On April 16, Turkey votes on a constitutional referendum on whether their leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will get almost unchecked power. On March 11, citizens in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, voted for the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi.
In the midst of a complex global story of democratically-elected autocrats, Basharat Peer makes sense of what is going on in both countries.
Columbia Global Reports, a series of current events dispatches under the imprint of Columbia University, published a very timely and important book by Basharat Peer, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen. On Tuesday, March 21, New America NYC held a panel where Peer spoke about the parallels between the ruling regimes in Turkey and India along with Elmira Bayrasli, co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and a fellow at the International Security Program at New America, and Manu Bhagavan, a professor of history and human rights at Hunter College.
Atatürk “promoted a homogenized Turkish nationalism, which ignored the existence of ethnic groups such as the Kurds, the Alevis, and others,” Peer writes. “He banned Sufi religious orders, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, and banned traditional clothing like the fez,” which he described as “an emblem of ignorance, negligence, fanaticism, and hatred of progress and civilization.” As for the headscarf, Atatürk called it “a piece of towel or something like it.” Modi, as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, “achieved quite a bit of fame for what he accomplished in the state, in terms of development,” Bhagavan said.
And yet “no matter what he did, no matter what he developed, no matter what big project … he never received unequivocal praise, because there were always people dogging him” about what happened in 2002, when, as Peer records in his book,
a train carrying dozens of Hindu activists … stopped in the town of Godhra. A confrontation between the Hindu activists and Muslim tea vendors ensued. A coach was set on fire—competing political enquiries have yet to settle who lit it—and 59 people were burned alive inside. Their charred bodies were paraded through Ahmedabad. In the aftermath, armed Hindu mobs fanned through Ahmedabad attacking Muslim homes and businesses. Women were raped and set on fire; children and men were hacked to death. Around 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Multiple human rights organizations reported that Modi’s government and police officials were complicit in the carnage.
Two weeks ago, Modi won “the state elections in UP [Uttar Pradesh], the largest state in India, and they have appointed as the chief minister the most obvious, transparent right-wing religious zealot who is charged with outright murder,” Bhagavan said, referring to Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Right after Modi delivered a speech on Independence Day, August 2014, in which he said “you will see how much strength we get from peace, unity, goodwill, and brotherhood,” Adityanath, “forcefully told Parliament that the Hindu majority of India had been victimized, that the country’s secular and left parties had conspired against the Hindu society and showered benefits and privileges on minority groups in the name of secularism.”
Modi “stuck to this grand narrative … of success and development,” Bhagavan said, even though “according to a number of experts — much maligned term these days — the [development] numbers in Gujarat may have been fudged.” Both Modi and Erdoğan, Peer writes in A Question of Order, “share a love of public speaking” and “refer to themselves in the third person.”
When Modi became prime minister in 2014, he won by the largest “popular mandate in India” in the preceding three decades. “Modi’s victory in 2014 had legitimized hate speech and physical aggression against real and perceived opponents,” Peer records. “Words that couldn’t be uttered at the dinner table were blared in the public sphere,” he writes.
Bayrasli interviewed Erdoğan in 2003, shortly after he rose to power. She said that “the secular elite” tells her “told you so,” but her reply is “you told me nothing: You told me Erdoğan was going to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. He did not do that.” He “is a Turk first,” said Bayrasli, adding that “as the daughter of Turkish immigrants who’s traveled to Turkey since the 1970s, he cleaned up Istanbul.” The city “used to be strewn with garbage, and Erdoğan cleaned that up when he was mayor. He took a city budget that was in the red, and he put it in the black.”
When he first became the leader, she said, Erdoğan “was very much a progressive,” describing him as “arguably the most shrewd politician that the Turks have seen” since Atatürk. “He is incredibly bright. He is a masterful tactician,” Bayrasli said. “The reality is people vote with their pocketbooks and they vote for people who are actually going to deliver services for them, and the reality is the AKP was the only political party in Turkey that was picking up people’s trash, that was improving public transportation, that was focused on healthcare and focused on education.”
This is corroborated in Peer’s book, where he notes that in February 2001, a month following the founding of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP), “the economy collapsed. One-third of the GDP was wiped out.” Peer continues,
For decades the economy had relied heavily on foreign investment, and the government ran up a huge debt that it in turn relied on the banks to buy up. The government’s inability to establish stable political coalitions, its war with the Kurds, and mounting corruption scandals caused foreign investors to pull their funds over the years; when the crash came, a third of Turkish banks went under. The lone bright spot was the AKP, which had run its cities competently and was untainted by corruption. In 2002 the party won the general elections with 32 percent of the vote. … Erdoğan placed great emphasis on infrastructure, and highways expanded by thousands of miles. Turkish cities grew; office towers and apartment blocks became ubiquitous. Airports sprang up even in small cities. Access to affordable public housing and healthcare improved radically.
However, as Bayrasli said, Erdoğan ignored Turkey’s institutions, allowing them to atrophy. “Erdoğan is ultimately a winner,” she said. “I have to say, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if the vote” on April 16 “came out ‘No,’” since “the Turkish economy has been sliding and people have been feeling the squeeze.” Bayrasli went to an AKP stronghold in central Anatolia, as the protests in Gezi and Taksim were raging in 2013, and asked “a number of women ‘How are you seeing these protests?’”
One woman replied, “We have to abide by our leader.” Bayrasli heard another woman, “who was clearly an AKP voter — she was wearing a headscarf — she turned around and she said, ‘What has Erdoğan done for me? My life is not any better, life is getting harder.” She said she would vote for him again, nevertheless, since she didn’t think “the opposition represents my point of view.”
In Turkey, a military coup in 1980 led to a “brutal crackdown,” in which “tens of thousands were disappeared. Torture and enforced disappearances were widespread. Turks across ideologies remember it as one of the darkest periods of their contemporary history.” And “while the Turkish left was neutralized, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 energized Islamist politics across the Middle East and Asia. Turkey’s generals could feel the Islamist revolutionary winds blowing across the border from Iran, and the military junta sought to preserve order by offering concessions to religious Muslims.”
Erdoğan’s “major political move” in 2010 was “targeted at the decades-long entrenchment of the unelected wings of the Turkish state: the military, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy, all of them long dominated by the Kemalist elite. Erdoğan wanted to change the constitution, which had been written by the military after the coup. … Between 2011 and 2013, the decade-long alliance between Erdoğan and [Fethullah] Gülen began to fray.”
And so, from 2013 on through the aftermath of the lethal coup attempt last July, “an intense battle raged between the Gülenists and Erdoğan: prosecutors affiliated with the Gülenists brought corruption charges against Erdoğan’s close circle, and Erdoğan retaliated by purging Gülenists from the judiciary and the police.”
In 2014, facing the end of his term as prime minister, Erdoğan, “who retained good health at age 60, then set his eyes on the Turkish presidency, which would allow him to hold power for another ten years.” Following elections in June 2015, in which the ruling AKP lost its parliamentary majority, Erdoğan’s “dreams of an executive presidency were thwarted,” Peer writes. The Kurdish party, led by Selahattin Demirtaş, “received around 13 percent of the vote, winning 80 seats. Turkey’s four political parties couldn’t come to an agreement to form a coaltion government, and Erdoğan called for snap elections to be held in November.”
That month, the AKP “gained five million votes and won a comfortable majority in Parliament.” Peer comments, in terms that appear to apply broadly, that “economic anxieties, fear of chaos, and hope for better services and support from the government trumped any liberal concerns over authoritarianism, the shrinking freedom of the press, or the plight of ethnic minorities.”
“The biggest injustice that needed to be corrected was the one against the Kurds,” writes Peer. “The campaign of pacification carried out by the Turkish military in the 1990s was one of remorseless brutality. The army depopulated some 4,000 villages and burned down the forests of Eastern Anatolia to deprive the Kurdish guerillas of sanctuaries. Kurdish language was banned; identifying yourself as a Kurd was a crime. By the late 1990s, Turkey’s Kurdish war had cost around 30,000 lives.” At the New America event last week, Peer said that “what has been going on in the southeastern region of Turkey where most of the Kurdish people live the last two years have largely been an unrepentent pitiless counterinsurgency… There were towns and neighborhoods which I visited, town after town was razed to dust. … There was nothing left. There was rubble for miles.”
“The periphery might be ignored but it has a way of intruding upon the center,” he writes. “A nation’s illiberal practices on its borders do not remain isolated there. … These strongmen have won electoral mandates from voters motivated by religious and ethnic nationalism, economic anxieties, and disillusionment with earlier weak, inefficient, or corrupt elites.”
What they have in common is “militant nationalism … an aura of personal menace and strength,” and a desire to “persecute political opponents” and “seek to control media coverage.” The strongmen “have little patience for criticism and despise civil society. … They are united by their promises to make their countries great again.”