Turkey is embarking on a journey toward a stronger government and country, President Tayyip Erdoğan said in his inauguration speech on Monday, promising advancement in every area, from rights to investment.
But is Turkey really a stronger country after 16 years of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule?
Although the Turkish Parliament was established in 1920, a multi-party democratic election system was officially introduced only in 1946. After decades-long Republican People’s Party (CHP) rule, in 1950 the Democrat Party (DP) gained a majority in Parliament and started to govern.
Only 10 years later, a military coup ousted the DP government, executing then-Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two ministers by hanging.
Since then there has been a cycle of military coups and popular one-party governments. After the 1960 coup, Turkish right-wing politics produced Süleyman Demirel and his Justice Party (AP). After the 1980 coup, Turgut Özal and his Motherland Party (ANAP) took the stage.
For many, Erdoğan’s AKP was also a reaction of society to a military intervention on Feb. 28, 1997. When the AKP gained a majority in Parliament in 2002, they had very little support in the media or bureaucracy, which were mostly loyal to the ultranationalist military elites.
In 2007, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül’s presidential bid sparked outrage among the “secularist bloc,” when a divide between conservatives and secularists really made sense. His Islamist background and most notably his wife’s headscarf were regarded as a “wrong image” for Turkey by media pundits back then. (Gül eventually became president and recently has been an outspoken critic of Erdoğan.)
Even the General Staff issued a declaration about the AKP’s leaning towards Islamist politics and warned the government to know its limits.
When the AKP again gained a majority in Parliament in the 2007 elections, Turkey’s divided yet connected anti-establishment ideological camps, including liberals, Islamists, democrats, Kurds, some leftist and religious movement factions such as the Gülen movement, accused the “secularists” of being ignorant of the new reality.
This new reality was the urbanizing middle classes, mostly from conservative provinces, who had created a powerhouse. “Anatolian Tigers” was a term describing the emerging conservative business circles who had been quite successful in global markets since they had been forced to operate overseas by discrimination in local markets.
Under AKP rule between 2002 and 2011, the Turkish economy was performing relatively better than in the 1990s, a period unhappily remembered for its economic crises.
That secured another win for the AKP side in the 2011 elections, after which Erdoğan decided to dismember the anti-establishment coalition of liberals, Kurds and the Gülen movement, which were apparently regarded as unnecessary at that point.
Erdoğan’s analysis has repeatedly been validated since 2011, a seven-year period in which he managed to implement major changes in both the structure of the state and the very fabric of the daily life of Turkish citizens.
Some observers were expecting the urbanizing new classes to check Erdoğan’s rule; however, they failed to see what Erdoğan had already seen: that a populist rhetoric targeting mainly poorly educated people and tempting to the older generations who were mostly old-school nationalists and statists would work to gain majorities in elections.
In order to keep them consolidated, he even dominated the media, especially TV stations, which are still the biggest source of news for the Turkish public. Since then, the Turkish media, both pro and anti-government, have been playing the polarization game that he needs, intentionally or not.
In the meantime, Turkey survived the Gezi Park protests in 2013, public outrage against Erdoğan and what he represents; a corruption scandal the same year that still hovers over Erdoğan and his close circle; and a coup attempt in 2016, which turned out to be the greatest instrument for Erdoğan to realize his dreams.
The modern history of Turkey has been rewritten by the new AKP establishment, amounting to the necessity of Erdoğan’s presidency, which will, as he repeatedly has said, be more effective, stronger and “independent.”
“We are now adopting a model that is way beyond our 150-year-old pursuit of democracy and our 95-year-long experience of a republic,” Erdoğan said on Monday, vowing to “leave behind a system that cost the country heavily because of the political, social and economic chaos it caused in the past.”
However, economic indicators, including in the manufacturing and education sectors; foreign policy decisions, an unfruitful and dangerous pendulum between the US and Russia; Turkish refugees, a new phenomenon in Europe; and increasing numbers of downtrodden people say otherwise.
Yes, Erdoğan had overcome every single crisis he encountered on his way to the presidency, and yes, he managed to consolidate majority support by dividing the country; however, Turkey does not appear to be stronger than before, especially compared to the early 2000s, when a vivid and diverse outlook of Turkey dominated.
The problem is not that Erdoğan has been ruling the country since 2002. It is that he has been silencing other voices from various walks of life that once hand-in-hand made for a better Turkey, a model democracy for the region.