Turkish politics more unstable than ‘any time in recent years’ – analyst

Turkish politics under incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the most unstable it has been for years Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Policy on Friday. 

While this doesn’t necessarily mean there will be another Gezi Park-style uprising or that Erdoğan will be overthrown, Cook believes that the Turkish president’s “capacity to establish and maintain control across the country seems compromised, which raises the prospects for large-scale protests, increased violence, and political struggles at the summit of the state.” 

Cook recalled the foundation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) back in 2001. At that time, “the new party offered a positive vision of the future based on piety, broader political participation, prosperity, and national power that resonated with an increasingly larger and more diverse group of voters than its previous parties of Islamist patrimony.” 

Circumstances also benefited the infant AKP in those days. Its predecessor government had already undergone economic reforms that helped initiate the economic growth Turkey experienced in the 2000s. Also, even though it never won more than 49.5 percent of the popular vote, the AKP successfully retained a parliamentary majority without having to establish coalitions with other parties. 

These factors, Cook said, enabled Turkey to enjoy “a period of political and social stability”. 

Nevertheless, the AKP and its partners in those days, the Gülenist movement, were disliked by Turkey’s traditional secular elite. While Erdoğan and other party leaders sought to portray themselves as the Muslim equivalent to Germany’s Christian Democrats, they ultimately “turned out to be considerably less democratic than they wanted the world to believe.” 

Cook believes that Erdoğan’s “authoritarianism in and of itself did not make Turkey unstable”, adding that the Turkish president “has a strong social base, which contributed to Turkey’s stability.”

While it’s difficult to determine a single moment when Turkey’s stability began to weaken, Cook believes that the 2013 Gezi Park protests might be a good place to start alongside the “Gülenist-fuelled corruption scandal at the end of the year that resulted in a massive purge of the cleric’s followers from government, the media, and higher education in 2014.” 

These events were followed by the breakdown of the 2013 ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that reignited that violent conflict in 2015, the July 2016 coup attempt, the economic crises in 2018 and 2019, and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. 

Cook believes that “a straight line” can be drawn “from one of these events to another, and together they could represent a fracturing of the AKP’s vision.” 

This is because these successive crises highlighted the failure of the party “to widen political participation, forge a more prosperous society, realize Turkey’s potential as a greater power, and institutionalize religious values that would make for good governance and help overcome society’s cleavages.” 

The AKP’s muzzling of media and free speech in Turkey also made an impartial investigation into the July 2016 coup attempt, which leave many important questions about that pivotal event unanswered, Cook said. 

“Anyone who dares to question the official narrative about the culpability of Gülenists can expect to confront the full weight of the Turkish government, resulting in jail, expropriation of property, family ruin, and, for those lucky enough to escape, constant fear of rendition or violent retribution at the hands of Turkey’s intelligence agents and related thugs,” Cook said. 

However, he added, that fear might be dissipating, which could increase instability in Turkey. 

Cook pointed out that Sedat Peker, the Turkish mobster whose tell-all YouTube videos alleging complicity of leading Turkish politicians in everything from corruption to murder have caused a sensation in Turkey, and Cevheri Güven, a journalist living in exile in Germany who questions the AKP’s portrayal of reality, “have become more trusted sources than either the government or the press” in Turkey. 

“That is a big deal,” he added. 

Cook sees grave implications for stability in Turkey now that the AKP’s positive vision is evaporating, with more and more Turkish citizens turning to sources like Peker and Güven for information. 

“With the AKP’s vision compromised, Erdoğan has had to rely more and more on patronage and coercion to maintain control,” Cook wrote. Both of these tools are “expensive and finite.” 

Nevertheless, he concluded by pointing out that the AKP remains the most popular party in Turkey and Erdoğan the most powerful person in the country. If the economy recovers, Erdoğan could still win re-election. 

Given that uncertainly about the future, when asked whether or not Turkey is stable, Cook says he often responds by saying: “yes and no.” 

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