In the latest local elections that took place this Sunday, March 30, 2014, the Turkish people awarded a landslide victory (around 46%, with the main opposition trailing far behind at around 29%), and this for the third time, to the recently embattled Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) sending a strong signal to the detractors of the man. The voter turnout was at a near-record rate of about 90%.
How does he do it? How does Erdogan pull off landslide victory after landslide victory?
Seen from the lens of many prominent world media outlets, he seems to be an authoritative leader, not unlike Putin. But is this evaluation just and fair? I will argue that when judged from his actions on the ground and how dramatically and positively this man has transformed the Turkish political, economic and democratic landscape, one is compelled to make sense of his enviable and historic success.
Turkey before Erdogan was "Midnight Express" Turkey, a godforsaken country. Turkey has seen dramatic improvements in all spheres of life, under his government, and the majority of the Turkish voters do clearly recognize that fact. Under his twelve-year rule the Turkish GDP grew 3-4 fold. Turkey got transmuted from an economically fragile country to become the world’s 17th largest economy, and with ambitions and plans of making it to the top ten economies in the next decade or so.
Erdogan paid off Turkey’s debt to IMF and is offering credit to IMF itself. He pulled off significant improvements in the roads, transportation, health-care, and education systems. Erdogan has also done some noteworthy international humanitarian campaigns in countries such as Somalia and Burma, not to mention Turkey’s critical embrace of Syrian refugees.
Politically, Turkey was a coup-d’état-addicted country. Under Erdogan, not only the latter became very difficult, and risky to its dreamers, to do, but democracy got consolidated and the ballot box gained its deserved and rightful stature.
Erdogan initiated unprecedented reforms for the minorities in Turkey, prominently with the Kurds. He entered into an historic ceasefire with the Kurdish separatists. He removed the bans on the Kurdish language in education and broadcasting. Other minorities such as Greeks, Armenians and Jews got their confiscated---confiscated that is, under the ‘Midnight-Express’ Turkey---properties back under Erdogan’s time in office.
What of the very large number of jailed journalists and the recent graft-probe allegations and the ongoing polarized atmosphere in Turkey? Turkey is going through a critical stage in its transformation to become a full-fledged democracy, which hitherto has been manipulated by the powerful but undemocratic clique of military-media-elites coalition. One such remnant, a secretive religious cult with hundreds of schools all over the world, has been fighting its last battle running up to these latest elections. The last couple of years made it clear that parallel to the above positive developments, an insidious and dangerous infiltration and overtake of some Turkish government offices got transpired by this religious organization called the Gulen Movement.
This organization, with a strong presence in the judiciary and police force, has been blackmailing (through mostly illegal wiretapping with a lot of editing and montaging) and jailing anyone whom they see as inimical and/or not cooperating. The JDP shares some blame in not noticing this pattern early on and until they themselves became the target of this clandestine group, especially after Erdogan’s government’s revelations of plans of closing the college prep schools, in which the Gulen movement has invested heavily.
Although outmoded Turkish laws still in effect carry part of the blame for the jailing of so many journalists, quite a bit of them were jailed by this very cult, for example writers Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık, the latter of whom has recently testified in the European parliament on this very issue.
What about Erdogan’s recent remarks on closing Twitter and Youtube? Contrary to what is portrayed in some media, Erdogan is not closing Twitter or Youtube for the sake of cracking down on freedoms, but rather it is a response to his government’s frustrations with these social networking sites as there have been breach of some people’s privacies and outright revelations of state secrets by some accounts (the latter reportedly by the Gulen Movement). These companies had simply been negligent of the Turkish government and courts’ requests to cooperate. The former does cooperate with the authorities in the West in similar circumstances, for instance like the cooperation of Twitter over a Florida man’s Twitter threats to President Obama.
Erdogan is a well-respected and popular figure not only in Turkey but in the larger Muslim world as well. He does represent a legitimate and brighter hope for the future of the Islamic world, countering the illicit extremist movements in the region. In fact, until the unfortunate events of Gaza flotilla incident, Erdogan’s government had very positive relations with Israel. Shimon Peres, for instance, gave a historic talk in the Turkish Parliament, and there were many high-profile visits to Turkey by Israeli figures such as the then Israeli Prime Minister Olmert. Turkey was even mediating peace talks between Syria and Israel.
The point is that Erdogan can be and is a rational partner for dialogue, and that with a strong endorsement of his people. Indeed, there are signs that Turkish and Israeli governments are making progress in dressing their recent political scar.
Erdogan’s success and his good rapport with the majority of the Turkish people is simply because he is doing the job he is supposed to. He is visibly improving the quality of the lives of his people. He is extending prosperity and freedom to those who were left out under the “Midnight Express” Turkey.
If the West is sincere in improving its relations with the Muslim World, then it must respect the voices of the peoples of the region---be it in Turkey, Egypt or anywhere else---and support democratic forces and choices, and not undemocratic coalitions, outside-the-ballot-box chicanery, and coups d’etat.