Turkey's prime minister Erdogan at a rally of his ruling conservative AK party in Ankara (photo: Reuters)
Interview with Cengiz Aktar

''Turkey's Problem is Erdogan, Not the AKP''

According to Cengiz Aktar, Turkey's long-time Prime Minister Erdogan has become an autocrat. "Changing his mind would, in his opinion, be a sign of weakness", Aktar says in this interview with Ada Pagliarulo. He will therefore find it hard to manage the country's crisis, the political scientist predicts

Is there a rift emerging between secular and Islamist Turkey, or are they more about the country's democratic deficits and, therefore, the abuse of power on Erdogan's part?

Cengiz Aktar: I would choose the second option. Bilgi University in Istanbul recently carried out a survey among the protesters and established that 92 per cent of the slogans were against Erdogan. So it is fairly safe to say that the prime minister is the specific object of these protests. Basically none of the slogans are aimed at the government or the political party in power, the AKP.

As far as a possible secular-Islamic rift is concerned, one must remember that there are many Muslims protesting on the streets. In particular there is the group known as "anti-capitalist Muslims". On June 6 there was an Islamic holy day, and the group prayed on Taksim Square while other protesters refrained from drinking alcohol out of respect.

Cengiz Aktar (photo: IBO/SIPA PRESS)
Cengiz Aktar: "The Turks are not demanding democracy, they are demanding more democracy. They want to recover what they have lost over the past four or five years"

​​All in all one cannot qualify these protests as nothing but a reaction of secularists. Of course there are many among the protesters who reject intrusions in people's private lives, but it is more a rejection of intrusion than the rejection of an Islamization attempt.

How so?

Cengiz Aktar: The law on the ban on alcoholic drinks has, for instance, caused a major row in Turkey, the reason being that Prime Minister Erdogan made this decision in an attempt at undertaking social engineering. He has an idea of how young Turks should behave; he wants them to be obedient and not drink alcohol, but young Turks do not drink alcohol. Eighty per cent of the country's population never drink alcohol. So these are artificial problems, as are the provisions adopted. They do not reflect the reality of society or of the country.

Erdogan has a very authoritarian way of making decisions. He consults no one. The recent protests at Gezi Park, for example, were sparked by the decision to transform one of the city's few remaining parks into barracks, whereas that was only a pretence – the area was destined to not be turned into historic Ottoman barracks but into yet another shopping mall district. And this was not decided by the municipal authorities, but by the prime minister, this narrow-minded authoritarian micromanager who wakes up with a different idea every morning.

As I said, he consults no one. And he becomes enraged every time someone reminds him that there are citizens, and that they have rights. Or that, as in the case of the Taksim Square protests, there is a movement of citizens opposing him, asking him not to cut down those trees because people need to breathe. Erdogan calls them "hobos" and "hooligans". I think his authoritarian and arrogant style is one of the main reasons for the current exasperation.

You mentioned a movement called "anti-capitalist Muslims" participating in the protests. What kind of a group are they?

Cengiz Aktar: The Anti-capitalist Muslims are a small group, but one must emphasize that even among the protesters there are also people who voted Erdogan's party into power. There is widespread discontent. Among the young secularists on the streets are many girls who acknowledge that their friends have the right to wear what they want on their heads. This is a young, urban movement, not necessarily secular, very modern, non-partisan and very liberal. Various segments of the population have joined forces and there are some paradoxical aspects.

For example, the supporters of three soccer teams who usually fight each other are all protesting together, and this applies to believers and non-believers. There are people from the Right, the extreme Right and the extreme Left. It is an extremely cosmopolitan movement and one cannot use any of the usual adjectives to describe it.

Activist in front of an Erdogan graffito in Istanbul (photo: Gaia Anderson)
Resistance against incapacitation and authoritarian rule: "Turkey's protest movement is a young, urban movement, not necessarily secular, very modern, non-partisan and very liberal"

​​Erdogan has won three consecutive elections and some say that this is also the due of weakness shown by the opposition. For example, does the CHP, the opposition party of Kemalist inspiration who strongly opposes the prime minister, have democratic credibility?

No. No one even talks about them. They are just waiting for Erdogan to make a mistake, but they are certainly not a democratic alternative.

Why not?

Cengiz Aktar: Because they have nothing to say. This is a party that is ranked below the AKP in terms of democracy. The CHP is a non-reformist party. After all, Erdogan's party implemented capital reforms, especially in the beginning with his first government. Until 2005 the AKP did extraordinary things. It opened the public and political arenas, multiplied democracy's potential in overcoming taboos.

Paradoxically, those protesting now are those who benefitted from these democratic policies, political reforms that brought democracy to the country and were implemented by Erdogan's government. This is happening because since about 2007-2008, Erdogan has shown personal authoritarian inclinations, feeling so self-confident that he considers himself the Father of the Nation as well as the region's leader, as he likes playing a role in international politics.

Erdogan is overly ambitious when compared to his intellectual and political capabilities, and, above all, compared to his democratic capability.

Will the Turkish model, so widely debated in these years of great turmoil in the Arab world, be able to survive these protests, or is it ultimately compromised?

Cengiz Aktar: One could instinctively say it will not survive, because now the country seems to be experiencing turmoil and financial markets have reacted very badly to the prime minister's stubbornness as he is looking for trouble with society, the people and the country. Many analysts have consequently spoken of the end of the Turkish model, but I would say 'yes and no', because I think that that Turkish society's vitality is so good that this model remains a very valid one.

The Turks are not demanding democracy, they are demanding more democracy. They want to recover what they have lost over the past four or five years. They want to consolidate democracy they already won. Turkey certainly remains a model or at least a source of inspiration.

Protests against prime minister Erdogan on Taksim Square in Istanbul (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
"Taksim is everywhere": The Taksim Solidarity group, combining political and non-governmental groups, opposed the construction of a replica Ottoman era barracks on the site of the park. But after a police crackdown on a small demonstration on May 31, the protest grew into a broader action against what critics saw as Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian style of government

​​But Turks don't want to do so with this prime minister who has lost much of his charisma and has definitely lost the moral high ground he had with his political friends in the region. Erdogan has nothing more to say when one thinks of what is happening in the country and his well-known inability to manage a crisis.

It has often been said that the Islamist prime minister has a 'hidden agenda' that he is allegedly now implementing. Now, which laws approved by governments led by Erdogan are a real threat to democracy in Turkey?

Cengiz Aktar: Observers who are informed about Turkey have always said that the problem is not an 'Islamisation' of the country, because one cannot Islamise a country that is already Muslim. It is not even a re-Islamisation. It is authoritarianism that has clearly surfaced and that is Turkey's real problem.

I have no idea how matters will evolve, what will happen and how Turkey will steer through the crisis. We shall see. It all depends on the prime minister. How will he react to the demands made by society? He is a man who never changes his mind, and so far he has been unable to backtrack. He has become an autocrat and changing his mind would, in his opinion, be a sign of weakness. I believe he will find it hard to manage this crisis.

There are other politicians who could play leading roles and have begun to emerge, such as President Gul, who Erdogan had locked up in the golden cage as the country's president.

Is Gul really the moderate he is said to be?

Cengiz Aktar: Yes. Absolutely. And anyhow, he is a democrat. One should bear in mind that Turkey is going through a rather difficult period. A peace treaty with the Kurds is being negotiated and this requires tact, imagination and hard work. Turkey does not know what it means to resolve conflicts, what it involves to reconstruct peace after a crisis. We must learn all this and it is clear that this will not happen with Erdogan.

There has also been talk of a Turkish Spring, so much so that Erdogan himself felt pressured to state that Turkey has been experiencing its own spring for years. There is, however, one aspect of the Arab uprisings that also applies to Turkey, and that is the accusation made against the Islamist parties that have won the elections, for example in Egypt or Tunisia, of wanting to create a non-inclusive society without taking into account the citizens who did not vote for them.

Cengiz Aktar: There is that risk and it is linked to Erdogan's idea of democracy. He has often said, "I won the elections, if you wish to get rid of me or oppose me, do it at the next elections." He has no idea what a participatory democracy is. The problem is that at the moment the only credible opposition in Turkey is the one seen in recent days. But this means nothing to Erdogan because in his opinion only the elections matter. The prime minister is totally unable to understand why he is being opposed.

One of his recent interviews is extremely revealing. Erdogan himself posed the question to journalists about the loneliness experienced by autocrats, saying "Oh my God, why does all this happen." It is a revealing question because one must underline the fact that Erdogan only surrounds himself with "yes men". There is no longer anyone close to him who might at times say "no" to him. The truth is that he finds it hard to understand what is happening and has a very limited vision of politics and democracy.

Interview conducted by Ada Pagliarulo

Translated by Francesca Simmons

© Reset DoC 2013

Cengiz Aktar is professor of Political Science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, where he chairs the Department of Relations with the European Union. Aktar is one of the four Turkish intellectuals who, in 2008, launched a petition known as the "Appeal for forgiveness" made to Armenians for the 1915 genocide.

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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