I wrote a thriller called The Janissary Tree in 2005, set in Istanbul of 1836. It played fast, but not too loose, with Ottoman Turkish history, having Sultan Mahmud II beset by difficulties and dangers as he attempted to drag the Ottoman Empire kicking and screaming into the 19th century. The sultan’s special agent was Yashim, a eunuch friendly with the sultan’s mother, the French-born Valide. It was a ripping yarn, portraying a world caught between the forces of modernity and tradition.
Turkey seemed, a decade ago, to be a country more at ease with itself than at any other time in the 20th century. The moderately Islamic AK Party had won elections in 2002. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan they galloped into a vigorous program of economic and political reform, giving the body politic perhaps the deepest deep-clean since Kemal Atatürk created the Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. They used an IMF loan to stabilize the currency, which then attracted foreign investment and created spectacularly high growth, close to China’s. Their more relaxed attitude towards the Kurds and other minorities delighted the Europeans: Talks on accession to the EU sped up, and other Turkish laws and regulations were brought more closely in line with EU norms.
The army, which saw itself as the stern guarantor of republican values and French-style secularism, was backing off from politics. For decades, Turkish governments worked in the army’s shadow, knowing that it could intervene at any time, as it did in 1960, 1971, 1980 and the 1990s, when it dismissed an earlier Islamist government. But the AKP were only moderately Islamic. They were seen as a Turkish version of European Christian Democrats, and continued to respect the secularist values laid down by Atatürk, the father of the Republic, in the 1920s. As a historian of the Ottoman Empire, I sensed that for the first time in decades it had become possible to talk about the pre-Kemalist Ottoman past, suggesting a mature society at ease with its own complex history.
Turkey today, on the eve of important elections, is not the Turkey we might have expected in 2004. It is more Islamic, and less influential; it is more prosperous, and more divided.
It all seemed rather wonderful. By 2004, the AKP leadership could point to seven large reform packages which they had passed through parliament. In new elections called in 2006, no one was surprised when the AKP returned with a bigger majority. Yet almost all the good stuff that had characterized their first term stopped coming. Only the liberalized economy continued to improve. In came muddle, autocracy and paranoia. Turkey today, on the eve of important elections, is not the Turkey we might have expected in 2004. It is more Islamic, and less influential; it is more prosperous, and more divided.
Growth, but at a cost
Turkey now has the 18th largest economy in the world, with an income per capita of $10,000 — treble what it was when Erdoğan took power. The financial crisis of 2006-07 barely dented an economy which provides many Europeans with their fridge, their washing machine, and their patch of sunny beach. Tourism is booming: Istanbul was voted best holiday destination for 2014 by TripAdvisor and more than 40 million visitors fly into the coastal resorts each year.
But as the economy has grown, so too has Erdoğan’s tentacular reach through the body politic. The AKP won three consecutive parliamentary elections (in 2002, 2007, and 2011) with overwhelming majorities, and the shibboleths of secular republicanism have been traded outrageously for political advantage. As politically bland and economically unstable as the old order may have been, in the new order the situation has been reversed.
First to suffer were Turkey’s chances of joining the EU. The EU bears some of the blame for rebuffing the Turks’ approaches to membership. When it came to the crunch many European politicians couldn’t face having 70 million Muslims on board — a truth not lost on some of those 70 million Muslims, whose adherence to political Islam has grown fiercer. Western involvement in Iraq didn’t help. Ankara and Brussels still perform their mating rituals, but the heat has gone out of the relationship.
Turkey’s foreign policy has been, to put it generously, a mess. Traditionally, Turkey took a cautious line with its neighbours. Under Prime Minister Erdoğan, Turkey instead embarked on a grand program of realignment, looking to recover some of its old Ottoman-era dash and influence. It turned out to be a masterclass in how to lose friends and alienate people. Good working relations with Israel, a benchmark of dispassionate secularism, have soured. AKP enthusiasm for the Arab Spring was translated into support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which proved counterproductive when its leadership was ousted in 2013. Nobody was reassured when Erdoğan paid visits to Teheran and called Ahmadinejad his friend, while a rapprochement with Syria proved ill-judged, not least because it exposed Turkey’s inability to influence Assad. As a result, ties with Iran showed signs of strain.
Toward the Kurds the government first blew hot, then cooled. Once persuaded of Erdoğan’s good faith — which had resulted in a small but significant relaxation of the dictat that cast Kurds as ‘mountain Turks’ — Kurds realized that, once again, they had been fooled. Whether they realized in time, and can still poll above the 10 percent that will allow them parliamentary representation, remains to be seen: The Kurdish vote is on a knife-edge.
For two years after 2012, Turkey had more journalists in jail than China and, like China, it also has other ways of silencing its critics.
Meanwhile, the AKP have embedded themselves firmly in the machinery of state, once oiled by secular republicans: It is a constitutional fault, which allows for the politicization of areas that are not, in a functioning democracy, avowedly political. The courts and the media have come under consolidated attack. Fines and regulatory seizures have made news groups wary of stepping out of line. Twitter has been suspended. For two years after 2012, Turkey had more journalists in jail than China and, like China, it also has other ways of silencing its critics. After a referendum the AKP changed the rules on judicial appointments, prompting an EU report to drily note that “as by far the most powerful leader in Turkish history since Atatürk, Erdoğan will no longer be able to blame anyone else for deficiencies in Turkish democracy.”
Other, more shadowy checks and balances have been swept aside. Erdoğan devoured the generals in a series of show trials, disarmed the so-called Deep State, then turned on the Gulenists who had made common cause with him against the army. Gulenists — followers of a religious movement led by the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen — fought back, unleashing a series of videos, among other things, which purported to show Erdoğan’s closest advisers and even his son, Bilal, taking bribes for contracts. Erdoğan took the fight back to the Gulenists, using his powers to re-assign Gulenist sympathizers from their positions in the police and the judiciary. It’s weirder and more vicious than anything in my 19thcentury thrillers.
The PM and his enemies
Erdoğan himself is a scrappy, pugnacious man who seems to enjoy finding enemies to crush. His desire for power is driven by mistrust, shared with, and by, a large portion of the electorate. He has been accused of behaving like a sultan, like a provincial mayor, and like a street tough. The Gezi Park protests of 2013, and the government’s response, were symptomatic. When people protested the sudden destruction of an Istanbul open space they were tear-gassed and terrorized by the police, while Erdoğan railed against sinister foreign influences seeking to undermine the nation. And it’s not just the liberal, urban Turks who feel the brunt of Erdoğan’s dislike. In Soma, where locals had gathered to protest safety standards at a mine where 14 men had died, a member of the president’s entourage was photographed actually kicking a protestor being held down by the police. The photograph made front pages around the world.
The unpleasant truth is that none of this seems to have done the AKP any harm at the polls. As long as the money rolls in and the economy booms, Turks support him. Inconvenient facts, such as a bribery scandal or flagrant show trials, or the failure of his foreign policy, don’t seem to be of much interest — and are less likely to be aired publicly by a cowed and divided press and media.
If Erdoğan wins on June 7, he will use his majority to change the constitution and grant himself yet more power. The Kurdish party may derail his ambitions, or maybe not, depending on what deal they get. His own party might fall apart, divided by their leader’s sultanic ambition. However I look at today’s Turkey, I see material for many more thrillers, something which fills me with considerable dread.