It’s become a cliché to call Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the “most powerful” and “most capable” Turkish leader since the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But that is arguably an understatement: Erdoğan maintained for a decade what, for a multiparty democracy, is a truly exceptional level of control over Turkish politics, even though his AK Party never once obtained a majority of the national popular vote in the six elections since his rise to power.
Erdoğan’s achievement is all the more impressive when placed in the context of Turkey’s political history. In 2002, he inherited a state apparatus dedicated to the preservation of the secularist legacy of Kemal Atatürk and the elimination of Islamic-tinged political forces like the one Erdoğan represented. Only five years earlier, a so-called “postmodern coup” by the Kemalist military leadership had brought down the last prime minister to attempt a shift away from secularism.
Even beyond the historical connection to the original state that Atatürk built, this Kemalist elite had another, more recent source of legitimacy, having led the brutal and lengthy counterinsurgency in southeastern Turkey against Kurdish nationalists, especially the militant and (formerly) Marxist organization known as the PKK. This campaign has been so central to modern Turkish political and military culture that after the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan was finally captured by intelligence operatives in Kenya in 1999, he was imprisoned alone on an island in the middle of the Sea of Marmara under a guard of over a thousand Turkish soldiers.
But Erdoğan and the AKP were not alone in their protracted fight against the entrenched political-military establishment: They enlisted the help of a complex nongovernmental movement with a closely allied ideology and a stable of loyal cadres. This so-called Hizmet movement is made up of followers of the charismatic but moderate Sunni Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen and, despite amounting to only two or three percent of the country’s population, controls much of the Turkish media and a massive global network of charter schools.
The idea behind the Erdoğan-Gülen alliance was to replace the old-guard Kemalists who made up most of the career staff of the Turkish police, judiciary and other key bureaucratic organs with trustworthy but not overtly partisan Gülenists; in return the Gülenist media would provide full-throated support for the AK Party. After all, Gülen himself—exiled since 1999 to a private compound in rural Pennsylvania—had no interest in competing politically with Erdoğan or forming a party of his own.
That was the status quo until less than a year ago. But last weekend, when Turkey held municipal elections, the political climate could not have been more different. After a year and a half of hidden tensions, the AKP and Hizmet split publicly in December, with Gülenist prosecutors and media announcing corruption investigations into senior AKP officials and members of Erdoğan’s family. In response, Erdoğan doubled down, eventually announcing that he would seek Hizmet’s “eradication.”
The recent local elections were a referendum on Erdoğan’s rule, and he has taken the AKP’s victory as a signal that his comrades have been acquitted of the Gülenist corruption charges “at the ballot box.” That is less unreasonable than it might sound; Erdoğan’s famously micromanagerial governing style means he can legitimately be held directly responsible for everything from the growth rate of the Turkish economy to the (allegedly politically motivated) shootdown of a Syrian warplane in the week before the elections. And the corruption allegations? It certainly wasn’t Erdoğan who made a jury of the Turkish electorate by leaking wiretap after wiretap; the charges and evidence were debated in public because the Gülenists made them public.
The election results—in particular, the relatively poor performance of the Kemalist opposition—only serve to confirm the new landscape of Turkish political power: a landscape composed of three people and the three organizations they control. The AKP under Erdoğan, the PKK under Öcalan (who influences the movement from prison) and the Hizmet under Gülen all represent well-organized movements with charismatic and forward-thinking leaders and, most importantly, fresh ideologies, each of which in their own way mark a break with the seemingly tired Western political discourse.
But of these three principal power centers in contemporary Turkey, only one seeks, obtains and trumpets electoral legitimacy. Only one has the direct mass engagement that is essential to true republicanism and which Thaksin Shinawatra, leading the most powerful political party in Thailand from Dubai, has proven is possible to obtain even in exile. In short, in the aftermath of the vote, only one faction actually represents a plurality of the Turkish people.
I believe that these elections fairly represent the will of the Turkish people, and that is why I consider the AKP legitimate, unlike the Maduro regime in Venezuela. And so while Öcalan’s deeply articulated libertarian socialism and Gülen’s vision of Muslim-Jewish reconciliation are political ideals I would give anything to see realized, and despite being personally haunted by resemblances between Erdoğan and authoritarian leaders of the past and present, I must still break with the bulk of Western commentators and stand firmly with the AKP.
It is easy to criticize Erdoğan’s paranoid leadership style—his latest move is to assert that Hizmet is controlled by the CIA—and his constant announcement of blanket bans on everything from late-night alcohol sales to Twitter access. But as with the fallen Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, autocratic tendencies, though distasteful, do not necessarily imply autocracy. We can note, for example, that although Öcalan is in prison, he is still permitted to articulate his views. Turkey’s press and social media remain some of the most vibrant and incisive in the world, and I am confident that the day the AKP begins to actively repress their political opposition is the day their empire will begin to crumble.
In Afghanistan, an Erdoğan-like era of strong and independent personal leadership is coming to an end this spring because the country lacks the means to actually pursue this independence in the political, military or economic spheres. The central government in Kabul cannot enforce the centralization it desires. As President Hamid Karzai’s effort to do so anyway has resulted in the country finding itself increasingly alienated from the patrons it depends on to support basic state and military institutions, every single credible presidential candidate in next week’s election is bending over backwards to show that their leadership would be less “unpredictable” and (to put it bluntly) more beholden to foreign powers than Karzai’s.
On the other hand, through its far better economic position, Turkey continues to have the opportunity to pioneer a new democratic politics—a politics characterized by a strong ruling party, a strong and public leader and a strong opposition that can claim the moral high ground when necessary. Last weekend Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the fight of his political life, and the man who was once hailed as the model for a new kind of democracy is back.
Contact James Bradbury at email@example.com.