ISTANBUL -- Turkey held its early parliamentary elections Sunday, on Nov. 1, a date fraught with historical significance for the Turkish nation. It was on that date in 1922 that the seven-century-old Ottoman sultanate was finally abolished by Atatürk, the leader in the country's war of independence and the founder of the secular Republic of Turkey. This revolutionary act -- along with the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate two years later -- sent shockwaves throughout the entire Islamic world. For the first time in history, sovereignty over a Muslim-majority society had been wrested from the sultan -- who exercised it in the name of God -- and given to the people.
Today, however, many of the gains made by the Turkish Republic over the past century are endangered by the authoritarian, religiously tinged regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The country's undisputed leader for 13 years, Erdoğan has been dubbed a "modern-day sultan," a reference both to his style of governing and to his extravagant projects, such as the 1,150-room palace he recently built for himself. Just last week, a journalist known to be close to Erdoğan suggested that the president's ultimate goal was to restore the Caliphate.
The cult of personality surrounding Erdoğan -- who is often referred to as the "leader of the ummah" in election campaigns -- reached its zenith last year when an AKP deputy described him as "a leader possessing all the attributes of God Almighty." Erdoğan, for his part, is doing all he can to augment his "divine" image, addressing tens of thousands of his supporters at stadium rallies reminiscent of 1930s Europe. There -- as though addressing the nations of an imaginary Islamic caliphate -- Erdoğan likes to salute Muslim capitals from Sarajevo to Jakarta.
Many of the gains made by the Turkish Republic over the past century are endangered by the authoritarian, religiously tinged regime of Erdoğan.
Five months ago, in Turkey's historic June 7 elections, Erdoğan's AKP lost the parliamentary majority it had enjoyed during its 13 years of single-party rule. This was a serious wake-up call for the Turkish president. With non-AKP parties making up a majority in Parliament, there might very well have been a renewed call for a parliamentary inquiry into allegations of corruption -- swept under the rug until then -- involving billions of dollars and implicating Erdoğan, his family and his business associates. Yet to everyone's surprise, the AKP regained its parliamentary majority on Nov. 1 with nearly 50 percent of the vote. Though Erdoğan lacks the supermajority needed to change the constitution and create the presidential system he so craves, it seems clear that he will still be Turkey's de facto sultan for the next four years.
Unfortunately, the AKP's sweeping victory was achieved at a heavy cost to Turkey's democratic system. Since the June 7 elections, in his do-or-die efforts to stay in power, Erdoğan has not only suppressed Turkey's political opposition, but has brought the country to the brink of civil war. Following the end of Turkey's two and a half-year-long ceasefire with the PKK, fighting has claimed the lives of more than 350 people. (Adding to the already dire security situation, ISIS carried out the largest terror attack in Turkish history in Ankara, the capital, last month.) In effect, Erdoğan told voters: Without me, chaos will ensue; if there is a coalition government, it will lead to civil war.
At the same time, the president has waged a propaganda campaign against Turkey's opposition parties using the considerable resources at his disposal. The past 13 years have seen the creation of a vast pro-AKP echo chamber in the Turkish media, with a corresponding clampdown on opposition journalism. Hundreds of journalists have been fired under Erdoğan while strict censorship has been imposed on newspapers and television stations. In 2002, the year the AKP came to power, Turkey ranked 99th in the World Press Freedom Index; it has now slipped to 149th place.
Erdoğan is doing all he can to augment his 'divine' image, addressing tens of thousands of his supporters at stadium rallies reminiscent of 1930s Europe. There -- as though addressing the nations of an imaginary Islamic caliphate -- he salutes Muslim capitals from Sarajevo to Jakarta.
More disturbingly, in recent months, censorship has given way to outright physical violence. In September, the offices of a major national newspaper, Hürriyet, were attacked by dozens of people wielding stones and clubs. The group was led by an AKP deputy, who later stated that the AKP's youth group had "done away with the immunity of the press" in carrying out the attack. Indeed, this was not far from the truth. Five days before the Nov. 1 elections, newspapers and television stations owned by the İpek-Koza Media Group -- known for its anti-Erdoğan stance as well as its ties to the Gülen Movement -- were raided illegally by the police and then put under "new management" consisting of Erdoğan supporters.
Around the same time as the Hürriyet attacks, the offices and general headquarters of Turkey's pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, were attacked in Istanbul and other cities in western Turkey. Among those responsible were the "Ottoman Hearths," a group which has recently risen from the shadows to become the AKP's de facto paramilitary wing (its members call themselves "Tayyip's soldiers.") Moreover, Turkish television channels gave scant pre-election coverage to the opposition. TRT, the state broadcaster, devoted 59 hours to coverage of Erdoğan and the AKP; five hours to the secular left CHP; 70 minutes to the Turkish nationalist MHP; and just 18 minutes to the HDP.
In short, the post-Nov. 1 outlook is bright for Erdoğan, but -- if the past 13 years are anything to judge by -- gloomy for Turkish democracy. In retrospect, it is not really surprising that the country's political system has come to such a pass. In an interview in the early 1990s, Erdoğan notoriously compared democracy to "a vehicle you use to achieve whatever system you want" -- a telling indication, many would say, of the Turkish president's level of commitment to democratic values. The question now is whether Erdoğan can achieve the one-man, authoritarian Islamist regime he desires, against the wishes of some 50 percent of Turkish society.
The question now is whether Erdoğan can achieve the one-man, authoritarian Islamist regime he desires, against the wishes of some 50 percent of Turkish society.
The West, too, will play an important role in determining this outcome. In just a few weeks, Turkey will host the annual G-20 summit: will Western leaders give a green light to Erdoğan's authoritarian tendencies, not wishing to alienate a critical ally in the turbulent Middle East? Or will they pressure Erdoğan to put his country -- a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership -- back on the path of democracy?
In his seminal 1996 volume, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington described Turkey as a "torn country." According to Huntington, despite its adoption of Western institutions such as democracy and the rule of law, Turkey remains firmly rooted in the culture of the Islamic world and is therefore experiencing a "civilizational crisis." Since its publication, Huntington's "clash of civilization" theory has had a very mixed reception in the West, being alternately viewed as prescient or as hopelessly reductionist. Today, Turkey is still the only secular, democratic republic in the Islamic world; sadly, under Erdoğan's increasingly Islamist rule, it is proving Huntington right with every passing day.