Has Erdoğan failed in his mission?

When Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned following unlikely rumours of a rift with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May 2016, many of the government’s supporters said he was not only a good man, but a 'dava adamı ' – a man of the cause.

The phrase not only refers to the cause of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), but also to the cause of Islam, where a dava adamı is a form of missionary.

And while the AKP have been a spectacularly successful electoral machine over the past 16 years, it is their – and Erdoğan’s – religious and conservative social mission where they have been continually rebuffed by forces both domestic and international.

Some of the initiatives emanating from religious conviction have been pushed through, though in a highly watered-down form – most notably the laws limiting night-time off-license sales and the steady reduction of the number of medical facilities in Turkey performing abortions down to near-zero.

In other cases, societal attitudes beyond the devout minority changed first and the AKP then felt itself able to act, as in the cases of allowing headscarves at universities, in the civil service, and in the military, whose legalisation was completed over a decade after the AKP came to power.

Others have backfired and placed the AKP in a variety of tough situations, whether this was strong EU kickback against a proposed law banning adultery, protests over the screws being tightened on secular lifestyles in 2013, or the markets responding to persistent attempts by Erdoğan to limit interest rates by eventually forcing the hand of the nominally independent central bank.

Columnist and cultural critic William Armstrong took up this theme in an article for World Politics Review, suggesting that the government’s lack of success in changing social attitudes so far may be a sign that Erdoğan’s mission is doomed to failure.

“Despite the AKP being at the apogee of its power, longer-term trends suggest that Turkish society may not be heading inexorably down a homogenous Islamist path,” he said. 

“Questioning their faith and troubled by “inconsistencies” in traditional Islamic beliefs, many young Turks are reported to be leaning toward a more personal and less institutional understanding of religion… 

“Backed by the full force of the state, (Erdoğan’s) brand of religious-nationalist conservatism looks set to dominate Turkey’s politics for the foreseeable future. But the vaunted social revolution ushered in by the AKP is not as deep as many observers inside and outside the country reckon.”

Even many AKP voters have spent many years enjoying the aspects of party policy they like – the strong leader, the sense of Turkey’s rising place in the world, the until-recently largely unproblematic economic governance regime, the infrastructural investments and the widening of access to the health system – while pushing back against the social and cultural policies. 

In such a socially diverse place as Turkey, there are cities where candidates of secularist parties pray five times a day and villages where even pork is discreetly on the menu for local AKP officials, which is what makes attempts to force either type of social and cultural norm on the whole country doomed to severe resistance.

Last year, Erdoğan spoke openly about this continual tension and inability to force through change:

“Being politically in power is one thing. Being socially and culturally in power is another. We have been in power for 14 years straight. But we still have difficulties on the issue of being in social and cultural power.”

He also made clear, however, that he saw those who resisted forcible social change, such as those who participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, as the enemy.

On the night of the failed coup attempt against his rule in July 2016, he said, “those who came out (to defend the country) were not the youths of Gezi Park. They were young people who loved their homeland and their nation.”

It was powerful people whose “mindsets were foreign to their country and nation”, Erdoğan said, who were standing in the way of reform.

If Erdoğan and his party are victorious in parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24, he – on paper, at least – will finally have the power to push through the reforms he says are needed, thanks to the centralisation of power in the office of the presidency passed in a referendum last year.

Already this February he gave a speech in which he reintroduced his plan to outlaw consensual adultery – zina, a term which includes other forms of pre- and extra-marital sex – by classifying it along with non-consensual forms of sexual harassment.

So will Erdoğan and his AKP dava adamları finally be able to use their bolstered powers to force through their social and cultural agenda post-election? Or is it mission impossible, with the reaction from society inevitably too great for them to ignore?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.