For many years, I have been criticizing Turkey’s AKP government because of its neoliberal economic policies as well as its disregard for human rights.
In articles, lectures, and debates I have pointed out that Erdoğan’s Turkey is not an ‘example that should be an inspiration’ or ‘on the right track’ as many intellectuals both within and outside of Turkey have been arguing in the past decade.
What has been most puzzling to me, however, is the unabashedly positive feeling toward the Erdoğan government held by many leftwing progressives in ‘the West.’
While this self-imposed naiveté has been somewhat understandable – the horrendous record of previous ‘secular’ regimes in Turkey made many cringe – it was in my view neither legitimate nor productive.
These pro-AKP progressives have always been unwilling to listen to arguments and facts that would put a check on their enthusiasm for the Erdoğan government.
They turned a blind eye to their own pro-LGBT, pro-labor, and pro-feminist values and only looked at the ‘progress’ Erdoğan made on issues such as the Kurdish question and checking military might in Turkey.
In reality, their faith in Erdoğan was little more than wishful thinking about a country that had made no real political or economic progress.
Turkey’s Secular Elites
At bottom, the dynamics between political parties in Turkey are defined by a power struggle between old and new neoliberal elites.
Under Erdoğan, ‘secular’ and urban elites have been losing their power to Anatolian ‘nouveau riche’ elites, who have been supported at the ballot box by the hitherto marginalized poor conservative masses.
The ‘Anatolian’ elements of Turkish society come from a rural background, including those living in urban areas, and have a conservative, pious outlook to life. In previous decades, the Anatolian population was oppressed in various ways and never considered equals by the country’s secular elites.
Turkey’s secular population stretches beyond those who subscribe to the policies of Mustafa Kemal, Turkey’s founder. While supporters of the CHP and the ‘ulusalci’ parties constitute a significant part of the secular movement, there are also those, especially young Turks, who do not necessarily adhere to party politics. They do not want religious piousness to be imposed on them by the state and want their voices to be taken into consideration in far-stretching state policies on economic, cultural, and social realm.
When Turkey joined the neoliberal ‘Washington consensus’ after the 1980 coup, economic inequality, austerity, curbing labor rights, and destruction and privatization of social services increased.
For Turkey’s Kurds, life was hell under the ‘secular’ elites. In the 1980s and 1990s, the oppression of the Kurds reached approached a situation of near ethnic cleansing. Kurdish culture was dismissed and forbidden, thousands of villages were burned by the Turkish army, many were tortured in the most horrendous fashion imaginable, and millions were driven from their homes.
In the 1990s, individuals and organizations who were struggling for Kurdish rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and labor rights were subject to torture and tear gas – including women who were protesting the ban on hijabs at university.
When the AKP came into power in 2002, promises were made about a ‘pluralist’ democracy. Many groups that were victims of the previous secular regimes – from leftwing intellectuals to pious girls who wanted to wear headscarves at university- hoped the AKP would fulfill that promise.
In reality, however, the AKP was no different from previous governments, except that pious segments of society would now benefit and ‘secular’ segments would suffer.
Achievements that did not fit this paradigm were a result of other factors. For instance, the AKP arrived on top of a civil society wave that gained momentum in the late 1990s. After the 1996 Susurluk scandal and the 1999 earthquake, when the Turkish army’s ineptitude launched an unprecedented scale of open criticism against the army and state, Turkish civil society made important gains.
The women’s movement achieved a small but unprecedented victory in 2001. After decades of struggle the Turkish civil code was amended slightly to raise the minimum age of marriage for women from 15 to 18.
Similarly, after decades of struggle and sacrifice, Turkey’s Kurds achieved an implicit recognition of their identity. After PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999, the ban on the use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting was lifted in 2002, though in practice heavy restrictions remain in effect.
While these small gains made by marginalized groups in the early years of the AKP were not due to the party, knowing it did not have institutional power yet, the AKP rode the civil society wave that was already in place in order to maximize its popularity.
The ‘Boom’ Is a Bubble
Economically, the AKP government was very clear about its intention to continue the country’s neoliberalist path. “ [A] market economy, a minimal role for the government, and privatization as paths to welfare” is a theme in all of the AKP party’s programs.
Knowing his base detested the IMF imposed neoliberalism of his predecessors, Erdoğan cunningly dropped Turkey’s explicit links with the institution. Instead he continued IMF-like policies without an IMF deal, thus shifting the debt-burden from the state sector to the private sector.
Recently, Erdoğan has repeated that the country’s GDP per capita is at its highest, as if GDP is equally distributed among Turkish citizens. In reality, Turkey competes with Mexico as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country with the biggest gap between rich and poor.
Labor force participation, especially for women, has dramatically decreased due to the AKP’s neoliberal policies as well as the growing patriarchal-religious climate.
Similar regressions apply to female access to education. Consequently, Turkey currently ranks only 122 out of 134 countries on Gender Gap Index.
With Turkey’s growing consumer economy, driven by citizens armed with newly acquired credit cards, the neoliberal Turkish bubble, euphemistically labeled as a ‘boom’, is still inflated – until, of course, it bursts, which it will do sooner or later.
By peddling religious piousness and claiming to eliminate rampant corruption, Erdoğan has been successful in creating an impression that his neoliberalism would ‘work’.
Erdoğan leveraged religious concepts to support his neoliberal agenda. For example, hizmet was one of the AKP’s main pillars from 2002 onward. While literally the term connotes ‘service,’ in the context of Turkish Islamism, it signifies ‘charity,’ the sacred duty of the wealthy and those in power to help the poor.
Erdoğan reframed social and economic rights, like housing, health care, education, and basic income rights, as charitable activities, or hizmet, undertaken by the government.
There is, however, a fundamental difference in treating these provisions as rights, which the people are entitled to demand and the state responsible to provide, as opposed to charitable gifts.
Hizmet is in effect an Islamist version of the neoliberal ‘trickle down’ mantra. In all its variations, this mantra boils down to the idea that the business class and wealthy may not be ‘hindered’ by things like unions or high taxes . The more wealth the upper classes accumulate, the more this will ‘trickle down’ to the poorer classes.
In reality, this never happens. Instead, wealth always trickles upward when neoliberal policies are implemented. Yet for the poor Turkish masses hizmet was still an enormous improvement and more than they ever received from previous secular neoliberal regimes.
Health care, for example, was historically a horrible experience for most of the ‘Anatolian’ masses. They were doomed to take their chances at underfunded and understaffed state hospitals and clinics while the best doctors were at private hospitals that only the privileged could afford.
Instead of investing in a better-funded and better-staffed public health care system, the AKP choose to subsidize and expand the private health care system by providing more people funding to pay for these services.
Nevertheless, for the first time, the Turkish masses were not treated as cattle, but as human beings. The long-term effects of an expanded privatized health care system, an utterly expensive and ultimately untenable burden, was something the AKP did not consider.
At the same time, the AKP government has embarked upon unprecedented infrastructure development. Especially in the villages and small towns of the Anatolian heartland, sewage systems, bridges, public transport systems and other infrastructure projects have been undertaken.
The fact that these developments almost always preceded efforts to privatize these very sectors is understandably a minor issue for the Anatolian masses.
A similar pattern has applied to the AKP’s economic model in general. It was and continues to be based on privatizing state-owned sectors and selling them off to businessmen close to the party, peddling conservatism and piousness and stimulating credit-based consumption.
Disseminating fear about ‘the Other’ (usually any variation of the ‘Zionist-Armenian-Kurdish conspiracy against Turkey’) on private media increasingly controlled by Erdoğan has further helped to turn the public into conformist consumers.
This debt-ridden economic bubble has been blindly praised by most observers of the Erdoğan government. Neoliberal Islamism is, however, at its essence opposed to progressive politics. This elemental truism was, and is still, missed by those naïve progressives who blindly embrace the AKP.
Like previous Turkish leaders, Erdoğan equates democracy with the ballot box. Consulting civil society or groups before implementing far-stretching measures in the public sphere, is something the AKP government does not understand.
To give one example, in 2008 many were very enthusiastic about how Erdoğan ‘reformed’ the Turkish penal code’s infamous article 301. This article, which penalized ‘insulting Turkishness,’ was utilized heavily to persecute many people who dared criticize the Turkish state.
The AKP’s penal reform was, however, a whitewash. The new law made it illegal to ‘insult the Turkish state,’ and required the Minister of Justice’s approval before any prosecution could proceed.
In other words, the AKP now controlled who could be punished under article 301. Prosecutors who were not pro-AKP and tended to prosecute Islamist dissents under article 301 lost their power.
This shift in power and lack of real change is manifest in other areas as well. For instance, besides having their own state-controlled TV network and a state-controlled university, Turkey’s Kurds still have no degree of autonomy and are subject to oppression and extrajudicial killings.
Under the AKP, Kurdish human rights activists, politicians, lawyers, and children have been subject to police abuse, including disproportionate use of tear gas. When Kurdish politician Yildirim Ayhan was killed by a tear gas canister, it was completely ignored by both Turkish and western mass media.
Conclusion: the Stopovers of My Youth
In the AKP’s neoliberal Turkey, the stopovers of my youth, on long bus trips from one end of the country to the other, are long gone.
These local establishments where tea used to be on the house (çaylar şirketten) and fresh soups and home dishes were served for a few liras are hard to find these days.
There was no luxury in these places, which were characterized by simple wooden or plastic chairs in minimally decorated un-airconditioned buildings oozing blue-collar, down-to-earth qualities.
In their place, generic, franchise-filled, mall-like monstrosities with tasteless and overpriced food have arisen, enriching the construction sector and keeping out the rabble. The food is too expensive and too tasteless for most travelers.
Destroying Turkey’s cultural heritage, creating unprecedented masses of debt-ridden consumers does not make someone a hero of the poor. Lifting a finger at Davos but increasing economic and strategic ties and buying the same drones from Israel that were used in Gaza does not make someone a hero of Palestine.
Hurting the poor, increasing inequality between the haves and have-nots and maintaining loyalty to Western countries are core features of the AKP government – whether Western progressives realize it or not.