Sidelining the sultan?


President Arif Alvi met his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday amidst a crisis in the Middle East that involves the country that Erdogan rules and the country that Pakistan just got a $6 billion bailout package from.

While Radio Pakistan released the age-old templates of ‘cooperation’ between ‘brotherly countries’ as the topic of discussion between the two presidents, it would be interesting to observe the direction that ties between Islamabad and Ankara take in the next few months.

For, given Pakistan’s overt support to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which of course won Islamabad $6 billion, relations with Turkey could be the next major casualty for Pakistan.

Turkey in 2018 is in complete contrast to what it was a decade or two ago. That’s one of the reasons why the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government looked to capitalise on Turkey’s economic ascendency.

Should the current Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government need insight on Turkey – as it stands and where it’s headed – a recent book The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey by Soner Cagaptay would be a good place to start.

Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has written multiple books on Turkey. Before The New Sultan, he wrote The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power  in 2014, which had a completely contrasting tone to last year’s release.

The New Sultan, meanwhile, underscores a Turkey that is in the midst of a crisis, which has emanated from the populist right-wing politics that Erdogan has manifested

The Rise of Turkey underscored the dramatic economic transformation under Erdogan since he took over the reins of power since 2003. The book explains how Turkey rose in the Human Development Index and credits Erdogan with spearheading the country’s growth that meant that it grew from a middle income economy to one that can aim higher.

Even so, 2014’s The Rise of Turkey also argued for safeguards in Turkish constitution that grant both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, with the rights of the marginalised communities especially being protected; the Kurds for instance.

The New Sultan, meanwhile, underscores a Turkey that is in the midst of a crisis, which has emanated from the populist right-wing politics that Erdogan has manifested. It suggests that while the economic growth has increased under Erdogan, the Turkish president has also continued to demonise those demographics that aren’t going to vote for him, which include the secular, liberal, leftist, social democrats, Kurds and Alavis – which is half of Turkish society.

The book argues that Erdogan is the “new Ataturk”, in that despite having contrasting values, he too like the founder of the state has created a Turkey in his own image. To do so Erdogan, just like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has used social policy, education and state resources to reaffirm his stamp, even if to take Turkey in a completely contrasting direction.

‘Kemalism no longer offers the social glue with which to bind the country together. Instead, Erdogan wants to rely on Islam and a skewed perception of the Ottoman past’

Cagaptay highlights that the provinces that voted against Erdogan in the 2017 referendum – which gave him more control over the state – form 73% of Turkey’s GDP. Similarly, the age demographic that voted against him was the youth – the 18-32 year bracket that has actually grown up in Erdogan’s Turkey.

Cagaptay argues that given the age that the majority of the anti-Erdogan Turks belong to, he is increasingly less likely to allow a level playing field in the elections. He maintains that in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt Erdogan is not just targeting the plotters, but also democratic institutions.

The New Sultan also maintains that Erdogan’s foreign policy has largely been a failure. From starting off with the policy that Turkey would have zero problems with neighbours, it now has “zero neighbours with problems.” Four of its non-European neighbours – Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria – are allied against Turkey for the very first time in history.

‘Erdogan’s foreign policy has exposed the country to outside threats, ranging from ISIS to Russia, from Iran to the Assad regime. And despite these mostly Middle East-related risks, the Turkish leader seems unwilling to abandon his preoccupation with casting Turkey as a Middle Eastern nation in a non-Kemalist fashion—the sultanate of caricature in foreign policy.’

The book also notes two major inflection points of Erdogan’s rule: EU accession and the threshold for party representation in the Turkish political system. For the former, Erdogan was discouraged by initial meetings  with EU delegations, but used it to keep the powerful army at bay, given that rule of law and democracy are preconditions for any accession.

For the latter, Erdogan has successfully exploited the Turkish rule that any party with less than 10% vote cannot be represented in the Parliament,  by ensuring that his AKP always has a higher representation than the vote it receives. For instance, in no elections has the AKP received more than 50pc of the vote, but in every parliament it has had more than 50pc of the seats.

The New Sultan is an interesting read for anyone interested in Erdogan, Turkey – or both. It recounts the early days of both and how their contrasts resulted in Erdogan, the leader  that he is today, and the Turkey that he has shaped up as his own reflection.

The working class boy from a conservative Muslim family felt like a second class citizen in a laique Turkey. Now he is taking on the secularist demons of his past.

‘Coupled with… external threats, the country’s crisis could catapult Turkey into a dangerous civil war. In this scenario, Erdogan would be remembered as the “failed Sultan” who brought about the breakdown of modern Turkey.’