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Easing Alienation in Türkiye
Erdogan's journey from anti-systemic reformer to entrenched defender of a new establishment.
In Orhan Pamuk’s deeply melancholic memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature recounts his privileged childhood in an upper class Istanbul family. His grandfather was a successful factory owner who, “left a fortune so large that my father and my uncle never managed to find their way to the end of it, in spite of a long succession of failed business ventures.”
Pamuk illustrates with child-like innocence and honesty the great chasm between Western-aspiring rich secular families like his and the poverty-ridden Turkish masses, who cling stubbornly to their religious beliefs. While wealthy families had no need for God, young Pamuk understood the poor did:
God was there for those in pain, to offer comfort to those who were so poor they could not educate their children, to care for the beggars in the street <…> This is why, if my mother <…> would say, “May God help them!” It seemed not so much a petition as an expression of the fleeting guilt that well-to-do people like us felt at such times; it helped us get over the emptiness of knowing we were doing nothing about the situation.
In secular Türkiye, God was relegated to providing the noblesse oblige that the Turkish ruling classes were unable or unwilling to muster:
Except for those moments when we were made to remember [God’s] mysterious bond with the poor, God did not trouble us unduly. You could almost say it was a relief to know they depended on someone else to save them, that there was another power that could help bear their burdens. But the comfort of this thought was sometimes dissolved by the fear that one day the poor might use their special relationship with God against us.
The idea of a dangerous underclass seething with resentment led the secular elite to crack down on religious expression. Arabic calls to prayer were forbidden and women’s headscarves were banned in workplaces and strongly discouraged elsewhere. But these policies only increased the alienation between the secular elite and the religious poor.
I felt as uneasy as anyone else in the family about the devotion of deeply religious people. My fear, which I shared with everyone in the Turkish secular bourgeoisie, was not of God but of the fury of those who believed in [God] too much.
As westernized, positivist property owners, we had the right to govern over these semi-literates, and we had an interest in preventing their getting too attached to their superstitions—not just because it suited us privately but because our country’s future depended on it
But as time went on, these deplorably religious people from the hinterlands began gaining—and flouting—wealth and power.
The staunch disciples of Atatürk who dominated the press, their caricatures of black-scarved women and bearded reactionaries fingering prayer beads, the school ceremonies in honor of the Martyrs of the Republican Revolution—all reminded me that the nation-state belonged more to us than to the religious poor, whose devotion was dragging the rest of us down with them. But feeling at one with the mathematics and engineering fanatics in our own household, I would tell myself that our mastery did not depend on our wealth but on our modern western outlook. And so I looked down on families that were as rich as we were but not as western. Such distinctions became less tenable later on, when Turkey’s democracy had matured somewhat and rich provincials began flocking to Istanbul to present themselves to “society”; by then my father’s and my uncle’s business failures had taken their toll, subjecting us to the indignity of being outclassed by people who had no taste for secularism and no understanding of western culture. If enlightenment entitled us to riches and privilege, how were we to explain these pious parvenus?
There are two ways to resolve the social dissonance so honestly described by Pamuk: change the masses or change the elite. After winning the Turkish War of Independence in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the center-left nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), which ruled Türkiye as a one-party state until 1950. They relentlessly sought to convert their society from a backwards and failed Islamic empire into a sleek and modern secular state. Wealthy elites of Türkiye bought into this program but the great masses of Turkish poor did not.
And so the second way to resolve the social dissonance, to end the alienation of the masses, is through anti-systemic political forces which seek to change the elite. Recep Tayyip Erdogan did just that.
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Erdogan’s poor provincial family moved to Istanbul when he was 13. As a teenager he worked as a street vendor selling lemonade and street food in rough areas to earn pocket money. He joined an Islamic-oriented party which was the only political vehicle in Türkiye to express anti-systemic values.
Erdogan was elected mayor of mostly cosmopolitan and secular Istanbul in 1994. As the BBC reported in 2004:
Even his critics admit that he did a good job, making Istanbul cleaner and greener - although a decision to ban alcohol in city cafes did not please secularists.
He also won admiration from the many who felt he was not corrupt - unlike many other Turkish politicians.
His background and commitment to Islamic values also appeal to most of the devout Muslim Turks who have been alienated by the state.
He was later arrested, jailed and banned from politics for reciting a poem deemed dangerous and subversive by the secular elite. After eventually being released from jail, a newly moderate Erdogan was on his best behaviour as he struggled to get his lifetime ban on political activities overturned:
Turkey's secular constituency and, of course, the generals, look at Mr Erdogan's new-found moderation with suspicion.
Mr Erdogan is said to speak no foreign languages and to know little about the outside world. Many feared ahead of the election that he might change his views again if his party came to power.
"If Erdogan were to become prime minister, I think the military would take an attitude of 'wait and see'," one diplomat said.
"Erdogan knows what will happen if he oversteps a line."
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power democratically in 2002. Center-right and economically liberal it tacked as close to Islam as possible within a technically secular political sphere. It presented an anti-systemic challenge to the strongly pro-Western and anti-religious Kemalist elite.
Erdogan’s first decade in power was a rousing success, in particular because he followed expert advice. The AKP reformed the economy, in particular raising productivity levels, and Turkish prosperity flourished. He was anti-war and promoted a peaceful “zero problems with neighbours” policy and attempted to create a belt of peace around Türkiye’s borders. Erdogan also initiated a reconciliation process with the separatist Kurdish minority, who long served as the despised “other” in Turkish society. Kurds occupy a similar place in Türkiye as Catholic nationalist did in Northern Ireland.
As so often happens, Erdogan was such a successful anti-systemic politician that he himself and his party soon became the new system. The pivot point was the 2010 constitutional referendum where he won with a 58% majority. Hubris grew as Erdogan rid himself of competent advisors and grabbed tighter control over the judiciary. The Gezi Park Protests in 2013 triggered his paranoia. Erdogan saw this protest, in light of the recent Arab Spring movement, as an attempt by the former bourgeois and secular elite to regain power undemocratically. He ruthlessly crushed the protests.
At this point Erdogan’s reforming policies were replaced by moves to reinforce and protect his new establishment. Defending Erdogan’s system often meant policies that hurt the general population. Erdogan jacked up military spending, embraced a sort of neo-Ottoman imperialism, and started intervening in neighbouring nations. The economy turned south, inflation skyrocketed and the Turkish Lira tumbled against the dollar. In the meantime Erdogan grabbed monopoly control over the Turkish mainstream media, encouraging favoured construction companies to buy media outlets. Dangerous opposition candidates were jailed and journalists who dared question the new establishment were imprisoned or exiled.
The tragedy of Türkiye is that its oppressive system acts as a social Darwinian filter. Anti-systemic forces can only survive by skilfully employing ruthlessly Machiavellian politics. Since turning to multiparty rule after WW2, Türkiye has experienced four successful military coups and one recent failed attempt:
The founder of the Turkish Republic, Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, took off his military uniform and wore his civilian attire when the War of Independence started. This is because Atatürk believed that real and powerful democracy could only be achieved by civilian governments. However, the military juntas argued that the soldiers were permanent guards of the Republic and had the right to protect the integrity and interests of the country under all circumstances. These are the May 27, 1960 military coup, March 12, 1971 military memorandum, September 12, 1980 military coup, February 28, 1997 Post-Modern coup and the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. All military coups inevitably destroyed the Turkish democracy. In fact, in every military coup, traces of foreign powers, the US being in the first place, can be seen.
The pre-Erdogan Turkish ruling class tendency to idealize Europe and the US was not reciprocated by Western elites, who saw Turkish leaders as little more than barbarians and hustlers who needed the whip of a military junta to not stray towards first the Soviet, and later the Islamic camps.
Like the overuse of antibiotics, Türkiye’s history of coup d’etats, and in particular the failed attempt in 2016 has created the political version of a “superbug” or drug-resistant bacteria in the political personae of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the wake of the failed coup, Erdogan purged political enemies from the military and elite institutions, moving closer to establishing absolute power.
Türkiye as a Geopolitical Keystone
Türkiye’s geopolitical value has never been higher. As the globe bifurcates into a US-led Rules Based Order and the Chinese and Russian-led BRICS+ multipolar order, the position of Türkiye is crucial. This importance is amplified by the Ukrainian War, the goal of which from the Western point of view is to limit Russia’s access to the Black Sea.
In The World Island: Euraisan Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, the late strategist Alexandros Petersen advised the West against getting involved in Ukraine and to instead achieve the same goal of stifling Russia’s great power ambitions through a partnership with Türkiye:
In a strategy that “bypasses” Ukraine, Turkey’s role becomes crucial as a bridge to the Caucasus and Central Asia but also as an independent, powerful actor in the Black Sea-Caspian region. The West should not attempt to stifle Turkey’s independence but rather work with Ankara to better integrate Turkey into the West, in achieving which there are three main components. The first is to intensify energy and transport integration, using the vehicles of the Energy Community, the Nabucco pipeline, and the Marmara Tunnel. The second is EU membership for Turkey. France, Germany, and Austria are the main opponents of this process, but Europe-wide there needs to be greater recognition of the reality that Europe is at grave geopolitical risk should Turkey become a Middle Eastern- or Russia-Iran-orientated power. Europeans must do their part in keeping Turkey as part of the West. The third is an agreement from Turkey to open the Turkish Straits to NATO, EU, and U.S. warships. That means reforming the Montreux Convention as discussed above. This is the only way to counter Russian dominance of the Black Sea after the recent extension of the fleet’s lease at Crimea. A welcome concomitant of this is that Ukraine becomes less necessary geopolitically, as the Black Sea itself can become a corridor for Western influence, and the possibility of Russia “closing off” the Black Sea, as Mackinder warned about, ceases to be a danger. (p. 132)
With the trendlines of the Ukrainian conflict not going the West’s way, despite a massive information campaign to convince their populations otherwise, control over Türkiye becomes even more crucial if the West is still bent on preventing secure Russian access to the Black Sea.
One fundamental difference between Erdogan and his opposition in the Turkish election is the political models they pursue. Erdogan sees the Ottoman Empire held together by the ideological glue of Islam as the path to take into the future. The Kemalist elites trying to crawl back into power have always seen Europe and the West as the modernization model Türkiye should follow. The current slow-motion cultural collapse of the West only further weaponizes Erdogan’s anti-Western arguments. As Stanford University’s Hoover Institute reports:
A poll conducted in December 2022 by the Turkish company Gezici found that 72.8% of Turkish citizens polled were in favor of good relations with Russia. By comparison, nearly 90% perceive the United States as a hostile country. It also revealed that 24.2% of citizens believe that Russia is hostile, while 62.6% believe that Russia is a friendly country. Similarly, more than 60% of respondents said that Russia contributes positively to the Turkish economy.
2023 Election in Türkiye
In the first round of the Turkish Presidential elections on May 14th 2023, sitting President Erdogan surprised many by gaining more than 49.4% of the vote, just shy of the 50% majority required to avoid a runoff.
The opposition to Erdogan is a six-party coalition headed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who projects a mild, bureaucratic air, and has lost several times to Erdogan in the past. Kilicdaroglu, as the leader of the Republican People’s Party, at least symbolically, represents the secular elite that Erdogan replaced.
Kilicdaroglu has emphasized nationalism in response to Erdogan’s imperialist policies, which have brought around 3 million Syrian refugees into Türkiye. Kilicdaroglu is strongly supported by the US, and he often amplifies the narratives of the US Democratic Party. But in a wild Trumpian flourish he promised to deport 10 million refugees and warned that if Erdogan was re-elected that 30 million refugees would overrun Türkiye:
Kılıçdaroğlu once again vowed to deport refugees to their homeland should he assume power. “Erdoğan, you did not protect the borders and honor of the country. You have deliberately brought more than 10 million refugees into this country. You sold the citizenship of the Republic of Turkey to obtain imported votes. As soon as I come to power, I will send all refugees home. Are you aware that if (Erdoğan) remains, more than 10 million refugees will come to Turkey.
Erdogan has welcomed millions of conservative Muslims into Türkiye and has granted many citizenship. This matches efforts by the Democratic Party in the US who are often accused of trying to import a new electorate through immigration. These attempts recall Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “The Solution”, where following an East German popular uprising in 1953, instead of the people dissolving the government and electing new leaders, the roles are reversed as a frustrated ruling-class lashes out at their disobedient people:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Which stated that the people
Had squandered the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By redoubled work. Would it not in that case
Be simpler for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Erdogan’s Coalition of Creditors
As the election approached, Erdogan’s greatest challenge was stabilizing Türkiye’s plummeting currency. Erdogan has long been loath to raise interest rates, a policy that has been widely criticised in international economic circles:
Erdogan’s ultra-loose monetary policy, which has caused the lira to fall more than 40% versus the dollar this year. Propping up the currency might slow Turkey’s descent into hyperinflation, but the country’s pot of dollars risks running out. The bank sold some $128 billion to steady the lira in 2019-2020 and still had to hike rates. When net reserves were at $28 billion in August 2020, it took just five months to run them down to $11 billion – the lowest since at least 2003. The lower reserves fall, the more likely another depreciation becomes. Erdonomics is a pricey endeavour.
Erdogan was running out of foreign reserves and sought loans from his neighbours, in particular those close to the BRICS+ multipolar order. The response was overwhelming. Russia loaned Türkiye $9.1 billion to build a nuclear power plant and deferred payment on a $600 million natural gas bill to 2024. Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion into Türkiye’s central bank and Qatar provided $10 billion in loans. In addition, the United Arab Emirates contributed nearly $5 billion in currency swaps.
These loans come with a price. On the geopolitical front, during the election campaign, Erdogan promised to continue respecting the Montreux Convention, which blocks NATO ships from the Black Sea. Erdogan also refuses to impose sanctions on Russia. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu promised to change these policies but has remained ambiguous as to what exactly he will do:
His top foreign policy adviser recently said that the CHP leader would still be open to facilitating talks between Moscow and Kyiv, but he would “also remind Russia that Turkey is a member of NATO.”
What exactly that means remains unclear. “The opposition keeps saying that they will pursue a balanced Russia policy, which suggests that there’s not going to be a dramatic change,” Tol argued.
Late in the campaign, Kilicdaroglu took the risky step of directly accusing Russian President Putin of election interference over an allegedly fake video tape. This video actually helped Kilicdaroglu by knocking out an independent candidate who had refused to join the opposition:
Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the top contender facing incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Russia on Thursday of fabricating deepfake videos with merely three days to go until the country’s critical elections this Sunday.
In separate tweets posted in Turkish and Russian, Kilicdaroglu pointed fingers at Russia for meddling in the race by orchestrating deepfake content targeting former presidential candidate Muharrem Ince, who ended his campaign on Thursday.
“Dear Russian friends, you are behind the fabrications, conspiracies, deepfake content and tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday. If you want the continuation of our friendship after May 15, take your hands off the Turkish state. We are still in favor of cooperation and friendship,” Kilicdaroglu wrote.
Given the high levels of both anti-Americanism in Türkiye and the high esteem Russia is held, this was a dangerous geopolitical gambit for Kilicdaroglu to attempt.
Endgame for Erdogan
As Türkiye’s economy crumbled over the past years, in words that recall Orhan Pamuk’s memoires about God saving the poor, Erdogan would reassure his followers that, “If they have their dollar, <…> we have our Allah.” Following the series of earthquakes that struck Türkiye in early February, the new ruling class’ late response implies the were relying on God to act as the first responder. Erdogan has connected with the masses on an emotional and cultural level, overcoming the alienation the masses felt from the former, secular ruling class. Religion is now celebrated, not despised. But alienation on a material level subsists. At some point Türkiye’s masses will demand more than just cultural soothing.
If Erdogan wins the second round on May 28th, he will be ineligible to run in the 2028 elections according to the new constitution. The Erdogan endgame will begin. With the military neutered after their failed coup attempt, and with Erdogan’s paranoia at peak levels, who besides God can step in to assure Erdogan steers Türkiye in an economically sound direction? The only earthbound handlers possible are his foreign creditors and the larger BRICS+ multipolar order.
Erdogan’s imperial ambitions will be checked by the new peace-loving sheriff of the Middle East—China. Already Russia is placing intense pressure on Erdogan to make peace with Bashir Assad and Syria. As Russia and China invest into Turkiye’s infrastructure, they will need assurances of political stability. The Arab powers will add another lever of control, thanks to their loans.
Erdogan’s economic misadventures have resulted in the loss of effective sovereignty. Given the fact that Erdogan has been veering off the rails in a wild defence of his new establishment, an outside coalition of creditors clipping his wings can only benefit Türkiye. But a return to the Western-oriented past is no longer an option if Erdogan wins the second round. As US and EU global power crumbles, and in the midst of the cultural degeneration of the West, why should Türkiye turn towards yesterday’s men? Economic necessity will sail the Turkish ship further eastward, despite the best efforts of urban elites who still fetishize the West. The future will be multipolar and Türkiye will play a strong role in the transition.
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