Turkey is heading down a dangerous path. What happens next will have significant implications, not just for the Turkish people, but for anyone that wants a future of peace and freedom.
Turkish politics has made an unexpected U-turn. In June 2015, Turkey’s major right-wing party, AKP, lost the parliamentary majority it had held for thirteen years. Pundits surmised that AKP’s grip was slipping, that the public had turned against their aggressively conservative programme, that a new age in Turkish politics was on the horizon—it seems they were wrong. Coalition negotiations failed, leading Turkish president Recep Erdogan to call a new election in November. Pollsters claimed that AKP would perform even worse second time round; instead, the party gained 59 seats and snatched back an outright majority. It is a big win for the Turkish right but a massive blow for those, both inside and outside Turkey, who fear the country is rejecting modern Western values.
AKP (whose full name translates as “Justice and Development”) fought the election on the promise of “stability”. The last few months have seen Turkey subject to an explosion of controversy, violence and terrorism; a refugee crisis has arisen, suicide bombings in Ankara carried out by so-called Islamic State have killed over 100 people, and fighting has escalated between the Turkish government and the separatist Kurdish Workers’ party (PKK). The AKP blames this strife on the loss of single-party control. The AKP’s opponents blame the AKP. The Turkish people are scared. They voted for change, bad things have happened, and so now they’ve voted for the status quo ante. It’s an understandable but highly unfortunate move.
President Erdogan, himself a member of AKP, will see the party’s victory as a vindication of his authoritarian (and some would say Islamist) political program. The president has already begun a crackdown on his political opponents, arresting journalists, civil servants and police officers. He is pushing for a rewrite of the country’s constitution that would convert it into an American style republic and transfer sovereignty from the parliament to the presidency. He is likely to continue his attacks on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to protest, as well his firm and rather vicious opposition to the LGBT community. Continued AKP control will make Turkish society less free and less tolerant, erode secularism, and shift power from the people to the government.
None of this bodes well for Turkey’s precarious cultural position, yo-yoing between East and West, between liberal democracy and Islamic theocracy. Is Turkey a European nation or a Middle Eastern nation? There is a tendency for people to think of Turkey as secular and quasi-Western; this secularism however, is but a rapidly peeling veneer. Religious discourse in Turkey is becoming gradually more extreme. Highly conservative Muslims make up the bulk of the country’s population. It is a minority composed of younger people who are opposed to Erdogan’s approach, with everyone else generally approving of it. Turkey is not a progressive nation being dragged into the past by an overbearing, theocratic government; Turkey is a nation of religious conservatives, most of whom approve of a strong, authoritarian state with a dash of theocracy.
Whilst the AKP’s domestic policy will prove worrying to liberals and modernisers within Turkey, those in other countries may be more concerned about the ruling party’s approach to foreign affairs. For the last two decades, the West’s greatest foreign policy concern has been the threat of radical Islam. Where Turkey stands in this regard is something of a conundrum. The AKP is anti-IS but also anti-Kurd. This is problematic for the US, who consider the Kurds major allies in the fight against Islamist forces. Erdogan is also a vociferous opponent of Bashar al-Assad; some fear that Turkish opposition to Assad could help bring down his regime and spread even more chaos in the Levant. Turkey is a Nato member, but it doesn’t seem to act like one. What other Nato countries really need is a Turkish president willing to stand up and say, loudly and clearly: “Turkey stands with the West against radical Islam”. Erdogan does not fit the bill.
These uncertainties pose problems for EU officials, who hope Turkey will assist them with the migrant crisis, and are even willing to bribe the government with aid and visa fast-tracking in order to achieve it. This is not to mention the EU’s desire (shared by David Cameron) to admit Turkey as a member state. Jean-Claude Juncker criticises those who “harp on” about Turkey’s human rights abuses, whilst a leaked EU report reveals how bad those abuses have become. Turkey is rapidly sliding towards theocracy; the European Commission, if they have any principles left at all, ought to see that such a country is not a prime candidate for political union with Western liberal democracies. Then again, the Commission does have a reputation for ignoring their own admission requirements.
Finally, we come to the big question: how should those Western democracies, like the UK, approach Turkey on the international stage? With caution. That is all that can be said for the moment. Turkey is highly volatile. Perhaps Erdogan’s authoritarianism will upset too many people, the AKP’s support will drop, and their majority will be lost again in 2019. Perhaps Turkey will carry on down the path towards despotism, and we’ll end up having to treat them as an enemy. Either way, it would be best to keep Turkey at arm’s length for the time being: deal with the regime courteously but don’t try to make friends. Erdogan’s not taking sides; he seems to hate everyone except himself. We don’t need to side with him or against him—at least, not yet.