January 5, 2015

Erdoğan fatigue in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

Turkey's combative president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has miscalculated in believing that the fatigue factor will set in on the opposition with his strategy of buying off and intimidating the critical and independent media, narrowing political space for dissent, partisan interference into the judiciary and working through informal political networks and a patronage system to keep his support base from erosion.

In fact, the much-anticipated fatigue factor seems to have turned against Erdoğan when he found himself battling on multiple fronts ranging from the press, business groups, higher judiciary, top military brass, civil society, political opposition, Kurds and Alevis. What is more, he is increasingly embattled and isolated in international politics now that he has spent much of his hard-earned political capital among world leaders by exploiting Turkey's foreign relations for domestic euphoria to boost his standing.

As Erdoğan pushes harder and harder to stifle dissent and thwart growing opposition, he feels a stronger pushback, which indicates that there is no fatigue factor in the anti-Erdoğan camp. The two-election victory of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last year under Erdoğan's stewardship has not been able to ease the concerns of the governing party's leadership. Erdoğan and his allies in the government are not even sure the AKP will be effectively governing the country even if it secures another victory in the parliamentary elections six months from now. Political Islamist zealots failed the nation when they tried to rule exclusive of major stakeholders in the society, rather than reaching out and embracing all the various groups in the country.

That is the main reason why the AKP leadership is quick to portray any negative development as coups against the government whether it originated out of environmental concerns as was the case in the Gezi Park events in the summer of 2013 or judicial investigation into massive corruption allegations in the late fall of 2013 or the botched investigation into the transportation of arms to Syria in early 2014. Kurds' protests over events in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, Alevis' demonstrations over their mistreatment by the government, critical headlines from the independent media and well-deserved criticism from the US and EU were all deemed as coup attempts against the AKP government.

It was certainly encouraging to see that Erdoğan's efforts to concentrate and consolidate so much power into his hands have not been met with acceptance in Turkish society, but rather sparked more outrage and stronger resistance. In general, Turks are not known for acquiescing to authoritarian leadership, but are rather blessed with a tradition of rebellious culture against oppression. As Erdoğan tries to radicalize Turkey with political Islamist ideology, his leadership appeal has also diminished significantly. Moreover, it is expected that the worrying signs of troubles ahead for the national economy will chip away more support from the popularity of Erdoğan's leadership.

The opposition's response to Erdoğan's efforts to undermine the democratic system is certainly not muted. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has started to become more vocal against the government, even though the intra-party squabble has limited their efforts to counter government moves. The effectiveness of the political opposition in Turkey notwithstanding, the uproar against the Erdoğan regime is growing with the failure of a once-progressive AKP to deliver results on the expectations of the Turkish public.

Turkey, a middle-income country that is dependent on foreign exports for revenue and employment, started to feel the pinch from the adverse economic effects of the AKP's authoritarian leadership in driving out foreign and even national investors. This has helped change the minds of those people who used to advocate that they would lose gains made in the last decade if the AKP fails. Erdoğan supporters began to understand that social and economic rights are also at risk even if they care less about civil rights, freedoms and liberties.

Erdoğan's not-so-carefully calibrated efforts to crack down on freedoms and rights as well as lingering allegations about his corruption also solved the political opposition's chronic problem of the need to articulate an attractive and democratic alternative. The campaign against an authoritative leader who is bent on curbing freedoms and indulging in graft, nepotism and favoritism is a strong political message that echoes across the nation.

The main apolitical opposition against Erdoğan comes from the Fethullah Gülen-inspired Hizmet movement, with millions of followers in Turkey, that is able to organize effectively and maintains a strong nationwide presence at a grassroots level. Erdoğan has tried to make an example out of Gülen by vilifying him regularly and orchestrating political, economic and legal pressure on Gülen-affiliated institutions to no avail. Gülen did not blink in the face of this relentless intimidation campaign and has actually become more vocal against government repression, corruption and the exploitation of Islam for political goals and personal ambitions.

Should Gülen cave in under pressure, there would be practically no other civil force left standing in Erdoğan's way and capable of challenging his rule. The chilling effect Erdoğan has tried to create has in fact turned into a courage factor for Gülen, who vowed to stand firm against curbing fundamental rights, pervasive corruption in the government and the political abuse of Islam.

The leading Islamic scholar has encouraged Turks not to yield to despair but strive harder to ensure that Turkey becomes a democratic nation with the rule of law respected and the rights of vulnerable groups insured. Gülen made clear that he is ready to pay the price for advocating a vision of Turkey with all its colors represented in governance and the full potential of individuals unleashed.

The increase in the frequency of protest rallies and demonstrations against the government is also more evidence of the ineffectiveness of the fatigue factor among opposition groups. That is why the government is pushing a purportedly security bill in Parliament to limit the right to freedom of assembly and the right to protest freely. The bill empowers the government to declare emergency rule whenever and wherever it wishes and gives the police sweeping powers that are deemed to be against articles of the Constitution as well as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to which Turkey is a party.

The fact that the head of the wealthiest business club, the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSİAD), came out very critically of the government means that hope for change is as strong as ever. The influential business group declined to accommodate Erdoğan's authoritarian rule, while not shying away from taking political risks.

The Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), the largest business advocacy group in Turkey, also criticized the government interference in the liberal economy, freedoms and the rule of law. With the exception of few pro-government business groups who are benefiting immensely from the patronage system through which lucrative government contracts and tenders were awarded, the business community in Turkey is not getting along with Erdoğan's political choices.

Erdoğan does not have a full monopoly over the Turkish media, although he is able to control a sizable print and broadcast media through businesses the government subsidizes. His ideological campaign is being countered by the critical and independent media that is still powerful in Turkey. In fact, as Erdoğan exerts more pressure on independent media, their popularity increases further.

When police detained the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Ekrem Dumanlı, and the top manager of the Samanyolu TV network, Hidayet Karaca, in a government-orchestrated campaign, Zaman picked up 50,000 new readers in four days, exceeding a million mark in its circulation in a week, while Samanyolu broke new rating records in its news-cycle programming.

As a result, the opposition to the Erdoğan regime is not showing any signs of fatigue. Perhaps it is just warming up and will be further emboldened as the government finds itself in an increasingly precarious position to get a handle on political, economic and social challenges in Turkey. It is becoming more difficult for Erdoğan to govern Turkey in the 13th year of his rule, and he is certainly suffering from fatigue in long years in government.

Those who truly believe in Turkish democracy are determined to hold their ground and fight for what they believe in, rather than acquiescing, taking a low-key role or emigrating from Turkey. They are working for positive change within Turkey rather than taking the fight abroad with an antagonistic diaspora approach. As they move forward in bringing about change in this country, Erdoğan will continue to face a more forceful opposition ahead.

Having cozied up to extremist groups to promote an obscure Islamist ideology and been involved in a massive corruption scandal, Erdoğan has undoubtedly lost his bearing as a pro-business, middle-class friendly politician. He has disrupted law and order to hush up legal troubles that continue to haunt him and his family members. Turks are now increasingly suffering from "Erdoğan fatigue" and hoping to see the replacement of his authoritarian regime with a truly democratic one.

Published on Today's Zaman, 05 January 2015, Monday