NEW YORK – I hate to admit it, but the paranoid secularists who for a decade have been saying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harbored a secret agenda are being proved right.
For years I’ve been gently pointing out to paranoid secularists that Erdogan has been in power a long time already, and if he was really hiding an Islamist master plan — as opposed to his declared conservative agenda — he was doing a good job.
Besides, didn’t you hear the man tell Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders they needed a secular state and constitution? (They wouldn’t now be wearing white jumpsuits in jail if they’d listened to him.)
I used to say Erdogan might have a majoritarian view of democracy and no regard for the civil rights of opponents, but he’s way too smart a politician to break up the coalition of ex-Islamist conservatives, nationalists and liberals that made him powerful. The partnership enabled the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to capture 50 percent of the vote in 2011, up from the 21 percent its Islamist predecessor, the Welfare Party, won at its peak in 1995.
Well, things have changed. Not, I think, because Erdogan suddenly feels liberated to impose his inner-Islamist — though there is a little of that. Rather, he has decided the best way to maximize his vote in Turkey’s first direct presidential election next year is to polarize the electorate.
He wants to force Turks to choose between two options: You’re either with Erdogan, or against him. And if you are against him, you are with the old, wooden-headed, military-backed, secularist system and its decadent offspring.
“Those who are neutral will be disposed of,” Erdogan told AKP parliamentarians last week. The response was equally scary: “Everywhere is Tayyip, Everywhere is Erdogan!” It was an echo of the chant anti-government protesters used during the demonstrations that began in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park and spread across the country earlier this year: “Everywhere is Taksim, Everywhere is Resistance!”
This megalomaniacal approach began after Erdogan’s overwhelming victory in the 2011 election, at which point he declared that this third term in office would be his “master period.” When his autocratic policies triggered the backlash in Gezi Park, he became even more uncompromising and aggressive.
The latest example of Erdogan’s usefully divisive initiatives is a proposal to ban co-ed housing at universities. That may sound like social conservatism, but it’s more than that. Erdogan said he was implementing the constitution’s requirement to protect “the youth,” but college students are adults. So Erdogan wants to override the constitution, which protects privacy in the home, to impose his idea of the behavior that Islam demands. That’s a pretty good definition of Islamism and has made a lot of people angry, which was the purpose.
Erdogan’s acolytes in the AKP have since been casting around for other ways to legally justify the move. The result was Interior Minister Muammar Guler’s pronouncement that “terrorist organizations have started to significantly abuse the relationships between the boys and girls, those among the university youth. They use it as a recruitment base.”
Today, party spokesman Huseyin Celik went on to express concern that student dormitories were being used for prostitution. He also said that while his party was broad and diverse, he personally didn’t approve of Christianity or Judaism. A few weeks ago, Celik got a TV talent show host fired by complaining that she showed too much cleavage.
Erdogan sees secular students and women who dress provocatively on TV as a useful enemy. Just as he labeled the Gezi Park protesters terrorists, he and his supporters are demonizing opponents to galvanize and solidify his support, not least against moderates from his own party, such as President Abdullah Gul, who will compete with him for power until next year’s election and beyond.
Erdogan has already lost the liberals from his coalition. Even supporters such as the columnist Mustafa Akyol, who believe strongly that Islam and liberalism are compatible and have bent over backward to measure Erdogan’s transgressions against his contributions, are now giving upon him. In country with a conservative majority, however, Erdogan doesn’t seem to care about losing the liberals. He hopes to scoop up the rest.
The hope to nurture now is that Erdogan will go so far in personalizing state power and promoting social conflict that more moderate party leaders, in particular the AKP’s two other founders, Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, will split with him. There are signs this could happen. “I am not responsible for the remarks of the prime minister,” Arinc told state-run TRT television after opposing Erdogan’s dormitory crackdown. “I am not just a minister. I represent the past, future and the vision of the party. I should not be ignored.”
I still don’t agree with secular Turks who say Erdogan is turning Turkey into Iran or a gulf state. He isn’t capable of moving Turkey to a new location or undoing the last 100 years of history. Erdogan can, however, change Turkey’s direction. After a decade in power he is now, without question, doing more damage than good to the country he rules.
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.
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