By Sahin Alpay
July 26, 2015
In the first decade of the 21st century, Turkey had high hopes for the future.
Its sui generis Islamist movement had evolved to assume liberal positions in both domestic and foreign policy. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded by the “renewalist” faction of the Welfare Party (RP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had adopted accession to the European Union as the centrepiece of its platform and advocated consolidation of the rule of law.
With that platform the AKP won three consecutive elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011. Thanks to liberal political and economic reforms aimed at accession to the EU, the country was rendered more free and affluent than ever. Its “Zero problems with neighbours” (ZPN) foreign policy had served the country well in both economic and security terms. With strong support from a liberal minded intelligentsia and civil society, the AKP government was able to overcome military coup attempts against its rule. It had not only been able to dismantle, step-by-step, the assimilationist policies towards the Kurds and initiate peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), it also had been able to forge close ties with the Kurdistan autonomous region of Iraq, long regarded en enemy by the Kemalist establishment.
The reversal in AKP policies came roughly in its third term of power that began in 2011. Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, considering that he had enlisted the following of at least half of the electorate and had put the Kemalist military under control, began to concentrate power in his hands, seeking to establish a Putin-like “executive presidency” by changing the Constitution that basically is based on a parliamentary system. When at the end of 2013 public prosecutors put forward the gravest allegations of corruption against ministers and bureaucrats, implicating the Erdoğan family too, the AKP government turned increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian not only by suppressing the graft probe, but also by introducing measures to subject the judiciary to the executive and restricting the media. Almost all the gains of the country, in terms of the rule of law, were reversed. Assuming that the Arab peoples' uprisings against their autocrats that began in 2011 would lead to Muslim Brotherhood governments in all, Erdoğan abandoned the ZPN in foreign policy in the hope of increasing influence in the region through close relations with Muslim Brotherhood parties.
When nearly 60 percent of the electorate voted in favour of the opposition parties in the recent 2015 general election, putting an end to his dreams of introducing a Putin-like presidency and barring his party from forming the government single-handedly, Erdoğan seems to have decided on a hawkish strategy to take back the initiative. He has derailed the peace talks with the PKK, seemingly to win back the nationalist vote lost to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the early election he hopes to call for.
Erdoğan and the authoritarian and incompetent AKP government he controls are placing the country before serious risks in both domestic and foreign contexts. The PKK, emboldened by its improved international standing may escalate the armed insurgency it promised to end in return for recognition of autonomy for the Kurds.
Erdoğan had long hoped that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), together with other radical Islamist groups, would help topple the Assad regime in Syria, which he regards the main enemy, and also crush the Syrian Kurds' aspirations for autonomy. Now that ISIL has begun to attack Turkey, Erdogan has decided to counter and agreed to allow the United States to use a Turkish air base against it. The country is now faced also with the risk of ISIL escalating its terrorist attacks and of being drawn into the Syrian quagmire.
Turkey's greater problem is the grave political crisis it is now confronted with. The three opposition parties with widely different agendas cannot unite to form a government that can restore the rule of law and reset a foreign policy that has gone bankrupt. How Turkey will recover from an authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent government that the people are increasingly wary of is a question that needs to be addressed.