For some years, with Turkey’s rise, political analysts in Greece’s neighbor posed the question whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan would stay on the path of greater democratization or whether he would abuse his great popularity and try to mimic the autocratic ways of Russia’s ruler, Vladimir Putin. “Democratization or Putinization?” was the question. The past few months suggest that there is a third choice: With his confrontational actions, the Turkish prime minister has shown that when a leader strays from democratic ways this does not lead automatically to his greater powers – it could lead to his weakening and isolation.
Erdogan has achieved remarkable things in Turkey, and the country’s influence has gone way beyond its borders, thanks to the politics of consensus that he was forced to adopt in the first years of his rule. Because of a major economic crisis, Erdogan’s AK Party carried out a reform program that had been agreed upon by the previous government; he adopted a democratization process which was a precondition for closer ties with the EU, and so, by co-opting their own program, he “disarmed” the generals, judges and bureaucrats of the deep state; above all, Erdogan avoided extreme political and religious positions which would have provoked a reaction from his country’s secular elite.
To achieve these aims, over the past 20 years Erdogan worked closely with the moderate religious thinker Fethullah Gulen, whose followers now hold high positions in the security services and judiciary. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, has established hundreds of religious schools around the world, represents a moderate Islam and exerts great influence inside and outside Turkey. People close to Gulen have said that relations with Erdogan were shaken when the Turkish prime minister began to clash with Israel on the Palestinian question.
Whatever caused the rift, for the past few years Erdogan has abandoned the careful, consensual actions of the past; after triumphing over his enemies in the secular camp he began to act with such arrogance that he clashed with various sections of the population. In each battle, with the support of massive numbers of voters, he triumphed. The clash with Gulen, though, is within the walls of the citadel and can only wound him deeply and fracture his party’s unity.
At a time when Putin puts on shows of magnanimity and pardons his political rivals, Erdogan rails against allies (including Gulen and the United States) and provokes his enemies. Having achieved so much for his country, having come so far, Erdogan seems to have forgotten that his strength was his people’s thirst for democracy and justice, not just development. This need is greater than any leader who ignores it. Putin will learn it, too, one day.