"Even if [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan wanted to transform Turkey into a dictatorship, he would not succeed.
However, he is exercising a majoritarian form of democracy where, after an election, those who won the absolute majority can do what they want to do. This is not a liberal democracy where minorities are respected," says Dr. Rainer Hermann, the author of the fascinating and insightful book about Turkey, "Where is Turkey headed?" in an interview with Today's Zaman.
Dr. Hermann admits the sociopolitical landscape has changed quickly in Turkey. When his book was first published in 2007, the AK Party government under Erdoğan was viewed as a reformist government that was fighting for democracy, challenging the deep state and sidelining the prolonged traditional tutelage in Turkish politics.
“I think not one of us foresaw these authoritarian tendencies,” he says.
“The Kemalists had warned before that Erdoğan would eventually transform Turkey into an Islamist state. I never found that argument credible. I had rather warned that Turkey --after an eventual collapse of the negotiations with the EU -- would become more nationalistic, inward-looking and curb freedoms.”
While Turkish society enjoyed the EU-inspired reforms and democratization process during the first two AK Party terms, after 2010 the sociopolitical sphere started change dramatically in Turkey. For many, this was a radical shift.
Now for many at home and abroad, Erdoğan is trying to build his own regime and wiping out everyone he considers an opponent or rival.
Hermann says Erdoğan's efforts to destroy the Hizmet movement are aimed at consolidating his own power and regime.
"Erdoğan wants to wipe out everyone whom he sees as a rival. There are not many left to challenge him: The military is gone from the political stage forever, no strong political party challenges him, the Gezi protests did not come close to becoming a critical mass for change. That left the Hizmet movement as a corrective force. The movement is a danger to him: It opposed and opposes Erdoğan's trend toward authoritarianism by insisting on an EU path and more reforms, and it does so -- as Erdoğan claims for himself -- by being a movement of pious Muslims. He argues that whoever is not with him is against him and needs to be eliminated -- not physically but politically," Hermann said.
Today's Zaman interviewed Hermann about his book and recent developments in Turkey.
Please tell us about your methodology. How did you collect the data for your book?
I have been traveling to Turkey regularly since 1982 when I was a student, and I lived in Istanbul from 1991 till 2008. I always travelled extensively in the country. Doing so, I became a witness of the tremendous changes Turkey was undergoing in the past decades. Therefore, the book is more an eyewitness account rather than an academic analysis taken from books of the past. I met with many of the people featured in the book. After dealing with Turkey for a long period, it became difficult for me to tell where I got this bit of information from and where another bit of information came from. Over some years the composition assumed a shape. Then I wrote it down.
Did you foresee the current authoritarian tendencies of Erdoğan when working on your book?
I think not one of us foresaw these authoritarian tendencies. The Kemalists had warned before that Erdoğan would eventually transform Turkey into an Islamist state. I never found that argument credible. I had rather warned that Turkey -- after an eventual collapse of the negotiations with the EU -- would become more nationalistic, inward-looking and curb freedoms. However, I did not expect that Erdoğan would transform from a rather humble politician taking advice from others into an authoritarian figure taking any criticism directed at him as an insult. I got to know the reformer Erdoğan when there was an international atmosphere conducive for reform. Today, however, Erdoğan is a contemporary of Vladimir Putin, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and many other authoritarian leaders, and in Europe extremists are on the rise. Therefore, Erdoğan is not an isolated phenomenon.
Do you think he is building his regime, a dictatorship Turkey?
Absolutely. He wants to build a regime according to his wishes. He wants to be at the top of a state, being himself a mix of an Ottoman sultan and a republican president. He tells people to know their limit; by telling them he makes it clear that he is at the top and they are at the bottom. Erdoğan is authoritarian, but he is not a dictator (yet). He is elected; there are still some checks and balances, even if eroded, and there is still a civil society, even if under threat.
Do you think that he can achieve that?
Even if Erdoğan wanted to transform Turkey into a dictatorship he would not succeed. However, he is exercising a majoritarian form of democracy where, after an election, those who won the absolute majority can do what they want to do. This is not a liberal democracy where minorities are respected. Turkey is drifting away from Europe and a European democracy, becoming closer to Oriental types of states in which a pyramid of power is kept together from the top by the clientelistic interests of cronies. We have seen in 2011 that those states in the Arab world are not sustainable. In the case of Turkey, protests against Erdoğan will mount when the economy stops growing. Clientelistic economies waste resources; they are not competitive. That might happen to Turkey if the policy is not adjusted.
Though weakened by Erdoğan, do you think Turkey's broad institutions can balance Erdogan's ambitions to establish his own regime?
Turkey is -- contrary to Russia -- too far developed that it would slide back into pure authoritarianism. Erdoğan wants to have a strong executive. Parliament is weak as long as there is no strong opposition; the judiciary was once a pillar of Kemalist governance and has now become a protector of Erdogan's power; the media are silenced, though not completely. However, there are social media that are not that easy to control; there are many independent judges and prosecutors, but there is a lack of a strong political voice. What is needed there is a charismatic leader unifying dissenting voices in the opposition.
Do you think that Turkish people tend to follow authoritarian, strong leaders? Why?
The weaker institutions are the more important charisma is. It is the weakness of institutions that marks the difference between Turkey and Europe. The gap had been reduced for some years. Institutions have never been consolidated in the sense of securing a liberal democracy, however. This is what the Copenhagen criteria are about. But strong leaders must not be authoritarian. Look at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She speaks soft; she is not a gifted speaker, but all over the world she is considered to be the leader of Europe. Erdoğan is a tough and loud fighter. His big ego is tiring. Turks obviously like that. Why? Obviously they believe that a leader fixes everything and they do not have faith in their own capacities. But I am not a psychologist to explain that.
Do you think Erdoğan's efforts to destroy the Hizmet movement are aimed at consolidating his own power and regime
Absolutely. Erdoğan wants to wipe out everyone whom he sees as rival. There are not many left to challenge him: The military is gone from the political stage forever, no strong political party challenges him, the Gezi protests did not come close to becoming a critical mass for change. That left the Hizmet movement as a corrective force. The movement is a danger to him: It opposed and opposes Erdogan's trend toward authoritarianism by insisting on an EU path and more reforms, and it does so -- as Erdoğan claims for himself -- by being a movement of pious Muslims. He argues that whoever is not with him is against him and needs to be eliminated -- not physically but politically.
What do you think the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) wants from Erdoğan?
The PKK has disassociated itself from the quest for an independent state. The PKK has learned from the history of blood; today it is content with autonomy for the Kurdish southeast of Turkey. The open question is how much autonomy it wants. We are watching a process of decentralization all over in Europe, but Turkey is still a highly centralized state in need of decentralization. The autonomy could reach the degree the Kurds in Iraq enjoy. Most probably that will not happen in Turkey, because Iraq is a country under enormous stress and maybe even falling apart; therefore, for the survival of the Kurds, this autonomy might be justified. Turkey, however, has a functioning state despite all its shortcomings.
Do you think Erdoğan would give the Kurds what they want?
Erdoğan wants to be in the history books as the Turkish politician who made peace with the Kurds and who solved the Kurdish question. This is a credit to him. On the other hand, he wants to give them in the bargaining process as little as possible. I think he is sincere in working for a solution. On the other hand, he is making a political calculation and he wants to maximize votes in elections. Therefore, he has to calculate whether the peace process creates more Kurdish votes for him than he will lose votes from the Turkish nationalist reservoir.
Do you think an independent Kurdish state is likely in the near future?
No, I do not think so. ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or Daesh] has turned the political landscape upside down. As long as ISIL exists, there will be no initiative for a Kurdish state. If there were one, it would be in the context of a far-reaching process of creating new statehoods all over the Middle East; that certainly will happen after the present process of state failure and state decay comes to an end. In addition to that, there are two conflicting visions among the Kurds: The PKK emphasizes autonomy to be launched in states with inclusive governments; the Iraqi Kurds, however, would like to have a Kurdish state as soon as the circumstances are conducive for that. Presently, I do not see such circumstances.
PROFILE: Dr. Rainer Hermann was born in 1956. He has studied economics and Middle Eastern Studies in Freiburg, Germany; Rennes, France; Basel, Switzerland; and Damascus, Syria. He has an M.A. in economics and a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies. Starting his journalism career in 1989, he has been working for the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" since 1996. After having spent more than 20 years as correspondent abroad -- mostly in İstanbul and Abu Dhabi -- He has been the editor at the daily's headquarters in Frankfurt since 2012. He is the author of five books on Turkey and on the Arab world. In March his book on ISIL will be published.
Published on Today's Zaman, 24 January 2015, Saturday