President Erdogan Is Reshaping Turkish Society, But at What Cost?

A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during celebrations outside the ruling party headquarters, Istanbul, June 24, 2018 (AP photo by Emrah Gurel).
A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during celebrations outside the ruling party headquarters, Istanbul, June 24, 2018 (AP photo by Emrah Gurel).

As president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be the wedge that destroys Turkey’s relationships with the U.S. and Europe. Find out more with your subscription to World Politics Review (WPR).

A new mosque in the traditional Ottoman style is currently being built in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Due to be completed later this year, it is just one of thousands of new mosques going up across Turkey. But the construction in Taksim is particularly symbolic—an apparent sign of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conquest of the political landscape and ability to reshape the Turkish nation in line with his wishes. Having won snap presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, he is now set to further cement his grip.

Despite a surprisingly energetic opposition campaign in the recent elections, Erdogan won a first-round victory. But under the surface, things may not be so simple. Turkish society today is too sophisticated to be entirely reshaped by one man. While Erdogan and his party’s religious-nationalist program, combining modern Islamic conservatism with a populist streak heavy on Ottoman nostalgia, appear firmly in place today, there are growing signs that social tides in Turkey are not necessarily moving in the conservative direction that many assume.

Taksim offers a useful window into why.

To learn the real prospects for Erdogan’s social revolution in Turkey, read Has Erdogan’s Attempt to Reshape Turkish Society Hit a Wall? with your subscription to World Politics Review.

As Erdogan Strengthens His Grip on Power, the West Faces a New Reality

The June elections were the final political hurdle before Erdogan’s long-sought presidential system, which was narrowly approved by a popular referendum in April 2017, could kick into full gear. With the victory, an ever-stronger Erdogan will now lead Turkey until at least 2023, the centennial of the modern Turkish Republic. This is the dawn of the Turkish Fifth Republic. But what next? With the political reality of Erdogan’s Turkey settling in, the biggest question is how the Turkish leader plans to use his expanded power. It’s difficult to answer, if only because Erdogan has made uncertainty a hallmark of his governance style. That said, there are three priority issues for Erdogan in the coming months.

With Erdogan firmly established as the president of Turkey, the West may have to accept a new framework for political and economic relations with Ankara. To learn more, read The Dawn of Turkey’s Fifth Republic with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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How Erdogan is Using an Anti-Terrorism Law to Muzzle Dissent in Turkey

As the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule has included draconian measures to silence the press and his critics. In February 2017, a month after a gunman affiliated with the so-called Islamic State killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve, the Supreme Council of Radio and Television, or RTUK, issued a notice to stations that effectively banned reporting on domestic terror, even during breaking news incidents. Instead of countering terrorism in Turkey, however, the gag order merely cowed editors and producers into showing the Turkish public only what the authorities want it to see. The move, which was in line with a trend of media intimidation over the previous two years, resulted in a less-informed public, which carries its own risks, both in the short and long term.

Read about the current political climate and the long-term effects on Turkey, in How Erdogan Turned Turkey’s War on Terror Into a War on Dissent with your subscription to World Politics Review.

The First Signs of an Electoral Backlash

In local elections in March, however, Erdogan suffered his first major electoral setback, losing the mayoral elections in Ankara as well as in Istanbul, his traditional stronghold. The electoral reversals were tied to Turkey’s economic downturn, which is directly linked to mismanagement at the highest level of government. For years, the Turkish economy has grown on the back of cheap credit, with Turkey’s private sector amassing close to $300 billion in debt, largely provided by international lenders. This inflow of capital spurred a massive construction boom across the country, with high levels of individual borrowing and lavish spending on infrastructure projects such as highways, bridges and airports. At this point, there is no clear plan as to how Turkey’s private sector will be able to honor these debts. The Turkish lira depreciated as much as 40 percent against the dollar in 2018, further increasing the country’s debt burden. Erdogan’s embittered relationship with traditional partners such as the United States and the European Union has made the situation much worse, raising fears that Turkey could default on substantial portions of its foreign debt. The losses in Istanbul and Ankara are a sign that, like Turkey’s economy, Erdogan’s credibility and ability to appeal to voters has incurred significant damage—a prospect he has not had to reckon with before.

Find out why Erdogan’s electoral fortunes have turned, in In Local Elections, Turkey’s Erdogan Looks to Avoid a Major Blow to His Legitimacy with your subscription to World Politics Review.
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Learn more about Turkish President Erdogan’s attempts to reshape the country, how that’s leading the country into authoritarianism, and what the future of Turkey’s relationship with the West may look like, in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in October 2018 and is regularly updated.

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