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The Dangerous Recep Fatih


Fa•tih \ FAH-tee \ (noun): Turkish for “conqueror”, applied as an epithet, for example: Fatih Sultan Mehmed (Mehmet II 1432 – 1481) for his conquest of Constantinople.

The United States has been distracted by interminable brush wars, the emergence of new threats in the Pacific, and the resurgence of old threats in Europe for more than a decade. During that time, one of our closest and most important allies has slowly but surely become estranged from us. The nation is Turkey; and the permanence in power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has permitted a fundamental change in the Turkish state and in Turkish society. This has caused our interests to diverge increasingly and sometimes vociferously.

Turkey and the United States have been firm and faithful allies since the 1950’s. This was not a given: the government of Ismet Inonu enjoyed excellent relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Second World War. It is by no means inconceivable that frictions arising over British support for Greece and the British military presence in Cyprus could have pushed Turkey into non-alignment or even the Soviet orbit; but able British diplomacy coupled with American economic and military assistance, in addition to some lingering hostility towards the traditional Russian enemy, tipped the balance decisively towards the West. Turkey therefore formed a vital link in NATO: the south-eastern anchor, blocking access to the Mediterranean and the Mesopotamian lowlands. Turkey’s large Army contributed very significantly towards the total number of NATO divisions and control of the Bosporus and Hellespont meant the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was always in danger from the NATO Mediterranean fleets.

Turkey faced West: and the nation founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Father of the Turks) in the disastrous aftermath to the First World War very deliberately sought to be a European country. Ataturk created Turkey out of what have merely been Anatolia, an Ottoman province. He rejected the Ottoman legacy, which had led to repeated humiliations by Russians and Austrians, and finally by Greeks, Serbs and Bulgars. In its stead, he created a nation-state on the European model, created a Turkish national identity, created a secular republican constitution. This great achievement was not without cost: in becoming Turks, the people of Anatolia could no longer easily assimilate other identities, like Greeks and Kurds. The former were kicked out in the Great Population Exchange of the 1920’s, while the latter continue to pose a challenge to the definition of a Turkish nation. But regardless of these considerations, the Turks looked to Europe as a role model.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his political ascendency by being elected as Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 on the Islamist Welfare Party ticket (Refah Partesi), but was forced to resign his post and was sentenced to 10 months in jail for inciting religious discrimination and violence during a speech in Siirt[1] in December 1997. The Welfare Party itself was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court for threatening the secularism of the state in 1998. Far from chastened, Mr. Erdoğan founded the the Justice and Development Party as an heir to Welfare in 2001, and reached an understanding with the powerful Fethullah Gülen, whose movement has millions of followers in Turkey and around the world. This combination brought Mr. Erdoğan to power in 2002, winning a landslide victory and gaining an absolute majority in the Turkish Parliament.

Atatürk had been an Army officer[2] – a highly successful one – prior to becoming Father of the Turks. Therefore, the Army viewed itself as the legitimate inheritor and guarantor of “Kemalism”: and the Army had been overzealous at times in stamping out Communism and other perceived threats to the constitutional order. In the case of Mr. Erdoğan, he and his party were accused of being anti-secularists: of wishing to overthrow the secular nature of the Turkish Republic in favor of Sharia, traditional dress and traditional gender roles.The Turkish government and military accepted the AKP victory at least in part because European leaders were demanding that they liberalize their oppressive stance on moderate Islamist parties like AKP. Along with other economic and political reforms, this would eventually lead to Turkey winning a place inside the expanding European Union.

recep ataturk

Mr. Erdoğan proceeded cautiously at first: he knew his government was being scrutinized by the aggressively secular military and judiciary. He had inherited an economy just starting its recovery from the 2001 financial crisis and soaring inflation: his first priorities were to tackle unemployment and tame inflation. Not only did Mr. Erdoğan successfully tame endemic Turkish inflation for the first time in decades, his economic policies drastically reduced the number of Turks living in poverty as well as tripling the Gross National Income per capita.



This prosperity has allowed Mr. Erdoğan to both reduce the fiscal deficit, paydown Turkey’s national debt – from 74% of GDP in 2002 to 39% in 2009 –  and pay off the outstanding development loans to the IMF in 2012. Some of the credit must go to the reforms begun by the preceding Prime Minister, Kemal Dervis; but Mr. Erdoğan not only continued them, he expanded them enthusiastically. The AKP government has invested heavily in schools and education: quadrupling the Ministry of Education’s budget over 8 years, building many new schools and universities, extending the period of mandatory education and closing the gender gap in school attendance. Infrastructure projects have also proliferated, with twice as many kilometers of new roadway constructed during Mr. Erdoğan’s Administration as in the preceding 80 years. High speed rail was inaugurated, while “slow rail” was also expanded; bridges built, and energy infrastructure benefiting greatly.

In short, for the average Turk, Mr. Erdoğan’s administration has been one of unceasing, visible and substantial improvement for themselves and for their children. This is especially true of rural Turkey, which many prior governments had dismissed to focus on the “more important” urban centers like Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Bursa, Edirne. Precisely because so many of Mr. Erdoğan’s supporters were conservative, religious and rural, these areas were given a great deal of attention and showered with development funds.

These activities carried Mr. Erdoğan through a very busy and successful first administration. He was widely praised in the West for his political and economic reforms, expanding religious and minority rights, and for curbing the influence of the Turkish military on the nation’s politics. He and the AKP were touted as the next step in the evolution of moderate Islamic parties: indeed, the West could not discuss the Arab Spring movements without reference to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Yet the ground began to sour after 2007 for Mr. Erdoğan.

That year saw Turkey hold both a presidential election. The Turkish President is the Head of State rather than the Head of Government[3], and is generally viewed as the guarantor of the constitution and the secular state. Thus, when the AKP advanced the candidacy of Abdullah Gül – who is openly religious, has a long history of supporting political Islam and whose wife wears a headscarf – many Turks feared for the Constitution and organized protest marches calling out “we don’t want an imam for President.” Mr. Gül handily won the votes in Parliament needed to secure the position, but because many opposition members had boycotted the session, the Constitutional Court ruled that quorum requirements had not been met and invalidated the results. After failure to resolve this impasse, Turkish law requires that a snap general election be held, which it duly was on 22 July 2007.


The AKP not only won that election, it substantially increased the share of votes it received over the 2002 electoral results: up to 46.7% of ballots cast from 34.3% previously. Mr. Gül was duly sworn in as President of the Republic. Angered by what he considered “unfaithful” opposition and determined that he would not again be held hostage by his political adversaries, Mr. Erdoğan introduced a popular constitutional referendum for the direct election of the President. The reform package was passed by 68.7% of the popular vote after having been previously vetoed by the outgoing president and having to be resubmitted[4].

Now the opposition against Mr. Erdoğan began to solidify: both his political and his military opponents became worried by his too great electoral success. They were displeased by his constitutional reform package, which many felt was just the first of many that would eventually strip away the secular nature of the Turkish state. Many were also concerned by what they considered to be Erdoğan’s stuffing of the bureaucracy and judiciary with AKP supporters, rather than more qualified and more secular candidates (their candidates). And it is undoubtedly true that Mr. Erdoğan favored his own supporters in making appointments; that is how parties operate in all democracies, not just in Turkey.

Yet the canny Mr. Erdoğan was able to divide and conquer. He successfully saw off yet another political challenge in 2008, when the Chief Prosecutor attempted to have the governing AKP banned as a party for being anti-secular. Then the government uncovered evidence[5] that military officers were plotting a coup to restore a Kemalist to power, which would not have been a priori unbelievable given how many times it had already happened. Regardless of whether the plot were real or fabricated, Erdoğan’s government moved decisively and issued indictments against over 500 military officers, journalists and opposition politicians accused of belonging to a clandestine organization called the Ergenekon[6]. The practical effect of this was to decapitate the political, but especially the military, opposition to Mr. Erdoğan. He has had little to fear from either since then. In 2012, Mr Erdoğan and Mr. Gülen had a falling out, as the former accused the latter of creating a parallel state within Turkey and the AKP. Mr. Erdoğan has moved aggressively to clean his own house of Mr. Gülen’s closest followers.

This fearlessness has had unfortunate consequences. It has allowed Mr. Erdoğan to more openly promote his religious agenda, which some critics allege includes the “re-Ottomanization” of Turkey[7]. He has cracked down heavily on the independence of the media, leading to Turkey receiving atrocious evaluations from international organizations such as Freedom House and the European Union’s Human Rights Commission. Since traditional media was in control of the AKP,  Turkish citizens turned to social media to organize themselves to protest the bulldozing of Gezi Park against local wishes. This so infuriated Mr. Erdoğan that he “declared war” on Twitter and passed increasingly strict censorship, libel, blasphemy[8] and cybersecurity laws[9]. As a result, Turkey has plummeted to near the bottom of the global table in every measure of freedom of expression and the press[10].



Mr. Erdoğan has also apparently ceased caring about the vast scale of corruption in his own government and party. This is a depressing development for a man who was lauded while Mayor of Istanbul for increasing the transparency of that office and fighting corruption in City Hall. Since 2013, his Administration has been rocked by scandal after scandal involving widespread graft, acceptance of illegal gifts and misuse of public funds and equipment for personal or political benefit.[11]

Yet despite all the turmoil, negativity and his increasingly apparent authoritarianism and illiberalism, Mr. Erdoğan won a general election in 2011 with an even higher percentage of the vote than in 2007 – 49.8% versus 46.7% – as well as the first direct vote presidential election in 2014. Mr. Erdoğan himself stood for the post of President and took 51.8% of the ballots cast with a high turnout of 74%. No matter how you paint it, Mr. Erdoğan remains immensely popular with his AKP base, who form a majority of Turkish citizens. In doing so, Mr. Erdoğan has become the most successful politician in the history of the Turkish Republic: he or his party has contested 3 general elections, 3 local elections, 1 by-election and 2 popular referendums and he has won every single one of them. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has earned the soubriquet “Fatih”.

N.B. To be fair, Mr. Erdoğan has continued his discussion with Kurdish and Armenian leaders in an effort to settle those too long-standing and debilitating disputes. Despite his many defects, Mr. Erdoğan is the first Turkish leader to have the courage and enjoy the prestige to tackle these issues directly. These actions should at least be recognized and lauded, despite other criticism.


Turkey’s problem isn’t an Islamist threat to Kemalism, it is Erdoğan’s hubris. The AKP leader suffers from victory disease: having outmaneuvered and outlasted all of his opponents, both outside and inside his party, he now believes the sycophants and adulators who surround all men of power. His is undoubtedly compared daily – and favorably – to Atatürk; told he is the man of destiny who will reshape Turkey gloriously in his own image; and now utterly intolerant of criticism or contradiction. As the 1st Baron Acton has said: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” After 12 years of power, and almost 6 years of undisputed mastery, Mr. Erdogan has become corrupted through and through.

How else can his equation of differences in opinion with treason be explained? “Insults” to the President are legally the equivalent to the insults against the nation in the New Turkey, which is why a 16-year old (!) student has been arrested and faces up to four years in prison for citing the AKP corruption probe at a campus rally[12]. The National Police Cyber Crimes Unit, established by Mr. Erdogan, seems more intent on raiding journalists’ offices and computers[13] than in stopping actual criminals. Even former Miss Turkey, Merve Büyüksarac, has been arrested for reposting a satirical poem about Mr. Erdogan on Facebook[14].


This may also explain Mr. Erdoğan’s increasingly tenuous touch with reality: he has been making fantastic statements recently that have set eyes rolling across Europe and Anatolia.  Some of the more recent pearls of wisdom he has let drop:

  • The Apollo Moon landings were faked (at least he has plenty of nutter company on this one);
  • The Arabs discovered the Americas hundreds of years before the Portuguese did;
  • Olympus, from which the Olympic Games take their names, is in Anatolia (it is in Greece in reality as even a cursory glance at a map will indicate);
  • Describing the Battle of Manzikert as a victory of Seljuk Turk bravery against Byzantine cannon fire, even though gunpowder didn’t reach Europe for a few more centuries.

Perhaps the West ought to start calling Istanbul Constantinople, Izmir Smyrna and Edirne Adrianople: that might demonstrate Mr. Erdogan the folly of his historical revisionism. More likely, however, it would only send him into paroxysms of rage and fuel his paranoia, confirming in his mind that there is a Western conspiracy against him. This is another sawhorse that Mr. Erdogan has been on increasingly, everywhere seeing anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic responses from Western governments: though to be fair, some of that may be due to his increasing frustration with the treatment received from European Union leaders in Turkish ascension discussions.

Is Mr. Erdogan a dictator? He has no need to be: he continues to win elections. There really isn’t even a reason to doubt the legitimacy of his victories. So long as he keeps is pious, conservative base happy, employed and with improved living standards every year there is no reason to think that he won’t continue to win elections. This doesn’t make him an ardent democrat, however: I suspect that the AKP leader feels more at home talking to Mr. Putin, Mr. Jinping or Mr. Kim than in the company of the European and North American elected officials he increasingly sneers at.


It may be significant that opposition to Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarian style has grown since the 2007 general election. Just how far he must go before that opposition breaks into the Turkish heartland and seriously undermines his power base is open to question: even his break with Fethullah Gülen hasn’t proven to be decisive, much less than the disparagement of a cadre of highly secularized Turks in the western part of the country who have little else in common with their Anatolian countryfolk.

Yet what happens to Turkish democracy is critically important, not just for the Turks themselves, but also for Europe, America and the rest of the Middle East. Turkey has been a role model for its Arab and Caucasus neighbors; and the achievements of Kemalism have been magnificent even if the state has been too heavy-handed in enforcing its tenets. The health of that democracy is almost certainly dependent on Mr. Erdogan leaving politics behind; a decade is long enough for any one person to wield so much power. Even the AKP ought to support a change at the top: Mr. Erdogan won’t live forever, and his intolerance and paranoia may eventually bring the party down with him.


Sources and Notes

[1] Mr. Erdoğan read a piece of a poem by Ziya Gökalp translated as: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers….” He served four months of the 10 month sentence.

[2] As a General of the Ottoman Army during the First World War, Mustafa Kemal was responsible for organizing the initial defense of the Gallipoli peninsula against the British landings; his vigorous response was one of the primary reasons that the Turks were able to successfully hold out against the Entente forces. His post-war legacy was that of the only undefeated Ottoman general officer.

[3] The US system combines both functions into the American Presidency, but most parliamentary systems divide the executive functions. Thus in the United Kingdom, David Cameron is the Head of Government, but Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State and represents the whole British nation.

[4] The reform package was also challenged in the Constitutional Court, which reviewed the proposed measures and ruled to allow their presentation to the public.

[5] There is an enormous amount of controversy regarding the “evidence” that was uncovered regarding military plots against Mr. Erdoğan with many Turks firmly convinced that it was entirely fabricated by the AKP.

[6] There were actually two separate, though linked, cases: the Ergenekon indictments and the Sledgehammer indictments. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I have combined the two.

[7] Ottoman language classes to be introduced ‘whatever they say,’ vows Erdoğan,” Hurriyet Daily News, 29 January 2015

[8] “Turkey and Blasphemy,” The Nation, 29 January 2015

[9] “Turkey proposes tighter internet laws, pursues Twitter critic,” BGN News, 23 January 2015

[10] Report emphasizes Erdoğan’s impact on decline of democracy in Turkey,” Hurriyet Daily News, 30 January 2015

[11] Semih Idiz, “Erdoğan Stirred, Not Shaken, by Corruption Vote,” US News and World Report, 26 January 2015

[12] “Turkish court arrests 16-year-old student for insulting President Erdoğan,” Hurriyet Daily News, 29 January 2015

[13] “Journalist tried for 2 yrs in prison for insulting Erdoğan on Facebook,” BGN News, 28 January 2015

[14] Jessica Chasmar, ”Former Miss Turkey arrested for criticizing Recep Tayyip Erdogan online,” The Washington Times, 21 January 2015

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