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Erdoǧan‘s electoral victory and the end of Turkey as a role model

On the strategic rupture with the liberal middle classes

25. April 2014
by Wilhelm Langthaler

With close to 50% of the votes the AKP rightly can claim an impressive electoral success despite the alleged involvement of the prime minister and his entourage in corruption. This is yet another evidence for the deep Anatolian roots the AK party could sink during the last decade thanks also to the social and democratic gains – not to speak about the unbroken power of Sunni identity politics. Nevertheless, behind the increased cultural rigidity and authoritarian tendencies there is hidden a deep loss of hegemony especially among the educated middle classes. Conflicts are bound to exacerbate. Turkey has lost its attraction as a model to be followed.



Black Turkey boldly remains behind Erdoǧan regardless of corruption allegations. The decisive factor for the renewed electoral support is the social and economic ascendancy which also arrived at the Anatolian middle and lower classes – which actually is not a minor occurrence. To acknowledge this it suffices to compare it with the poor performance of all the neighbours. Furthermore there is the historic achievement of peacefully having pushed back the army allowing for a democratic opening which symbolically includes the important right to wear the hijab in public environments.

Corruption, on the other hand, was widespread also before the AKP era. The new rulers just do the same as the old ones – for many even with more legitimacy. Actually, capitalism means systemic enrichment of the elites. Its legal form is secondary. Of political importance though is how much does arrive at the bottom of the social pyramid.

White Turkey, being opposed to the authoritarian turn of the AKP’s prime minister, got limited power in terms of electoral weight. The Islamic clientele on its part does not express any major criticism with Erdoǧan’s leadership as they follow a patriarchal culture – actually similar to the one of the old elites worshipping Atatürk, “father of all Turks”. The accentuated Sunni cultural mobilisations against secularists and Alevis seem even welcome among Erdoǧan’s constituencies.

Break with urban middle classes

White Turkey consisting of large parts of the urban educated middle classes might be a modest minority with regards to electoral influence. Its role in society does, however, by far exceed its demographic weight. The real strength and attraction of AKP-led Turkey was based on the bloc integrating these milieus against the old Kemalist elites especially in the coercive apparatuses. This alliance became possible because Erdoǧan granted cultural autonomy to the westernized urban middle classes. In the cities nobody was forced to wear the hijab or to renounce his beer. Knowing this overwhelming alliance behind Erdoǧan, even including parts of former regime constituencies – which, however, did not automatically mean that they supported the AKP at the ballots – the coup generals did not dare any more to leave their barracks. Eventually the AKP was hunting them down and defeated them before court. At that point Kemalism was virtually moribund.

But these times are gone. The Gezi movement indicated the tectonic socio-political shift, a historic rupture. The urban middle classes are fed up with the increasing authoritarian behaviour and the Sunni identity campaign endangering their very secular identity. All these tendencies have been significantly increased by the AKP’s Syrian campaign. Mainly based on the middle classes the Gezi people have been far from gathering the social bloc strong enough to bring down the AKP as some leftists have hoped for. The contagion with the Kemalist virus excluded the indispensable coalition with the Kurds. But on the other hand the AKP is again reduced to its old Islamic cultural environment though this certainly has increased. The extraordinary strength based on this “supra-confessional”, democratic bloc led by Erdoǧan’s AKP cannot be restored neither by adding armour nor by verbally extinguishing the internal enemy. On the contrary it will further deepen the rift and render it irreconcilable. Heavy clashes and conflicts like in the Arab world can be expected.


One of the catalysts of the current internal crisis in Turkey is the intervention into Syria. At the beginning of the Arab spring the Turkish model has been brightly shining. The domestic line of the democratizing bloc led by Erdoǧan has been reflected in the “no-problem” approach in foreign relations. Rebuffed by the EU, Ankara embarked on building lucrative relations to Russia, Iran, Iraq and especially Asad’s Syria. For the very first time since WWII Turkey has been able to somewhat free itself from American stranglehold and engage in their own foreign policy initiatives. Erdoǧan instantly embraced the Arab spring and hoped to be carried to new heights on the wave of the popular mobilisations. The notion of “Neo-ottomanism” was coined though failing to express what specifically rendered the AKP’s policy successful both domestically as well as externally.

But Syria and Asad’s bloc proofed to be a task too big for Erdoǧan bringing to the fore the inner contradictions and limits of moderate Islamism instead. The AKP had hoped for a swift victory like in Egypt and set their fortunes on one single card – which has failed to deliver. So the employment of military means became necessary which led to the creation of the conditions for the growth of Jihadism transforming the democratic popular movement into a confessional civil war. Without acknowledging it, exactly this very transformation allowed Asad to politically redress his bloc and regain stability after a first moment of tumbling. All of a sudden Turkish intelligence services became a pillar of Nusra & Co. It was no more the democratic mass movement of the Arab spring to build an alliance with. Instead Jihadism became the partner in arms.

The special relations with Iran, Russia and the Arab world went down the drain. Even Saudi Arabia was alienated which feared the Arab spring in the same way like Asad. Riyadh is averse to a version of Political Islam operating with popular masses. Therefore the Sauds orchestrated the return of the old elites on the Nile by means of a coup d’état against the Muslim Brotherhood leaving Ankara yet even more isolated. All of a sudden proud Erdoǧan, aspiring to become the uncontested leader of the Islamic world, standing up to Israel and confronting even the big brother across the Atlantic, has been ending up to beg at the White House for an imperialist military intervention. But Obama remains reluctant as he fears to run into a repetition of the Iraqi and Afghan disaster.

Internal and external politics are intrinsically interwoven. One cannot kiss Jihadism while holding the hand of left liberal urban layers. Supporting the Holy War against Alawites in Syria had sooner or later to prompt the Alevi rebellion in Turkey which sprang up in form of the Gezi protests. (Allthough history of Arab Alawis and Turkish Alevis is different, in today’s identity mobilisation these differences to not count.)

Eventually by trying to impose the Turkish model by force, the Arab model of irreconcilable internal cultural conflict has prevailed, killing the Neo-ottoman dream.

Break with Gülen

The AKP’s ascendency was supported by the Gülen movement. Hailing from a Sufi tradition they became a type of elitist secretive organisation of Turkish capitalism infiltrating the state apparatus. (In a certain sense they can be compared to Opus Dei but different to the latter they are situated more in the middle of the Islamic political spectrum.) In terms of culture they are more liberal than the AKP, more Turkish nationalist and therefore also more anti-Kurdish maintaining friendly relations with the Kemalist apparatus which they penetrated. The link to Washington is close. They for example opposed the support the AKP lent to the Gaza flotilla. For the consolidation of AKP’s rule and as a shield against a military coup the Hikmet movement was as good as gold.

But exactly this putsch against Erdoǧan, Gülen helped to avert, is now being reproached to him by the very same Erdoǧan. The latter keeps talking about a plot with western imperialist involvement against the AKP government. Any criticism or protest, especially the corruption allegations, is being subsumed under conspiracy.

Why this split came about? It seems futile to follow the mutual accusations searching for the trigger. In any case it happened against the backdrop of a significant loss of hegemony by the AKP bloc ventilating fresh air to Kemalism. Erdoǧan’s exclusive claim on power apparently pushed the Gülenists back on the side of their former partners which they had helped to bring down by means of the judiciary (“Ergenekon”). Actually a ruthless power struggle is being waged mutually.

What about Erdoǧan’s campaign accusing the US, the EU, Zionism as well as the interest lobby of plotting against him?

In general Washington did lend support to the AKP government from the very inception. They also had to accept the larger margin of foreign policy. In exchange Erdoǧan assured his NATO partners of his loyalty. Additionally the Islamic government proved to be an outstanding administrator of capitalism, especially benefiting from the Fed’s monetary policy. Without cheap American money supply Turkey could never afford running a current account deficit of nearly 10% of the GDP – one of the highest ratios across the OECD countries. Global capital in search for yield has been flooding Turkish capitalism and thus fuelling growth. (Similar capital import rates broke Southern Europe’s neck after the interest shock of 2008 – something which can also happen to Turkey especially if the US really embarks on tapering as has been announced several times but not done.) So much for the interest lobby’s conspiracy.

Obama chose to indirectly rule the world, and not in form of his predecessor’s American Empire, which included a relaxation of the anti-Islamic campaign. The US reacted to the democratic popular movements by involving the Muslim Brotherhood into their power architecture in order to re-stabilize their worn-out regional order based mainly on secular neo-liberal dictatorships. Therefore they openly displayed their unhappiness with Egypt’s military coup restoring the rule of the old elites and orchestrated by Riyadh, the watchdog of the ancien régime. The Americans are aware that this is doomed to sooner or later founder in chaos and civil war, providing a fertile ground for Jihadism – something the US can only be wary of in a situation of increasing weakness of their world order. (Many conspirationists still follow the Neocon’s concept of “creative chaos”. But this is only useful from a position of omnipotence which was revealed by the Iraqi war to be an untenable hubris.)

So why then Washington should set its fate on the shaky Gülenist-Kemalist alliance, a coup bringing about the danger of long civil war as appears to be the case in the Arab world? Why should they endanger a stable anchor in the instable Islamic world? As a fait accompli they would probably be forced to accept it. But to actively drive it would be definitely against the interests of the dominant Obama group. Without the decided support by the US as in 1980 a coup seems very risky – much more than in Egypt.

Erdoǧan seems to pre-empt the coup generals by wooing them with rehabilitations after having brought them behind bars together with Hikmet police officers and judges.


The PKK-led Kurds are pushed into a role where they could tip the scales – all the more as their control over northern Syria (Rojava) has strengthened them significantly also with Turkey. They are right to believe to have better cards under Erdoǧan in comparison to Gülen or the old Kemalist elites. Erdoǧan holds this card in his hands knowing though that it is associated with considerable political costs. Turkish nationalism got a huge overlap into the Islamic cultural milieu despite the fact that the AKP’s proper tradition is not nationalist. So time seems not to be ripe for a more democratic solution to the Kurdish issue. There is yet another factor stemming from the Syrian involvement. As long as Ankara is going for a military solution they will, whether they want it or not, depend on Jihadism. So a turn on the Kurdish question would at the same time impact on the system of alliances in Syria.

In case Erdoǧan runs into further difficulties he might be forced to precipitate a qualitative step towards the Kurds – at least the PKK has sufficiently signalled their readiness to reciprocate.


As long as the Turkish economic miracle does continue the popular support for the AKP will suffice anyway. But a sudden shock of currency and interest rates similar to Asia around the turn of the millennium (first of all Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand) causing a heavy contraction is possible or even probable depending on US monetary policy. (This is true not only for Turkey, but for a whole range of “emerging markets”. But due to its extraordinary current account deficit Turkey is especially exposed.) In case this scenario becomes reality the political situation will be turned upside down.

Third force?

By means of the bloody coup of 1980 the social revolutionary movement was crushed. Some tried to continue the struggle by armed means but were marginalised by the vortex of the 1989/91 epochal changes. The gradual relaxation of the regime especially under the AKP combined with the economic miracle (both successes booked by Political Islam) further deprived them of their social base amplified by their incapacity to politically grasp these socio-political changes. The radical left continue to speak of a fascist regime – an assumption becoming farer and farer removed from reality. The space left by the defunct left was somewhat filled by the Kurdish movement.

So does the culturalist turn of the AKP liberate a political space for a third, social revolutionary camp? Only few voices in Turkish society outside the frozen orthodox left would agree to that. While the Kurdish national movement cannot play this role as they are organically on the periphery of Turkish society they, however, would be a decisive ally. The hope for new breathing space for a democratic social-revolutionary anti-imperialist bloc is there.