‘Erdoğan’s strength is Turkey’s weakness’

‘Erdoğan’s strength is Turkey’s weakness’

Rainer Hermann

April 06, 2014, Sunday/ 00:00:00/ TUĞBA KAPLAN / İstanbul

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has a majoritarian understanding of democracy and his strength is rooted in the popular vote, which in turn cripples the establishment of strong institutions for a democratic process, journalist rainer hermann, a long-term follow of Turkish politics and an expert on the Middle East, has said.

Hermann, who responded to Sunday’s Zaman questions on Turkey’s political situation, shared his opinion that a new wave of democratization in Turkey is unlikely following Erdoğan’s election victory, which he says did not surprise him. “After having been in Turkey in February, I was not surprised by the Justice and Development Party’s [AK Party] victory. I had expected, however, that only 40 to 42 percent of the vote would go to the AK Party. Obviously, the Turks feel the country is in the best hands with Erdoğan. All political rivals seem dwarves compared to him, and the opposition parties are no match to Erdoğan and his party,” he said.

Rainer Hermann is a journalist reporting for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He speaks Arabic, Turkish and Farsi. Hermann also has a Ph.D. in economics and wrote his thesis on modern Syrian social history. He has been reporting from the Middle East for over 22 years and is a dedicated follower of Turkish politics.

According to Hermann, Turkey has always been at a crossroads. It has come and gone between democracy and a more authoritarian system in the past decade. He notes that Erdoğan has shown a variety of “different faces.” Initially, Erdoğan appeared as a reformer who democratized Turkey to a point which could not have been expected at the end of the 1990s, but later he turned into an authoritarian prime minister who treats his electoral success as a carte blanche to do anything he wishes. In this respect, the Turkish failure to draft and adopt a new and more democratic constitution has been “tragic,” according to the veteran journalist.

The experienced journalist also shared his opinions on why President Abdullah Gül, who was initially perceived as a pro-democracy figure in Turkish politics, has increasingly been less vocal in his criticism, if he has any, of the government. Hermann believes this might be so because Gül might have other plans to stay in politics even after the presidency.

In an interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Hermann shared his opinions on a number of issues from the recent elections and the AK Party’s foreign policy to what awaits Turkey in the future.

You have reported on Turkey for years. You obviously have a significant level of experience observing Turkish politics, economy and also know the culture. Looking at the country today, where would you say Turkey is headed?

Turkey has always been at a crossroads. In the past decade it has chosen to go some miles for democracy, now its leadership has chosen to go some miles for a more authoritarian system. Vladimir Putin’s Eurasia seems closer than Europe’s EU. Still, this is not the end of the road. There are always surprises in Turkey, and I would not be surprised if the lesson of these rather dark experiences is that Turkey will eventually strengthen its weak institutions and develop a strong separation of powers, that civil liberties will be taken for granted and that the changes in the society will be reflected in politics finally.

How do you evaluate Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s so-called “master period,” which he uses to refer to his party’s third term in government?

Prime Minister Erdoğan has shown different faces. “Erdoğan I” had been the reformer who democratized Turkey to a point which could not have been expected at the end of the 1990s. He broadened political rights, he made possible the rise of Turkey to become a middle income country, and with his foreign policy he made Turkey a soft power in the region. That changed radically in 2011, when “Erdoğan II” started, and for two reasons. On the one hand, Erdoğan misunderstood his triumphant success in the election of 2011 as a blank check to fulfill his grand plans irrespective the public sentiment; on the other hand, he did not read the events of the Arab rebellions right; he put all the eggs in one basket — that of the Muslim Brotherhood — and he lost. That was not bad luck, but bad politics.

The AK Party had promised a new and more democratic constitution, but could not deliver. How does this affect Turkey?

It is one of the tragic events in Turkey that the constitution drafted in 2007 by Professor Ergun Özbudun was never debated in public and never passed. The constitution would have been a major step making Turkey more democratic and more liberal. However, the circumstances of 2007 had not been conducive: Another escalation in the Kurdish crisis and the e-memorandum of the army made a consensus on a new constitution impossible. Had the draft become a constitutional text, Turkey since 2011 would not have gone down the authoritarian road.

Why do you think the AK Party government is unwilling to address the Kurdish issue and the problem of Turkey’s Alevi citizens?

The government did take some steps to end the Kurdish crisis, and it is not fair to blame it for the wrong and unsuccessful approach of earlier governments. First it continued, indeed, the old approach to deal with the Kurds in a purely military way, until it discovered that this approach does not lead anywhere, and it is very, very costly. In the second phase it tried to deal with the question on the basis of religion, seeing in the Kurds Muslim brethren and sisters. That, too, did not work, probably because on the Kurdish side there is less enthusiasm for Islamic brotherhood than on the side of the government. Fortunately, however, the government sometimes deals with difficult issues on the basis of realpolitik. This is the third phase, the political approach. It came late, but it is never too late. As for the Alevis: There is a very deep mistrust between the Sunni-Islamist wing (let’s say the Nakşibendi wing) within the AK Party and the Alevis, which dates back to Sultan Selim in the 16th century. If I were an Alevi, I would have been upset, too, by naming the third Bosporus bridge the “Sultan Selim Bridge.” Turkey is not the Ottoman Empire and should show more respect for the sensitivities of its people.

What is your take on the Gezi Park protests of last year?

As seen from outside, it is the result of several factors. First, the political leadership is unaware of the changes in Turkish society; today you simply cannot interfere anymore in the lives of the people; they are fed up with being told by the prime minister what to do and what not to do. Second, this is the first generation in Turkey that has grown up without coups d’état, without economic crises, but with smart phones and social media. This generation is the most affluent in Turkish history, and it demands to have its place in the modern world. Third, this generation rebels against the “culture of shopping malls”; they are looking for a new set of values which the AK Party cannot give them, because it has become a party measuring progress by cubic meters of concrete.

What do you think about the silence of President Abdullah Gül in the face of some of the more authoritarian policies pursued by the AK Party?

Obviously, President Gül shies away from a fight with Prime Minister Erdoğan. It seems that Erdoğan wants to get a fourth mandate to be prime minister, since he could get the Constitution being changed into a system with a strong president. What would be then the place Gül could get after leaving Çankaya? Will he return to daily politics? Will he become again minister of foreign affairs under Prime Minister Erdoğan?

On Dec. 17, 2013, corruption and graft charges were brought against the sons of three government ministers, prominent businessmen, particularly Iranian national Reza Zarrab, and the general director of Halkbank. But Prime Minister Erdoğan has accused the Hizmet movement of being behind the allegations and of having formed a “parallel state.” Consequently, many police officers and prosecutors have been dismissed from office. Why do you think the prime minister accuses the Hizmet movement of being a parallel state?

The AK Party and the Gülen movement complemented each other nicely for some years. There had been a breaking apart for a few years, going unnoticed by most of us abroad. Obviously the AK Party started two, three years ago to dismiss followers of Fethullah Gülen from ministries and the judiciary. Then the AK Party government also favored in big tenders its own businessmen at the expense of those from the Gülen movement. Politics also might have played a role, since, for Gülen, democracy is not just a train to get somewhere. I am convinced that globalization has made the movement, which is active on all continents, more liberal and open-minded over the years.

How do democratic nations tackle corruption and graft scandals?

First, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Second, in democratic countries the judiciary is independent. After so many judges investigating the corruption and graft cases have been relocated hastily, there is reason to believe that the judiciary in Turkey is not as independent as it is independent in modern democracies. Third, any healthy society needs free media to uncover misbehavior, and I doubt whether Turkey’s media enjoy that freedom. Finally, politicians who are under strong suspicion of being involved in corruption usually resign.

In mid-March, dozens of suspects in the historic Ergenekon trial were released from prison under a recently passed law which abolished specially authorized courts and reduced the maximum period of prison time before a final verdict can be reached to five years. Can you comment on that?

I was puzzled when all those individuals in the Ergenekon trials were convicted. How was it possible that this was a secret conspiracy and so many people know about it? To be sure, I am convinced there were plans to overthrow the government. But there is suspicion that some people took the opportunity of these trials to get rid of highly unwelcome people.

Some journalists and writers were recently fired from their jobs in the media. Turkey clearly has problems in the areas of free speech and freedom of the press. Why is this so?

Turkey has always had a problem with the media, since the media were always seen as a tool of powerful people, especially businessmen, who want to own the media in order to shape public debate. However, the media should not be a tool to appease the government in order to get a good share in profitable public tenders. To be a critical journalist is a dangerous job in Turkey because you can easily lose your job.

What is your evaluation of the results of the March 30 local elections?

After having been in Turkey in February, I was not surprised by the AK Party’s victory. I had expected, however, that only 40 to 42 percent of the vote would go to the AK Party. Obviously, the Turks feel the country is in the best hands with Erdoğan. All political rivals seem dwarves compared to him, and the opposition parties are no match for Erdoğan and his party. A system of checks and balances is lacking. It tells a lot about Turkey’s political system that no party benefitted from Erdoğan’s scandals and his authoritarian style. What counts for most Turks is that the country is run efficiently by the AK Party and that they have a better [standard of] living than 10 years ago. The AK Party government might be corrupt, but it is efficient, and people who have experienced the destruction of wealth under the AK Party’s predecessors might not want them back in power. I was somehow terrified hearing Erdoğan’s [post-election speech]. Indeed, he can surprise anyone by unexpected turnarounds, but I do not expect a new wave of democratization, on the contrary. Erdoğan’s understanding of democracy is majoritarian. He gets his strength from the popular vote, and he thinks he can do and behave as he wants. That is not conducive for the establishment of strong independent institutions and for a democratic process. Therefore, you could say Erdoğan’s strength is Turkey’s weakness.

How do you think the corruption and graft allegations, the increasingly repressive political rhetoric and other problems associated with the current administration will shape the future of Turkey?

As I have mentioned before, Turkey is always at the crossroads. If Turkey walks more miles towards authoritarianism, then Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey might become strange friends. I certainly hope that this will not be the case. However, there are unpleasant parallels connecting both. Both show a high degree of assertiveness, [both promise] to restore their country’s historical greatness, and both cause economic damage. The difference is Erdoğan can surprise everyone doing all of a sudden realpolitik, and Turkey is far more European than Russia is.

Turkey has tried to join the EU for years. But Erdoğan has recently been turning towards the Shanghai Five? What do you think about this idea?

Erdoğan can do realpolitik one moment and he is very emotional the next. He feels rejected by the EU, so he runs impulsively to the other end. If he really is serious about that [joining the Shanghai Five], it would be very bad news for Turkey. The chances of becoming more than a middle-income country would be reduced to nil. The previous years have shown that it is easy to catch up from a low level, but to have a breakthrough to the top needs something Turkey still lacks: strong institutions, a functioning separation of powers, civic liberties. Without these, societies are not dynamic.

How do you see Turkey’s Middle East policy? Would you say the country is still an active player in the region?

Turkey missed its chance to be a regional player. Turkey’s influence in the region has gone down rapidly to close to zero. Ankara is still influential in northern Iraq and it has special ties with Qatar. Whatever you think about the developments in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whether you like them or not, you have to admit, that Turkey ceased to be a powerful player there. That also can change. One good thing about Turkey is it can change fast for the better, but also, as the past years have shown, it can change fast for the worse. Hopefully, there will again be better years ahead for Turkey.


Rainer Hermann is a journalist reporting for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He speaks Arabic, Turkish and Farsi. Hermann also has a Ph.D. in economics and wrote his thesis about modern Syrian social history. He has been reporting from the Middle East for over 22 years and is a dedicated follower of Turkish politics.

Tuğba Kaplan

Gazeteci/ Aksiyon Dergisi Politika, Sosyoloji, uluslararası ilişkiler, medya ve kültür dünyasından ünlü isimlerle gündemle ilgili aktüel röportajlar yapmaktadır. Ayrıca gündeme dair konuları farklı yönleriyle ele alan dosyalar hazırlamaktadır.

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