Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has transformed into multicultural and dynamic country. Even though Erdoğan and his AK party are religious conservatives, the Prime Minister ensured the Turkish public that his agenda was to create a free and vibrant Turkey and convinced them that he held no “secret-agenda” to turn the country into a radical “Islamic” state. In the first election, he received 34.3 percent of the vote; and in the second election in 2007, with the Turkish economy booming and freedoms arise Erdoğan received a whopping 46.6 percent of the vote. However, if Erdoğan does not change his path, it seems that in the upcoming June election the tide might be turned back, even only if by a few percent. However, it should be clear that any loss by the AK party will mark an important shift in Turkish politics.
During Prime Minster Erdoğan’s two terms, Turkey has witnessed a widespread expansion of individual freedoms, with numerous rights being extended to the Kurdish population and a proliferation of NGO’s. Breaking from the Turkish secular parties, which remained conservative through their adherence to a staunch interpretation of Ataturk’s legacy, the AK party not only struggled to allow religious women university students entrance into the classroom, having been barred from wearing their headscarf, but also set off a liberal agenda at the at the cost of a collective Turkish nationalist narrative. The reality that the secular parties held a conservative agenda against a conservative party with a liberal agenda seemed to be one of the greatest ironies of Turkish politics during the last decade.
These reforms are evident in Taksim, the main entertainment district of Istanbul, where today one comes across numerous bars where Kurdish music is performed; a decade ago, the very act of speaking Kurdish in public was illegal. Further, in the same district, one can see numerous protests taking places; one of the many emerging groups is the LGBT community, which attracts thousands to their annual Pride protest march every June. These two examples are similar in the sense that while they recognize the AK party’s role in allotting their freedoms, they remain frustrated that reforms have not gone further. For example, the Kurdish question has yet to be resolved and language reforms have not entitled the Kurdish population to use Kurdish as the language of instruction in primary schools. Further, while organizations based on gender equality have become visible in urban arenas and universities, they have run head-on into an unsympathetic government, with the Minister of Family and Women Affairs, Aliye Kavaf, refusing to retract her statement that gays are sick and need treatment. While the Kurdish example is more urgent due to the fact that the armed conflict continues, the latter exhibits the problems of a conservative party which promoted a liberal agenda but retained their prejudices.
Most recently, we see that the freedom of press might also become victim of a conservative backlash to the liberal arena the AK party created during the last decade. This has been highlighted by the recent arrest of two journalists Ahmet Şik and Nedim Şener. Both journalists, who have been hailed as outstanding in their field, were arrested as part of the ongoing Ergenekon trial, which is aimed at uncovering and prosecuting members of a secret gang who along with Turkish army officials are accused of planning a coup d’état against the AK party’s government. The main problem with the trials and arrest of hundreds of army officers and civilians is that since the first arrests began a few years ago no one has yet to be convicted. Without a doubt, when the Ergenekon conspiracy first hit the headlines, the majority of Turkish citizens believed there was some truth to the fact that the secular establishment along with the army planned at all costs to derail their AK party opponents. However, with the arrest of these two journalists, large parts of the Turkish public have come to understand the Ergenekon affair as also being used by the AK Party to silence harsh critics.
While focusing on the freedom of press, one also needs to examine the numerous lawsuits brought on by Erdoğan against journalists and magazines. During his tenure, Erdoğan has campaigned to prosecute critics who “cross the line,” and who have slandered him, collecting impressive sums in monetary fines of those found guilty. However, Erdoğan’s recent lawsuit against Ahmet Altan demonstrates how his wrath can be directed at friend and foe alike. In January, Erdoğan opened a cased against Altan, the editor of Taraf, for writing an article that included “extraordinary severe insults” of Erdoğan. This is surprising since Taraf is a liberal newspaper, which since its introduction in 2007 has forged strong ties with the AK party and has been influential in uncovering some of the Ergenekon coup plots. Simply put, in his fervor to protect his honor, Erdoğan seems to be “biting off the hand that feeds him.”
The upcoming June elections will certainly be a test for Erdoğan. Just last September, the Turkish electorate gave the Prime Minister a vote of confidence in the referendum aimed at introducing constitutional reforms; however, with freedom of press under a suspected attack, not to mention the brutal police force used against recent student and worker protests, it seems likely that Erdoğan is at risk of eroding his important liberal constituency. With the economy continuing to grow at impressive rates, it is almost inevitable that the AK party will once again take the elections. However, Erdoğan without liberals will lose much of its credibility and the Republican People’s Party, under the new leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, will certainly gain from this. The once conservative Ataturkist party seems set on adopting the AK party’s liberal agenda, offering the Turkish voter a social democratic option. The irony lies in the fact that Erdoğan during his tenure in essence created two new playing grounds: one liberal, and one conservative. Sticking close to his main conservative base, it seems Erdoğan is set on abandoning the liberals in order to strengthen his party from within. The question which needs to be asked is whether these steps were consciously taken by the Prime Minister who has for some time campaigned to transform Turkish politics into a two-party liberal-conservative system. Whatever the case, the upcoming elections will be crucial for Turkey’s future and no less for the legacy of Erdoğan himself.
*This article was written a few weeks ago, and only published now. However, even if some new events have arisen I think overall these points remain central.