By Mustafa Akyol
June 28, 2018
More than 55 million Turks went to the
polls on Sunday to elect the country’s new president and to form its new
parliament. As has happened repeatedly since 2002, the winner was President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With more than 52 percent of the vote, Mr. Erdogan
secured a mandate to rule Turkey until 2023 — the centennial of the founding of
the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
To many, especially in the West, yet
another victory for Mr. Erdogan seems hard to understand. The economy has been
gloomy. The Turkish lira is in free fall against other currencies. Democracy is
in precipitous decline, too. Moreover, the usually fractured opposition seemed
to get its act together this time, forming a coalition and putting forth Muharrem
Ince, a charismatic candidate. All this led to a widespread expectation that
Mr. Erdogan could lose this time, or at least would face a major setback.
But Turkey’s strongman proved as strong as
ever. The reason for this is not ballot rigging. It is not even just the way
that Mr. Erdogan holds a grip on power with his command of the news media. The
truth is, most people who voted for Mr. Erdogan will vote for him no matter
what. They didn’t see this election as a competition between politicians promising
better governance. They viewed it as an act of defiance against a century-old
The story goes back to modern Turkey’s 1923
founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose top-down secularist reforms created a
Westernized urban population that viewed him as a saviour. But the same
“Kemalist Revolution” left behind a traumatized conservative class, which felt
itself as “a stranger in your own home, a pariah in your own land,” as the
Islamist poet Necip Fazil put it in 1949.
When multiparty elections were introduced
in 1950, the conservatives began to enter the system. But they were repeatedly
punished by “the regime’s guardians,” as the secular elite proudly called
itself. Only with Mr. Erdogan’s election and solidification of power in the early
2000s was this secular hegemony fully broken.
This is what Turkey’s religious
conservatives are thinking about when they vote for Mr. Erdogan and his Justice
and Development Party, not his flaws, which they may silently admit he has.
They aren’t thinking about newspapers that have been taken over or professors
who have been put in jail, but about how the Arabic call to prayer was outlawed
in the 1930s and the head scarf were banned in the 1990s. Against this “Old
Turkey” that the religious conservatives despise, Mr. Erdogan proved to be
their saviour. The more sensible among them may sense that their “New Turkey”
is hardly any better than the old — but still it is their Turkey.
In other words, Mr. Erdogan is surfing on a
sense of a historic revolution, driven by a revolutionary zeal. After a century
in the wilderness, Turkey has become great — and Muslim — again. The rest is
This sense of world historical importance
distorts how conservatives are able to see the rest of the world. They assume
that the whole world, and especially the evil cabal that supposedly runs it,
attaches as much importance to Turkey’s conservative turn as they do. And so
they believe the main theme of Mr. Erdogan’s giant propaganda machine:
conspiracy. They see a global conspiracy to topple Mr. Erdogan; they believe
there are endless plots, coup attempts and manipulations against which the New
Turkey must be defended. (Of course they felt this suspicion confirmed by the
real coup attempt in July 2016.)
This conspiratorial mind-set explains away
any problems the country faces, and so helps immunize the president. In other
countries, a poorly performing economy might make a president unpopular —
especially if his own unorthodox economic theories seem to have played a role.
In Turkey, it’s used as evidence of an “economic attack” from the West. A
recent poll found that four out of five voters — much more than Mr. Erdogan’s
base — find this conspiracy plausible. It may in the end turn out that the more
trouble Turkey faces, the more consolidated Mr. Erdogan’s base becomes.
What is most interesting about the New
Turkey is its relationship with “democracy.” Human rights groups and Western
news outlets may say that Turkish democracy is dying, but Mr. Erdogan and his
supporters honestly and genuinely believe that Turkey is in fact more
democratic than ever.
How can that be? For the president and his
supporters, “democracy” has one simple meaning: Whoever wins the ballots should
lead the nation — by ruling not just the executive but also the legislative and
judicial apparatuses, the media, academia, religion and culture. There is
hardly any realm in state or society that should remain autonomous from the
elected leader, who represents an almost sacred “national will.”
When Westerners speak of “democracy,”
however, they intuitively mean liberal democracy, which includes values like
freedom of speech, a free press, and the rule of law, an independent judiciary,
academic freedom and property rights. But the synthesis of liberalism and
democracy isn’t necessary; Turkey is just one of several “illiberal
democracies” in ascendance around the world.
But no one should forget that Turkey is
bigger than Mr. Erdogan, just as it was bigger than Ataturk. The Erdogan
Revolution is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, but it can’t go on
forever. Ultimately, when Old Turkey fully fades and the tide turns against the
reactionary excesses of Mr. Erdogan’s New Turkey, a third Turkey may arise: a
Turkey where no group is hegemonic, no one feels like a “pariah in your own
land” and finally every person is free.
Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the author of
“Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” and a contributing opinion