INTERVIEW: Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan on upheaval in the ‘New Turkey’

INTERVIEW: Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan on upheaval in the ‘New Turkey’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan on upheaval in the ‘New Turkey’

A woman looks toward the Süleymaniye Mosque on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul's Karaköy district. AFP photo

Turkey’s contemporary history is notoriously complicated. Under each layer of the onion seems to lie yet another unforeseen set of intricacies. It is hardly surprising that many locals resort to spectacular conspiracy theories as mental shortcuts. 

It is very difficult to give outsiders a rundown of the country, but “The New Turkey and its Discontents,” a new book co-authored by Kings College London’s Simon Waldman and Oxford University’s Emre Çalışkan, gives a good primer on how Turkey has gotten to where it is today over the past few decades. 

Waldman and Çalışkan spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about their book (reviewed in HDN here) and the state of Turkey in the aftermath of last summer’s failed coup attempt.

You talk in the book about how Turkey has in recent years gone from being an optimistic shining star praised by everyone to a struggling country with terrible security, political and economic woes. How did that process happen? 

Simon Waldman: When we set out to write this book one of the first things we were thinking about was the role of the military. The military's involvement in politics is of course against democratic principles, but as the military got weaker in its ability to be involved in political affairs why did this not lead to greater democracy? 

Was Turkey ever a shining star or “model” for other Muslim countries to emulate? No. I don't think even the AKP believed it was. Even the AKP itself used to say, especially after the Arab Spring, that it may be an example but it was not a model. It was concerned about what kind of spotlight that might shine on Turkey. But after 9/11 the Western world - the U.S. and Europe - needed a model of Muslim democracy. In many respects the idea that Turkey was this shining light for other countries to follow was a Western construct. 

Emre Çalışkan: In the book we try to understand why Turkey couldn't become democratic after the role of the military was demolished in Turkish politics. The political strength of the military, we argue, was an indicator of a weak state. After the 2001 financial crisis there was an attempt in Turkey through the IMF and EU-inspired reforms to build independent organizations that could become checks and balances on politics in the post-military era, but these independent organizations couldn't really succeed. Instead of seeing a strong, democratic and Muslim society we see a different trend based around a charismatic leader dominating the political landscape, and now Turkey is more fragmented than before.

It is only a particular idea of the Turkish military that has declined - that idea of military tutelage. The prestige and reverence for the military, and particularly for the individual soldier, remains undimmed in Turkish society. If anything, maybe that reverence is even stronger, as according to government propaganda the armed forces are now “arm-in-arm with the nation” rather than loftily above it.  

SW: Throughout their time in office, the AKP and President Erdoğan have not necessarily tried to decimate the military. Rather they have tried to confine the military to the barracks and make Turkey a coup-proof state. When we were doing research we spoke to people from the AKP and sympathizers, who told us that they were constantly receiving reports and intelligence that there could be a coup on the horizon. So it was always something they were looking over their shoulders for. The failure of the attempted coup last July actually shows that the AKP's coup-proofing of Turkey was quite successful. 

EÇ: Historically the Turkish army has been praised as the guardian of secularism and the national interest. But actually the reason why the Turkish army came to such an elevated position in politics before the AKP was the Kurdish insurgency. It was after the 1980 coup and throughout the 1990s that the role of the army really increased. In the book we argue that there have almost been two capitals in Turkey: One was Ankara where the government was in charge of politics, the other was Diyarbakır in the southeast where the army almost acted as a state itself. We spoke to top retired generals who talked about how they were building schools, hospitals and combating terrorism in the southeast, and by the time they came back to Ankara they had become strong enough to intervene in Turkish politics. The biggest success of the AKP through the EU reforms was to cut off the power of the army. Of course, this came with a price, where the role of the army was damaged in the eyes of the Turkish public. 

People often talk about last summer's coup attempt as a turning point. But in many ways the trends since the coup are just an acceleration of anti-democratic trends that were already ongoing.

SW: People observing Turkey even before the coup noted that purges were taking place within different organs of state. There had already been suspensions within the police after the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup-plot cases, and there were similar purges in the armed forces and the judiciary. Of course, after the coup itself we see this taking place at rapid speed and under a state of emergency. What seems apparent here is that Erdoğan and the AKP are trying to strengthen the state because there's a significant problem within Turkey's institutions. If it's true that there is a nefarious organization loyal to an Islamic preacher based in the U.S., it is indicative of the Turkish state being weak and in need of strengthening. The problem is that at the cost of strengthening the state the democratic institutions are weakened at the same time.

EÇ: The success of the Erdoğan governments in the past was in creating new alliances. The Gülen movement allied with the government and Gülen supporters were promoted in state institutions. Now the Gülenists have been sidelined since 2013 and the government is trying to secure new alliances with different religious or political groups like the Menzils or Suleymancıs. The problem here is that the government doesn't allow more secular people or people based on meritocracy. The idea is to fill posts exclusively with people who are loyal to the government. So we have not been able to see the rise of independent institutions in Turkey.

The coup and the subsequent crackdown have exacerbated security problems. The massive purges in state institutions have obviously led to huge security weaknesses that are sadly proven by so many terror attacks and threats. Gülenists are, or were, a state security threat, but getting rid of so many people so rapidly from the state system creates enormous capacity problems.

EÇ: When you are trying to combat terrorism you need a strong intelligence system. That is a long-term project. For example, intelligence officers have to establish good relations with their informants in order to get early warnings and prevent attacks. But Turkey keeps shuffling police officers, so the relationship between intelligence officers and informants is cut off. At the same time, intelligence organizations should share intelligence with each other, but in Turkey you have the National Intelligence Organization [MİT], the gendarmerie and the police intelligence, and there is no consensus in the state organs. Turkey is fighting against many enemies in Syria and Iraq - the PKK and ISIS - but the state is in crisis in combating these national security threats. 

SW: In the post-coup environment there has to be some kind of rearrangement in the security apparatus to make sure another attempted coup doesn't take place. But Turkey has limited resources in combating the PKK and ISIS, and it hasn't been able to choose its enemies or prioritize which one to go after first. In Ankara, with these limited resources, there has to be a prioritization: Who is the main threat? Is it ISIS or the PKK? If it's ISIS, there has to be some kind of attempt to secure some kind of temporary cease-fire with the PKK, in order to go after ISIS with the full force of all resources. It can then turn attention to the PKK if nothing has come out of that cease-fire.

But there's a reason why this won't happen: If the government and Erdoğan try to relaunch any kind of peace process with the PKK, the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] will not support Erdoğan's presidential ambitions. So the security of the whole state is compromised by the ambition of the president to change the system to give himself more powers. Political choices are also to blame for the deteriorating security circumstances.

On the issue of the government's previous alliance with Gülen, a lot of AKP people say they simply didn't have the expertise to run the state when they were elected and they needed Gülenists as qualified administers. But they were fooled and now they are atoning for their mistake. What do you make of that argument?

EÇ: I don't think many experts buy it. Basically the Erdoğan government wanted to work with people who, for example, don't drink alcohol or who are more pious. But there are in fact many other people who could fill state posts based on meritocracy. If you only rely on one group of people you would always face these difficulties. 

SW: There are certainly enough people available to fill such posts with the relevant expertise, but the mentality of the government has been to ask "are they our kind of people?" It was a kind of identity politics. On the coup, we still don't have the full picture. There has been a parliamentary inquiry but not a proper public inquiry. Unless there is a full public inquiry with greater openness and transparency about the relationship between the AKP and the Gülen movement, the government can easily make these kinds of arguments about being fooled.

Let's talk about the economy. The warning signs are flashing red at the moment. Some observers believe an economic crash would harm the AKP and Erdoğan’s support. What do you think?

During field work for the book we saw how members of business groups always support Erdoğan while on the record. But when we turned the voice recorder off they started to criticize the Erdoğan government. They criticized Turkey's Syria policy, or the use of public loans, or the big mega-projects that always go to the same five or six big business groups, which actually are not even historically conservative groups. 

SW: They were also concerned about corruption. So there is some discontent within the AKP and its supporters. But there are also many who will stand behind Erdoğan thick and thin and will buy the narrative he gives at rallies and press conferences. The question is about the "floating voter." I think about 10 percent of AKP supporters are willing to vote elsewhere if there's a credible alternative, but until that credible alternative emerges they will continue to support the AKP and Erdoğan.

Regarding the constitutional changes and the presidential system, if it is the case that parliamentary elections will take place at the same time but also separate from presidential elections, there could be a case where the popularity of Erdoğan is separate from the popularity of the AKP. In other words, Erdoğan could be elected as president in a couple of years at the same time as a parliament is elected that does not have an AKP majority. So I think we'll see the AKP trying to make sure that in any system changes they can guarantee they will retain their popularity. That may be one of the reasons why they want to increase the number of MPs in parliament to 600 from 550; there is a possibility of gerrymandering to make sure the AKP retains its strength.

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