Interview with Einar Wigen - Turkey at the crossroads: has the country been drifting away from democracy?

By Gizem Ozturk Erdem | 25 September 2013

To quote this document: Gizem Ozturk Erdem, “Interview with Einar Wigen - Turkey at the crossroads: has the country been drifting away from democracy?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 25 September 2013,, displayed on 28 September 2022

From May 27th, 2013 we have been witnessing protests at Gezi Park in Istanbul, that were started by only fifty Environmentalists who were against a plan to redevelop Istanbul's Gezi Park into a complex with new mosque and shopping centre. However, many argue that since the Turkish Police were seen to use excessive force on civilians, the demonstrations spread throughout Turkey which led to the deaths of six people and thousands of serious injuries.

On June 7th, 2013, during a Conference organized by the Ministry of EU Affairs ''Rethinking Global Challenges: Constructing a Common Future for Turkey and the EU'' in Istanbul, Štefan Füle European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, echoed the statements of many other political leaders and claimed “Peaceful demonstrations constitute a legitimate way for these groups to express their views in a democratic society. Excessive use of force by police against these demonstrations has no place in such a democracy.”

Einar Wigen (b. 1981) is a Doctoral Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oslo, where he writes about the transformation of the Ottoman and Turkish political vocabulary. He did his MA in Peace and Conflict Studies in Austria and an MPhil Political Science at the University of Oslo, writing his dissertation on Turkey and the Concept of Europe. He has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and as a Research Assistant at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. His recent publications include “The Importance of the Eurasian Steppe to the Study of International Relations” in the Journal of International Relations and Development, co-authored with Iver B. Neumann, “Ottoman Concepts of Empire” in the journal Contributions to the History of Concepts and "Pipe Dreams or Dream Pipe?: Turkey’s Hopes of Becoming an Energy Hub" in Middle East Journal.

1) Many consider the Gezi Park Protests to be the gravest political crisis that the AKP's leadership has faced. How would you describe these demonstrations, which caused millions to protest against the government?

I think you are right in describing this as the gravest political crisis the AKP has faced. First of all, it managed to unite all the extra-parliamentary opposition groups against the AKP. Secondly, the handling of the Gezi Park protests cost Erdoğan and the AKP a lot of international legitimacy. From being the democratic hope of Turkey versus an authoritarian and paternalistic military tradition of politics, Erdoğan has now come to resemble the people he replaced in terms of authoritarianism and lack of respect for differences of opinion. Third, I think we are seeing the beginning of a muted stand-off between the Erdoğan side and the Gülenist side of the AKP. I am not sure whether it has to do with the Gülenists having a principled opposition to Erdoğan’s handling of the demonstrations, the fact that the crisis cost the AKP a lot of international goodwill, or that Erdoğan and his people think that the Gülenists are getting too powerful.

2) On 16 June 2013 the Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış, claimed, "In fact, this (the protests) is an effort to trigger a move which will be concluded as regime change in Turkey. The protests were planned six months ago." During the demonstrations Egemen Bağış,  claimed the protests were influenced, just as Erdogan did, by ''outside forces'' and ''interest-rate'' lobbies. What are your opinions regarding these claims and how would that affect Turkish foreign policy in the near future?

The point is that these protests are very much Erdoğan’s own making. I suspect that most of the people who mobilized in Turkey, and most of those abroad who sympathized with the protesters, were not moved to action by the prospect of the development of the park. They cared mainly about the safety of the protesters and their right to protest without being hurt. The excessive police violence, with smiling policemen who blatantly aimed their gas canisters on protesters, and a Prime Minister who talked about hanging the protesters from the trees in the park all contributed to the mishandling of the protests. Erdoğan is the most powerful man in Turkey, and yet he never accepts responsibility for anything that goes wrong, so he blames Jews, capitalists, secularists, Europeans, the military, socialists, Armenians and just about anyone but his own grass roots.

The interest lobby is interesting in this regard. If there is any group that has been particularly hit financially by this, except the esnaf traders in the Taksim area, it is the people who hold Turkish government bonds. When the interest goes up, that simply means that the underlying value of the bond goes down. If there ever was an ’interest lobby’ who held large amounts of Turkish debts, they would be the last people to want this. The point is that with Erdoğan’s supporters (and those of them who bought this claim must be pretty ignorant of finance) interest is un-Islamic, and something only practiced by non-Muslim minorities, foreign capitalists and secularist industrialists.

By placing blame outside the country, among the traditional bugbears of the conservative grass-root supporters of the AKP, Erdoğan and his cadres are trying to tie in their supporters in the face of the most serious challenge to their legitimacy since the AKP came to power. This is something that is quite common among European right-wing extremists. Whenever there is a problem, blame the Jews and bankers, and say that there is a planned conspiracy against you. Erdoğan knows his tricks. (Note that he is not alone in Turkish politics to think that they themselves are the victims of a conspiracy that brings together international capitalists, Jews and their domestic political opponents.)

3) During our previous interview in 2010, you were optimistic about Turkey's future place on the international arena. When you look at today, would you still describe Turkey as a politically and economically strong country?

Sure, Turkey is still a politically and economically strong country. No leader has consolidated this much power around him since Atatürk, and he runs the country through an effective use of patronage networks. However, a lot has changed since the last interview. First of all, there was the reform of the court system in 2010, which in effect removed the independence of the Constitutional Court, and the resignation of all but one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the summer of 2011. The Constitutional Court was a serious obstacle to Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. It protected the Turkish Constitution, and the Turkish Constitution was written specifically to prevent a lot of the type of policies that Erdoğan tries to implement (not that the Constitution is particularly democratic). The military is now more or less under civilian control, and the bureaucracy is increasingly staffed with AKP loyalists. The AKP increasingly taking full control of the state and is using its services for party purposes. However, since the AKP in fact consists of a set of partially competing patronage networks supported by a voter coalition that are moved to vote for them on completely different grounds, one should not overstate this ‘full control’ of the state. True, the AKP is seizing full control of the state, but many of them are in implicit competition with one another, with Gülenists and the more Sunnî populist, careerist and pragmatist clique around Erdoğan.

Secondly, Turkey has given up its ’zero problems with neighbours’ policy. Instead, it hung on to its newly-formed friendships with neighbouring dictators as long as it could, then shifted support to the opposition. In Libya, that seems to have worked just fine, but cost Turkish companies new government contracts, and therefore huge sums of money. In Syria, the support given to the rebels has been enough to anger the Syrian President, but not enough for them to win the war. In effect, Turkey got the worst of both worlds here; both enmity with their new-found best friend Assad, and instability on the border, where there has now been declared a breakaway Kurdish state. (With a military intervention in Syria looming high on the horizon, one should not be too bombastic when concluding about the medium-term prospects for this relationship.) Along with this comes souring relations with Syria’s supporter Iran, and although I haven’t heard much about it, I suspect Hizbullah in Lebanon also dislikes Turkey intensely now. In Egypt, the Turkish PM tried to play up Turkey’s historical relationship with the country, and supported the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi. Erdoğan’s 2011 visit, when he was greeted with chants of ’Caliph! Caliph! Caliph!’ and treated as a great hero, seems to be less useful while Egypt is ruled by the generals. His strong stand of support for the democratically elected Mohammad Morsi who engaged in somewhat undemocratic practices, has also angered many other sections of Egyptian politics and society. Third, Erdoğan’s handling of the Gezi protests has put his government and himself in a completely different light internationally. From being lauded as a model for the Middle East, Erdoğan was for a while mentioned in the same breath as the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other Middle Eastern rulers whom the West considers illegitimate. I suspect this will pass, but the experience will continue to stick to his image as a democrat. Moreover, it is likely that the rest of the world will take the complaints of Turkey’s extra-parliamentary opposition more seriously in the future.

4)As you are aware the Government has been trying to implement a Presidential system. Do you think this would be an appropriate change in the way Turkey is being governed to accommodate or strength its position on the international arena?

If the goal is to consolidate more power in Erdoğan’s hands, then it is a great idea. If the goal is to make Turkey more democratic, I don’t really see any particular benefits. In terms of the democracy, the problem in Turkey is not an absence of majority rule or even a government capability of getting its will through (which from time to time has been the problem in the past), but the lack of protection of minority interests and the lack of independent institutions. There is nothing to restrain the PM’s power, and making Turkey into a presidential republic will only aggravate this. In terms of where it will take Turkey, I think it will actually strengthen the country. It will make it more into a regime like Russia – a country that is stronger internally, less pleasant to live in or visit, less vibrant economy, intellectually dead, but which everyone will take seriously, because it has a big army and is willing to punch on the international arena. One thing lacks, though; a functioning military. But it is likely that Erdoğan has plans for a complete rehaul of the military.

5) What may be one of the most important lesson to be learned from Gezi Protests?

I think there is a very important lesson to be learned from this about Turkish politics. The young people of Turkey hardly know any other government than Erdogan’s. The country’s university students were in kindergarten when the government that included Erbakan’s Islamist party Refah Partisi was toppled in 1997. They have no experience of the trauma that has been the main legitimating device in the AKP’s political battle with the military. They are unlikely to be as susceptible to Erdogan’s discourse of victimhood. I think Gezi did three things. First of all, I think it opened a space for politics that had been closed to Kemalists since the mitingler of 2007, when they demonstrated in support of state secularism. Secondly, it managed to draw onto the street a number of young people who had been apolitical and shunned activism, who have now become politicised in a manner that was difficult to imagine only months ago. Third, I think it has partially exposed, partially created, a generational gap between the young and the old within conservative political activist circles. The young lacks this formative experience of the nineties, and therefore has less time for victimhood. They have also been influenced by the expanding education that has brought them into more extensive contacts with other political groups in Turkey, and although they do not stop being conservative are probably less patient with Erdogan’s power politics. Although they may disagree with them on certain political issues, they have friends who were out demonstrating, and were concerned for their safety and right to protest (this holds more true for Istanbul where there was more diversity in the demonstrators’ ranks, than for example Izmir or Ankara, where the demonstrators were more clearly Kemalist). The old are more likely to remember the days when Erdoğan’s predecessor in the Islamic movement was pressured by the military, and when Erdoğan himself had to spend time in jail. The pragmatic alliance that the AKP made with Turkish liberals to force through EU reforms, as well the convergence of politics over issues such as Gaza and religious headscarves, have all brought Islamic activists into contact with liberals and leftist activists who may disagree with them on most counts, but who agree on individual issues, and there may have emerged something of a mutual respect for the freedom to hold dissenting views. However, I also think that conservative groups and individuals who did go to Gezi to protest, for whatever reason, felt hijacked by trade unionists and leftist parties claiming to speak for the demonstrators as a whole when they made their declarations.

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Source photo: © Einar Wigen