Erdogan and Turkey’s deep state

Today, Erdogan and his men have filled the political apparatus, forming the authoritarian-Islamist core of the new regime.

PERFORMERS IN a band dressed in Ottoman-era costumes are seen in Istanbul (photo credit: REUTERS)
PERFORMERS IN a band dressed in Ottoman-era costumes are seen in Istanbul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has ruled Turkey for 15 years. What is the secret of his political longevity? How could a supporter of political Sunni Islam hold power for so long in a country where the army is known for coups and irreconcilable with Islamists?
Having come to power, Erdogan’s party (Justice and Development Party or AKP – supporters of political Islam and Turkish nationalism) found its ability to rule the country seriously limited. In Turkey, as in Egypt, there was a “deep state,” represented by the army, officials, judges and media elite. The supporters of a secular Turkey (Kemalists and secular liberals) were a potent force. The Turkish army officially had the right to interfere in the process of governing the country. In addition it controlled about 30% of GDP through a network of dependent companies (public and private). Therefore, Erdogan’s main task was to break this deep state.
First, the country’s leadership organized a trial against the military, suspected of a coup attempt. A purge of independent-minded officers was launched. Then, after a new coup attempt in 2016, there was a grand purge. More then 120,000 military officers, officials, judges, journalists, teachers and policemen were removed from their posts or even arrested. Erdogan made major changes in the police, the army, courts and prosecutor’s office, placing his supporters everywhere. Thousands of journalists were repressed and a number of publications closed. While the world was horrified by the scale of political repression, Erdogan took control of the judiciary, security apparatus and media. This allowed him to hold a referendum on strengthening presidential power in Turkey.
Among those detained and dismissed were many suspected of links with the opposition Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara accuses of organizing the coup attempt. But there is no doubt it is not just about them; Erdogan seeks to destroy the deep state completely, making state apparatus fully loyal and manageable. If all courts, police departments and the prosecutor’s office consist of your associates, you can arrest any person at any time. So the leaders of largest opposition political parties are under Erdogan’s control today.
In Turkey, power has been concentrated in the hands of a single person. It was not an open elimination of republic, however, the Turkish republic has become a veil, behind which the core of a new system has formed. In the past, it was an army. Today, Erdogan and his men have filled the political apparatus, forming the authoritarian-Islamist core of the new regime.
Jemal Dindar, a well-known Turkish psychiatrist, notes that the changes in Turkey are primarily ideological in nature. It is the transition from a secular state to one based on religious ideology. The realities of today’s Turkey: an increase in the number of students in religious schools, calls for the rejection of contraception, testing for adherence to Islam before being accepted into the civil service. Turkish authorities have introduced a compulsory course entitled “culture of religion and morality” in schools; Turkish children study Sunni Islam.
Hundreds of officers dismissed for Islamist leanings are being reinstated into the army. Adnan Tanriverdi is an artillery officer who later specialized in asymmetric warfare. He was expelled from the army because of his Islamist ideas. Today he is a chief military adviser of the president.
At the same time, Erdogan began neo-liberal reforms, encouraging deregulation, creating a tax and legislative climate that attracts foreign investment. Like in Pinochet’s Chile, a conservative and repressive political system has become an organic complement to the pure capitalism and liberalization of tax legislation. Rapid economic growth has begun; for example, Turkey is the fifth-largest car manufacturer in Europe today. Turkey’s economy grew by 7.4% in 2017.
The reverse side of neo-liberalism is inequality. But it is easier for people to tolerate inequality if there are leaders who fulfill the “sacred mission.” Conservative religiosity and military patriotism are an excellent way to convince society to remain loyal to the regime in the face of social contradictions. It has worked well from Pinochet’s Chile to Reagan’s America.
But still Erdogan was faced with protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. This movement was directed against the Islamization of the country, as well as against social inequality and the destruction of the environment by corporations. This social movement was supported by the trade unions, and swept the whole of Turkey. After that workers of automobile and other factories in Bursa struck: in 2016 it came to the removal of moderate trade unions, the creation of a Workers’ Council and occupation of the factory.
But Erdogan managed to ensure rapid economic growth and the critics fell silent. Turkey’s economy grows every year, while the police and security forces are strong enough to restrain the discontented. The combination of carrots and sticks proved to be effective.
All this was supplemented by an active foreign expansion. Turkey is strengthening control over northern Syria and fighting against the PKK (Kurdish workers’ party). Erdogan is a supporter of neo-Ottomanism. According to this doctrine, Turkey must establish economic, diplomatic and, in some cases, military control over the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, Turkey must become the voice and leader of the Muslim world. These ideas help to increase Erdogan’s popularity in Turkey at the same time lead him to clashes with Israel.
Erdogan quickly thwarted all attempts of Europeans to criticize the police action and harsh military operations against Kurdish guerrillas. He used secret weapons – refugees. He opened the borders with Europe, releasing about a million people and causing a powerful political and social crisis in the EU. Frightened by the crisis, Europeans do not risk interfering in Turkish affairs any more. But Erdogan has other levers of influence. Turkey buys the latest weapons in Germany, so the leaders of the most influential German companies are not interested in losing a rich client.
Erdogan skillfully solves the problem of how to strengthen his personal power. He created a new Sunni Islamist neo-Ottoman deep state, becoming in effect a sultan, his economic achievements obvious. However his successes could be the basis for gigantic crises. Turkey is very different from mono-ethnic Christian Chile.
The interests of the sharply strengthened Turkish power will sooner or later conflict with those of Iran and other states.
Neo-liberalism can give rise to serious social protests and militant strikes in the form of workers’ councils and the occupation of factories.
But the main problem is a deep ethnic and religious split in Turkish society.
The introduction of Sunni Islam into political life irritates Turkey’s secular population and religious minorities. Of Turkey’s 80 million people, many secular residents of major cities are dissatisfied with the growing role of Sunni Islam.
An important problem for Erdogan is the contradiction of development. The Turkish economy and education systems are strengthening, and despite all efforts of Erdogan, there is a contradiction between the growth of education and conservative religiosity. Young people aged 18-21, who first participated in the plebiscite in 2017, share secular ideas more than the older generation.
The French company Ipsos conducted a poll immediately after the referendum and found that Erdogan is losing these voters. The official results of last year’s referendum were 51.5% for Erdogan, 48.5% against him. However, in the age group of first-time voters, Erdogan’s opponents turned out to be the majority – 58%. Every year, about a million Turks reach the age of 18 and get the right to vote.
Therefore, there is a gradual erosion of popular support for Erdogan. In addition, the population of Turkey accumulates in large cities (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir); Erdogan’s position is weaker here than in the provinces, indeed, he lost the referendum here. Perhaps this is the main reason Erdogan decided to hold early elections this year. Time works against him.
Also, eight or 10 million Turkish Alevis (Shi’ites) complain of discrimination.
But Erdogan rejects federalization. Turkey is home to 20 million Kurds. About the same number of Kurds live near the borders. The birth rate of the Kurds is higher than the Turkish average. It is quite possible in a few decades Kurds together with Alevis will constitute 40% or even 50% of the population. Kurdish and Alevi communities are very influential in various regions. Kurds do not have local autonomy and free or cheap schools in their native language. They will not accept the policy of Erdogan on a unitary centralized nationalist and Sunni Turkey which does not recognize the autonomy of other peoples.
Therefore, the Kurish PKK has a strong position in the Kurdish community. It is deeply rooted among Turkish Kurds, bridging all Kurdish communities with the help of many political, social and cultural organizations.
Historical practice shows that national and confessional problems of this magnitude cannot be solved by violence alone. The tragic fate of Syria, a country that has failed to solve religious, ethnic and social inequalities, shows what can happen.