Woodward: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

by Aylin Woodward | 1/21/14 5:18pm

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recently unveiled “democratization package” has the world feeling cautiously optimistic about the country’s stability. Changes include the strengthening of Kurdish minority language rights, the lifting of a ban on Islamic headscarves for women in public institutions and altering the electoral system to benefit smaller parties. Has Turkey, fresh from a summer of its own Tahrir Square-type protests, finally begun moving in a progressive direction?

As someone who only spends two months out of the year in Turkey — a dual citizen with more ties to the U.S. — who am I to judge? I cannot possibly know of the subtle workings of this new political system controlled by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. But I seek only to set the record straight. Right now, Turkey is politically no better off than Egypt. Sure, our “Morsi-esque” figure remains in power, our GDP is off the books, we’re jockeying for membership in the EU and our republic is heralded as the lone sentinel of liberal freedom in an area dominated by Islamic governments. But it won’t stay that way for long. The inevitable course of Erdogan’s decade-long “revolution” makes that impossible.

One could say this outcome was brutally predictable. Fledgling Turkey, clawing for a seat at the first world table of global affairs, desperate to prove its individuality from its Middle Eastern neighbors, was ripe for the picking by a political entrepreneur who knew exactly what weapon would best consolidate his power. Since his initial election in 2002, Erdogan has wielded Turkey’s growing economy like a hammer. If people wanted continued prosperity, they’d vote for the Justice and Development Party and Erdogan. End of story. So people like my uncle, an investment banker in Istanbul, who tinker and tailor the burgeoning economy to line their own pockets, did. They swear only good can come of this so-called “silent revolution.” My uncle says that Turkey is on the precipice of entering a golden age that will see it take its rightful place among the fiscal juggernauts of the Western world.

But at what cost? In the name of economic and social prosperity we inadvertently sold our souls to the very party that would see us turn our backs on secular progress under the guise of being “better Muslims.” What good is economic prosperity when the party is instituting a takeover of civil society from under our very noses? This story should sound familiar to some — the Muslim Brotherhood did the exact same thing in Egypt a decade ago.

Turkey as an analog to Egypt may seem like a perverse notion to some. We’re not under a transitional government, our military leaders stepped down en masse this summer and our popularly elected leader has demonstrated his willingness to move the country in a more “democratic” direction. But how long would it have been until Erdogan was overthrown, much like Morsi was, without minor concessions?

That’s where these new reforms come in. The sudden push for Kurdish rights and lower electoral thresholds is simply a cloak to hide a political agenda. In the past, Erdogan was too clever to disband the coalition of disgruntled Islamic conservatives, nationalists and economic liberals who put him in power. But with the first direct presidential election in Turkish history looming, Erdogan needed to double down. He decided to irreversibly polarize the electorate. On one hand, he’s engineered a schism, one powerful enough to undermine the potential for further collective action like what was seen in Gezi Park this summer. And on the other, he’s planted the seeds to maximize his vote share. Erdogan’s party platform has shifted from an economic to a religious focus. And he’s implementing change on the national level, revising the face of Turkish civil society to do it. He’s appealing to the Kurds, the Alevis, the conservative Islamists — not because his commitments have changed per se, but because these people will ensure his victory at the polls in 2014.

Erdogan is leading a quiet revolution, and there lies the danger for the future of the Turkish Republic.