It is not just an Erdoğan problem
Turkey is suffering from a number of serious political, social and economic crises. The country has not only been facing a threat of sliding to authoritarian religious-nationalistic politics, it has also been losing many of its Western friends and is embroiled in a major rift with NATO. It is stuck with a Kurdish problem and its regional politics have largely failed. It is suffering from an impending economic crisis due to the mismanagement of its economic growth model and because its international credit has been tarnished. Finally, the trial of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab in the U.S. is set to be a nightmare for Turkey in both the political and economic sense.
But unlike often claimed by domestic and foreign critics, Turkey is not simply suffering from an “Erdoğan problem.” This is not to say that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be immune to criticism or to deny the fact that he plays a major role in current problems. It just means that the problems are far more complex. One-man rule is never solely caused by “one-man” problems. It is never created only by one man, nor can the underlying causes be solved by that man’s removal.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long since ceased to be a democratizing force, as it had promised upon coming to power in 2002. In recent years it has allied itself with the most nationalistic circles in the country and adopted a highly xenophobic attitude. But Turkey has always been a very nationalistic and militaristic country. It has always been skeptical toward Western powers, despite being a NATO ally. It has always been conspiracy-minded and suspicious of liberal values. If this was not the case, the AKP would not have been able to shift its politics from promoting democracy and Kurdish peace to the extreme opposite.
Turkey has never managed to overcome its wariness toward democratic and cosmopolitan values. Islamists, ultra-nationalists, and even the moderate right-wing majority have always been highly skeptical about the concept of human rights and freedoms, seeing them as Western tools aiming to undermine the country. The majority of republicans and leftists have also tended to view liberal values simply as leverage for imperialist interests. During the Cold War, there was a widespread kind of official hypocrisy in subscribing to the Western alliance against the “Russian and Communist threat” while simultaneously manipulating and promoting nationalist skepticism of the West in domestic politics.
After the end of the Cold War, Turkey struggled to accommodate itself to the new circumstances and suffered from a series of political crises. Then the ex-Islamists rebranded themselves as saviors, coinciding with the rise of the happy Western idea that moderate Islamists were the only ones who could promote democracy in secular but authoritarian Muslim-majority countries. As a result, the AKP was credited and supported by Turkey’s Western allies as a panacea for “anti-Western and authoritarian Kemalism.”
Was it Erdoğan and his party or was it their Western allies who failed each other first? Shortly after the U.S. encouraged Turkey’s government to play a major role in the Middle East and meddle in Syria, U.S. policy changed and left Turkey’s Islamists in confusion. It was not only U.S. and Western policies in general that misled Erdoğan and his party, but nobody can deny that the Syrian debacle played a major role.
Of course, the rift between the AKP and the Gülenists has also had a big impact on the party’s shift away from democracy. This rift emerged as a result of a power struggle within the ruling power bloc, rather than being a part of global plot. Nevertheless, U.S. support for Gülenists is still something more than a fantasy, despite the fact that the Gülenists once opposed a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem. In short, this is a more complex issue than it seems.
I am not trying to whitewash the ruling AKP or its leader, the president. I just want to remind readers that Turkey’s problems did not start with Erdoğan and will not end once he leaves the stage.