A New Era In Turkey: Did They Just Vote For A New “Democratic Dictator”?

Alejandro A. Chafuén

Many Western observers are making ominous predictions about the future of Turkey under the re-empowered leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This past Sunday, Erdogan won the presidential election. HisJustice and Development AK Party has been in power since 2002 and there are fears that he will become increasingly authoritarian.

Turkey is increasingly becoming relevant on the world stage. Its economy has grown to become the largest in the region, three times that of Egypt. The combined GDP of Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Syria is still smaller than Turkey’s. It shares borders with several countries confronting major challenges: Iran, Georgia, Iraq and Syria. Its geopolitical importance is immense.

As a strong believer in Lord Acton’s maxim that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely,” I share the concerns that after more than 11 years of Erdogan serving as prime minister and now as president, the danger of “democratic” authoritarianism exists. But when I look at the longer history of Turkey, and what I have learned since I began following the country, I have reasons for some educated hope.

My optimism is based in the phenomenon of the evolution of think tanks and ideas during these last two decades. In his book “Islam without Extremes,” Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol includes a chapter on “The Turkish March to Islamic Liberalism.” In it he writes, “Classical liberalism, an idea so popular in the late Ottoman Empire but denounced by the Kemalist Republic, was rediscovered in the late 1980s, thanks to the reforms of Özal and the efforts of new organizations such as the Ankara-basedAssociation for Liberal Thinking (ALT). Books and academic works addressing liberal philosophy, extremely rare before the 1980s, became ubiquitous.” The Kemalist rule was a combination of statist, nationalist, and secularist policies under one-party rule. During his tenure as prime minister and president (1983- 1993),Turgut Özal implemented several market-oriented policies. It was towards the end of his tenure when ALT began, first as an association and then formally incorporated in 1994.

I met ALT’s co-founder, Dr. Atilla Yayla, in 1992.  He was a political scientist teaching in Ankara. That year Yayla attended the Mont Pelerin Societymeeting in Vancouver. He made outstanding connections with free market Nobel Laureates and think tank leaders. His efforts to promote the principles of the free society in Turkey were so important that he received sponsorship to attend numerous pro-liberty events around the world. He used these meetings productively scouting for speakers, research topics, and books to translate. Some years later, ALT’s co-founder, Mustafa Erdogan (no relationship with President Erdogan), completed a fellowship at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Several others from ALT followed the same path and began visiting free-market think tanks across the globe. ALT continued to publish numerous books promoting political, economic, and civil freedoms. ALT has won many awards and in the most recent Go To Think Tank Index it was listed among the top in four different categories.

Supporting liberal principles was not easy. Even making donations to ALT was complicated. As late as 1999, Yayla would write that to send them donations by check or wire transfer would entail “the involvement of the Interior Ministry, Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Local Governor, the Local Security Forces, and the National Security Forces.” The safest way to give support was for the foreign donor to pay for the cost of the programs directly. During those years a magazine controlled by the military listed Atlas as supporting subversive groups. Providing grants to promote liberal economics was lumped with other human rights campaigns. True, some groups were advocating for people who could be classified as subversive, but including classical liberal donors such as Atlas in that list exemplifies the degree of government control existing in the pre-Erdogan era. Troubles continued: Eight members of the Turkish Constitutional Court sued Mustafa Erdogan and ALT’s Journal after he wrote that the court’s decision to abolish the Welfare and Virtue Party (Tayyip Erdogan’s previous party) was influenced by the military.

Although ALT is independent from political parties or movements, less than one year after Erdogan became prime minister, his AK Party asked ALT to organize a major symposium. I have attended hundreds of events, but this one remains the most memorable. The program took place in January 2004, and focused on “Conservatism and Democracy.” It had over 30 speakers including several classical liberal luminaries from the U.S. and the UK. Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave theopening remarks, he was president of the party and prime minister. Erdogan stayed the entire morning listening to classical liberal speeches. Most members of his government attended the full two-day conference. More than 1,000 were in attendance. Another thing vivid in my memory was that of the two dozen local speakers, mostly professors, only one blamed the outside world for Turkish woes. All of the other speakers blamed local forces and ideas. Most spoke in favor of free markets and the free society.

It is difficult for Western observers to imagine what it was like to assume power in a country that had been ruled for 80 years by Kemalism. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa used the term “perfect dictatorship” to describe the one-party dominance that ruled Mexico for 71 years. The same term could be used to describe Kemalism. Breaking such entrenched official and unofficial structures of power is not easy. Few observers disagree that apart from the official government structures, there was a “Deep State,” the obscure hidden forces of special interests, which included major sectors of the military and a controlled judiciary. Yayla’s conviction in 2006 for “being disrespectful” to Kemal Ataturk surely seemed like it came from the “Deep State.” He used the term “the man” when referring to Ataturk in an effort to show that he was not God and that there was progress before Kemalism.

It’s important to note that the structures of this “Deep State” are being challenged by Erdogan’s government which, since 2011, has achieved enough power to weaken them. Erdogan tackled the military and then confronted the judiciary. When one starts with partial courts, it is not easy for the executive power to tackle the problem without itself being accused of violating the separation of powers. Turkey’s judiciary had similar problems of the judicial systems in former socialist countries. Liberal defenders of Erdogan believe that most in the West do not see, or do not want to see, the continued strength of a “state within the state.” As it acts behind the scenes, it can influence the judiciary, the police, the corporate world, and NGOs. It can also choose with which foreign intelligence services to collaborate.

By creating a counterbalancing power to defeat these forces, Erdogan might be creating his own hidden or parallel structures. The persecuted can become the persecutors. But many in the classical liberal camp, like Ozlem Caglar-Yilmaz, general coordinator of ALT, are optimistic. She is aware of the dangers, but is happy with the trends and sees that “there are historical changes and the 90-year-old bureaucratic establishment involved in crimes, violations of all basic freedoms are being challenged for the first time.” She argues that the alliance of the groups affected by the weakening of the “Deep State,” such as “the Gülen movement, along with the anti-Erdogan lobbies around the world, create a perverted image of the events in Turkey.”

As Jesse Colombo wrote in Forbes, since the AK Party became the dominant force in 2002, Turkey’s GDP nearly quadrupled. Bican Sahin, the former chairman of ALT who is starting a new research center, argues that such economic success has been the key to the AK Party and Erdogan’s electoral success. Yet this rapid growth rate seems unsustainable and Erdogan will face opposition and scrutiny from friends and foes. Mustafa Akyol, who voted for Erdogan in the past, is concerned that the AK Party is becoming too strong and beginning to operate as the previous secular quasi-totalitarian regime. On the other hand, Yayla, Caglar-Yilmaz, and many at ALT consider the new era as providing a more convenient political basis to pursue reforms that expand freedoms. I do not know of any country with a sizable Muslim population where the principles of a liberal society are discussed with such respect and depth as they are in Turkey. By keeping a watchful eye on the direction of government and any potential abuse, and continuing to educate for liberty, Turkish freedom champions can help not only their country but their entire region and culture.


Alejandro A. Chafuén es Dr. En Economía por el International College de California. Licenciado en Economía, (UCA), es miembro del comité de consejeros para The Center for Vision & Values, fideicomisario del Grove City College, y presidente de la Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Se ha desempeñado como fideicomisario del Fraser Institute desde 1991. Fue profesor de ESEADE.

ESEADE, 13.08.2014

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