Since the failed July, 2016 coup attempt, Turkey has weathered a series of measures aimed at consolidating the unfettered power of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). This rather erratic counter-coup has been undertaken through massive purges in the military, judiciary, media and academia—with tens of thousands detained or forced into exile—shuttering many once-independent civic institutions and enshrining virtually unchecked executive power in a new constitution. Despite its electoral popularity, the AKP-led government is facing growing criticism at home and abroad: it has abandoned efforts to peacefully resolve the Kurdish question; its foreign policy lurches from one crisis to another at Erdoğan’s apparent whim and its once red-hot economy teeters on the brink of a debt-induced meltdown, conveniently blamed upon any variety of current enemies, real or imagined. As it stands, many consider the government corrupt, unaccountable and intolerant of political opposition.
When the Islamist-leaning AKP first came to power in 2002, Turkey was touted as a shining example of the marriage of democracy and Islam. In its first two terms, the AKP government embraced the liberalizing reforms of the European Union accession process along with IMF conditionalities, which bolstered its legitimacy on the international stage and among a variety of domestic constituencies, tired of the old military-backed order. Fueled by rapid economic growth and rising living standards among previously marginalized communities, the AKP built a broad-based hegemonic bloc that it rode to electoral success. Since that time, however, it has grown clear that neither democratic pluralism nor economic justice is the final destination of Erdoğan’s AKP: Turkey is currently characterized by unprecedented social inequality combined with a return to authoritarianism—this time under a party led by a strong individual rather than a military junta.
Turkey’s authoritarian turn is often portrayed as a by-product of President Erdoğan’s vainglorious personality or as the inherent telos of political Islam. But rather than signifying a stock competition between religion and secularism or between Islam and the West, the current fault lines in Turkey, as in much of the world, are emblematic of a slow-moving structural breakdown and reordering of the global capitalist system and the resurgence of nationalist, nativist and authoritarian politics in response to this.
Erdoğan’s executive power grab bears an elective affinity with emerging forms of populist authoritarianism and illiberal democracy, as well as anti-immigrant and anti-globalist sensibilities, that have redrawn the European political map and largely crushed nascent democratic risings across the Middle East. While Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Germany’s AfD, the Swedish Democrats and the Danish People’s Party illustrate this trend in Europe, examples in the Middle East include General Sisi’s military dictatorship, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s reforming mafia state and Israel’s naked embrace of a Jewish ethnocracy via its discriminatory nation-state law. Elsewhere, Narendra Modi’s militant Hindu nationalism in India, the extreme right-wing populism of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte’s police state in the Philippines confirm a global trend, one comfortably embraced in the US by President Donald Trump.
Contributors to Confronting the New Turkey disentangle and analyze the social, political and economic factors that led to the manifestation of this global trend in Turkey by tracing the country’s evolution under the AKP and Erdoğan’s leadership over the last sixteen years. How Mr. Erdoğan accomplished this opens a window on the electoral autocrat’s handbook for the 21st century: instead of cancelling or faking elections, authoritarians are learning to control the conditions so tightly that no one else can win. Contributors also, however, illuminate lines of resistance, vulnerabilities and contradictions within the New Turkey over which the AKP now presides: crippling debt and rising inequality, rural environmental resistance, youth alienation, gendered dissent, resilient academic rebels, heterodox religiosity and the still unwritten history of the Gezi Park protests, which, for a moment, revealed a new anti-authoritarian, multi-cultural and democratic Turkey that is yet to come.