 Aktar saluted the restoration and inauguration of the Habab fountains, a monument that is the symbol of Armenian remembrance in the heart of Anatolia. And it is worth remembering that this restoration was funded with money allocated by the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

Is there a rift emerging between secular and Islamist Turkey? Or is this a democratic deficit and therefore abuse of power on Erdogan’s part?

I would choose the second option. Bilgi University in Istanbul recently carried out a survey among the protesters and 92 percent of the slogans were against Erdogan. That is a very high percentage and the prime minister is the specific object of these protests. The slogans are never aimed at the government or the political party in power, the AKP.

As far as a possible secular-Islamic rift is concerned, one must remember that there are many Muslims protesting on the streets. In particular there is the group known as “anti-capitalist Muslims”. On June 6 there was an Islamic holy day and they prayed in Taksim Square while other protesters refrained from drinking alcohol out of respect.

All in all one cannot qualify these protests as the reaction of secularists. Of course there are many among the protesters who reject intrusions in people’s private lives, but it is more a rejection of intrusion than the rejection of an Islamisation attempt. The law on alcoholic drinks has become a battle cry because people are wondering why there is so much talk of a risk of alcoholism that does not exist.

The truth is that the decision was made by the prime minister who is undertaking social engineering. He has an idea of how young Turks should behave; he wants them to be obedient and not drink alcohol, but young Turks don’t and 80 percent of the country’s population never drinks alcohol. So these are artificial problems, as are the provisions adopted. They do not reflect the reality of society or of the country.

Erdogan has a very authoritarian way of making decisions and consults no one. These protests, for example, were sparked by the decision to transform one of the city’s few remaining parks into barracks, which is not true, and the area is destined to become yet another shopping mall. This was not decided by the municipal authorities, but by the prime minister, this small authoritarian micromanager who wakes up every morning with a different idea.

He consults no one. And he becomes enraged every time someone reminds him that there are the citizens, or as in the case of Taksim Square a movement of citizens perhaps asking him not to cut down those trees because people need to breathe. He calls them ‘tramps’ and ‘hooligans’. I think his authoritarian and arrogant style is one of the main reasons for the exasperation we are now seeing.

You mentioned “anti-capitalist Muslims” participating in the protests. Hence Islam is not rejected by these protesters. Or do they agree with Erdogan when he says that giving women the right to wear the veil means guaranteeing they have the freedom to choose?

The Anti-capitalist Muslims are a small group, but one must emphasize that among the protesters there are also people who voted Erdogan’s party into power. There is widespread discontent. Among the young secularists on the streets are many girls who acknowledge that their friends have the right to wear what they want on their heads. This is a young, urban movement, not necessarily secular, very modern, non-partisan and very liberal. Various segments of the population have joined forces and there are some paradoxical aspects. For example, the supporters of three soccer teams who usually fight each other are all protesting together, and this applies to believers and atheists. There are people from the Right, the extreme Right and the extreme Left. It is an extremely cosmopolitan movement and one cannot use any of the usual adjectives to describe it.

Erdogan has won three elections in a row and some believe that this is also the result of weakness shown by the opposition. For example, does the CHP, the opposition party of Kemalist inspiration led by Kilicdaroglu who strongly opposes the prime minister, have democratic credibility?

No. One never hears of them; they are just waiting for Erdogan to make a mistake, but they are certainly not a democratic alternative.

Why not?

Because they have nothing to say. This is a party that is ranked below the AKP in terms of democracy. The CHP is a non-reformist party. After all, Erdogan’s party implemented capital reforms, especially in the beginning with his first government. He represents Turkey’s European policies. Until 2005 the AKP did extraordinary things; it opened the public and political arenas, multiplied democracy’s potential overcoming taboos.

Paradoxically, those protesting now are those who benefitted from these democratic policies, political reforms that brought democracy to the country and were implemented by this government. This is happening because since, 2007-2008, Erdogan has shown personal authoritarian inclinations, feeling so self-confident that he considers himself the Father of the Nation as well as the region’s leader, as he likes playing a role in international politics. He travels everywhere and has just returned from a tour of the Maghreb. Erdogan is overly ambition when compared to his intellectual and political capabilities and above all, compared to his democratic capability.

Will the Turkish model, so widely debated in these years of great turmoil in the Arab world, be able to survive these protests? Or is it definitely compromised?

One could instinctively say it will not survive, because now the country seems to be experiencing turmoil and financial markets have reacted very badly to the prime minister’s stubbornness as he looks for trouble with society, the people and the country. Many analysts have spoken of the end of the Turkish model, but I would say ‘yes and no’, because I think that that Turkish society’s vitality is so good that this model remains a very valid one.

The Turks are not demanding democracy, they are demanding more democracy. They want to recover what they have lost over the past four or five years.They want to consolidate democracy they won while the Arab uprisings tried to get rid of dictators. Turkey certainly remains a model or at least a source of inspiration. But not with this prime minister who has lost much of his charisma and has definitely lost the moral high ground he had with his political friends in the region. He has nothing more to say when one thinks of what is happening in the country and his well-known inability to manage a crisis.

Which laws approved by governments led by Erdogan are a real threat to democracy and freedom in Turkey? In recent years it has often been said that the Islamist prime minister had a ‘hidden agenda’ that he is allegedly now implementing.

Observers who are informed about Turkey have always said that the problem is not an ‘Islamisation’ of the country, because one cannot Islamise a country that is already Muslim. It is not even a re-Islamisation. It is authoritarianism that has clearly surfaced and that is Turkey’s real problem.

I have no idea how matters will evolve, what will happen and whether Turkey will survive the crisis. We shall see. It all depends on the prime minister. How will he react to the demands made by society? He is a man who never changes his mind and is unable to backtrack. He has become an autocrat and changing his mind would, in his opinion, be a sign of weakness. I believe he will find it hard to manage this crisis.

There are other politicians who could play leading roles and have begun to emerge, such as President Gul, who Erdogan had locked up in the golden cage as the country’s president.

Is Gul really the moderate he is said to be?

Yes. Absolutely. And anyhow he is a democrat. One should bear in mind that Turkey is going through rather a difficult period. A peace treaty with the Kurds is being negotiated and this requires tact, imagination and hard work. Turkey does not know what it means to resolve conflicts, what the reconstruction of peace after a crisis involves. We must learn all this and it is clear that this will not happen with Erdogan.

There has also been talk of a Turkish Spring, so much so that Erdogan himself said that Turkey has been experiencing its own ‘spring’ for years. There is however one aspect of the Arab uprisings that is similar to the Turkish situation, and that is the accusation made against the Islamist parties that have won the elections, for example in Egypt or Tunisia, of wanting to create a non-inclusive society without taking into account the citizens who did not vote for them.

There is that risk and it is linked to Erdogan’s idea of democracy. He has often said, “I won the elections, if you wish to get rid of me or oppose me, do it at the next elections.”

He has no idea what a participatory democracy is. The problem is that at the moment the only credible opposition in Turkey is the one seen in recent days. But this means nothing to Erdogan because in his opinion only the elections matter. The prime minister is totally unable to understand why he is being opposed.

The last interview he gave before leaving for the Maghreb is extremely revealing. He himself posed the question to journalists about the loneliness experienced by autocrats, saying “Oh my God, why does all this happen.” It is a revealing question because one must underline the fact that Erdogan only surrounds himself with ‘yes men’. There is no longer anyone close to him who might at times say ‘no’ to him. The truth is that he finds it hard to understand what is happening and has a very limited vision of politics and democracy.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

The original interview was given to the Italian Radio Radicale