Upon winning his second term as president in June, and assuming the strong executive powers that had been approved by voters in a 2017 referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cemented what he had long been seeking: the creation of a new political regime, one that is increasingly fashioned in his image. The "new Turkey," as Erdogan calls it, is a country fast becoming insular and inward-looking. From Erdogan's perspective, Turkey's founding elite of the 1920s created a state, society and culture fashioned according to the preferences of one man, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. So why shouldn't he try to do the same and fashion a new Turkey according to his preferences? The critical difference between the visions of Erdogan and Ataturk, however, are stark and will have greatly diverging consequences for the country's international standing and societal development.
Erdogan's new Turkey is wholly directed at perpetuating the president's power, and in that pursuit, its architects have abrogated the norms and requirements of democratic governance. Ataturk's Turkey practiced single-party rule for the incremental development of democratic rule, and it intended to situate the country among the hierarchy of developed states. The country embraced multilateralism to the extent possible, promoted strong institutional governance mechanisms and empowered public participation. Erdogan's Turkey is pursuing a different course. Following the path of Erdogan's deinstitutionalized one-man rule allows us to discern what Turkey might look like a decade from now.
Purges and Brain Drains
Purges after the failed coup in July 2016 initially targeted the military and bureaucracy but quickly spread to other sectors of society as the government moved to silence Erdogan's critics. Consider higher education, for example. The dismissal of thousands of academics from the universities generated a brain drain as scholars from all disciplines sought employment outside Turkey, where academic freedoms are held in higher regard. The outward flow extended beyond higher education. In 2017-18 alone, more than 250,000 Turkish citizens sought permanent residency in the United States and about 20,000 sought residency in the United Kingdom. One of Erdogan's stated goals for the 2023 centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic was to make the country a top 10 world economy. It's hard to see how it will achieve this goal if its best minds have been driven out of the country and replaced with educators appointed primarily because of their loyalty to Erdogan. Within a decade, Turkey likely will lack the academic capacity needed to educate and develop new generations of the innovators and scientists who help underpin value-added economies. To the extent that individuals can and are likely to acquire degrees abroad, their desire to return and work in Turkey will be significantly diminished.
More problematically, Turkey is deep into establishing a primary education system that disregards critical inquiry. Since 2016, the national curriculum in the state primary education system has dispensed with teaching the theory of evolution, to cite one example of the changes underway, and throughout the emerging curriculum of the new Turkey are clear references to prescribed gender roles. Furthermore, students are being called upon to respect the state and authority first and foremost. Within a decade, such manipulation of the education system will likely create Turkey's first generation of 18- to 24-year-olds taught to be suspicious of scientific reasoning and of foreigners and that looks to the authority of Erdogan and his representatives for determining what is right and wrong. The media will perpetuate this transformation, as readers and viewers will be prevented from having access to independent and critical sources of information. In addition, the content of television and newspapers will be increasingly devoid of international influences in both cultural and political terms, thus helping to foster and perpetuate an insular and closed-minded society.
Where the Future Is Now
Some of the above projections already are visible across Turkey, mainly in the country's economic arena. Erdogan blames the Turkish lira's decline on "speculators" and hard currency "hoarders," and he says the solution is to stop buying dollars and euros and only use the national currency. His words resonate with his supporters, but they have left experts wondering if he understands how interest rates can be used to control the rate of inflation, which recently topped 25 percent. Meanwhile, Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who as finance minister is responsible for overseeing the economy, has called on vendors to not raise their prices; he also has called on law enforcement and consumers to report "arbitrary price hikes" by vendors.
Turkey's economy has destabilized but so too has Turkish society and the fundamental principles that have underpinned it. A society that is distanced from and suspicious of expertise helps create an environment that is conducive for authoritarian rule, which benefits only the few and ensures Erdogan's continuity. As members of the public stop asking challenging questions and abandon the need for change, they will identify their leader as the only answer to the country's problems. Although few in Turkey have come to accept this approaching trend, the country is increasingly reminding some observers of the Eastern European authoritarian regimes of the Cold War. Given Turkey's current track, it will not be long before it starts displaying more of those countries' characteristics.