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Even With Wide Support, Is Erdo?an’s Presidential Bid Really What Turks Want?

Antonis Samaras, Prime Minister of Greece
Flickr Creative Commons
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an"

Turkey's ruling party nominated Prime Minister RecepTayyipErdo?an to run in Turkey's first directly elected presidential race in August before thousands of cheering supporters on Tuesday.

Erdo?an, in power since 2003, is barred by party rules from running as prime minister again. His candidacy for president could put him at Turkey's helm for five more years.

“Turkey has become a kind of dictatorship, unfortunately,” says Bar?? Doster, a political scientist at Marmara University in Istanbul. “You need elections if you want to be a democratic regime, but on the other hand – Iran, China, Azerbaijan – they do the elections, but it does not show that they are democratic countries.”

The two-round elections are set for Aug. 10 and 24. President Abdullah Gul's term ends Aug. 28. Doster says Erdo?an’s political dominance stems from Turkey’s weak opposition parties. In every election, he can easily defeat Social Democrats, Republicans, and other nationalist parties.

“In the end of March, at the end of the local elections, he got 45 percent of the total votes. All [the others] were exactly 55 percent. So it shows that he’s still got his political power,” Doster says. “But, on the other hand, it causes him to become more and more authoritarian. He says that, ‘Yes, people are voting for me, so it shows that I can do whatever I want,’.”

Doster recently finished a stint as a visiting scholar at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the effects of the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and Turkish foreign policy on Syria and Iran.

“We cannot change our neighbors, but we can create good relations with them,” Doster says. “On the other hand, because we are losing our secular faith, Turkey is becoming dead in the Sunni world, and Iran of course is the leader of the Shia world. So those kinds of religious issues are as problematic as our domestic policies and as in our foreign policies. But unfortunately, our state department does not care about those kinds of things.”


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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Bar?? Doster, welcome to World Views.

BARI? DOSTER: Thank you very much.

GRILLOT: Well Bar??, you're from Turkey and hopefully can give us a lot of insight into what's going on in Turkey these days. Some have thought as we were paying attention to some of the violence that was going on Turkey starting about a year ago, government activities that led to protests and resistance and then government crackdowns. There was a lot of violence going on. Some have thought that this was somehow an extension of that Arab Spring, that basically Turkey was next, Turkey is primarily a Muslim country and everybody was thinking well, here we go, another country in the Middle East. But, this doesn't seem to be the case, so can you give us some context on how Turkey's situation relates to this broader thing we call the Arab Spring?

DOSTEROf course Turkey is a Muslim country but the traditions to culture, the social conditions are so different from Turkey to the Arab countries. Turkey is a country, a secular country first in the Muslim world and because Turkey is a country that's tradition is from Ottoman Empire, it has a really strong state tradition, when you compare with the other Arab countries. Our Prime Minister is RecepTayyipErdo?an, has been ruling Turkey about 12 years. When he got the elections first in the year 2002, European Union, NATO, other strategic allies, the USA supported him a lot. And, these countries told that he could be a democratic leader. He could be a kind of role model for the other Arab countries. I do not agree with this idea. Unfortunately, now everybody thinks that view is right, as the republicans, as the liberals, as the social democrats, as the communists. In Turkey, yes, we are right, because, our regime is becoming more and more authoritarian now, unfortunately. He won all the elections, the general elections and the local elections. Now he is trying to be the first President of Turkey. 

GRILLOT:  He's recently been reelected as prime minister, now he's thinking about running for president so that he can extend his leadership well beyond 2020 I believe, but when you say the hope that he would be a democrat, that he would be a democratic leader, and that he would serve this example, but he's done things as you said. He's banned Twitter, he's shut down YouTube, he's really prevented the population from being able to speak their voice and engage in public outcries of concern. Is this what you're referring to? As far as him not being a democrat? Or is it more than that?

DOSTER: I think he is becoming more and more authoritarian. Turkey is a kind of regime. Many political scientists define that as a kind of hybrid regime. But in my opinion, Turkey has becoming a kind of dictatorship unfortunately. Yes, elections are important in the democratic regimes, but it is not the only case. Yes, elections, you need, if you want to be a democratic regime. Of course, you need elections, but on the other hand Iran, China, Azerbaijan. They do the elections, but it does not show that they are democratic countries. 

GRILLOT:  Well let's leave Erdo?an. And what about the people of Turkey, obviously the people have reelected Erdo?an. How are they connected to this? What is it that they ultimately want? What's motivating them to reelect somebody that is perceived to be authoritarian? 

DOSTER: There are different reasons. First, the opposition party is the Social Democratic Party, the Republican Party; the nationalist parties are so weak. In every election, Erdo?an can easily beat them. In last elections, about two weeks before at the end of March, at the end of the local elections, he got 45 percent of the total votes. All other Kurdish minorities, nationalist parties and social democrats were exactly 55 percent. So, it shows that he's still got his political power. But, on the other hand, it causes him becoming more and more authoritarian. He says that yes, people are voting for me, so it shows that I can do whatever I want. This is not the kind of normal democratic behavior.

GRILLOT: So his motivation is what exactly? What is it that he's trying to accomplish in terms of taking that more authoritarian turn? Where is he trying to take Turkey? Turkey's a very vibrant country; lots of tourism, beautiful sites, and people are extremely warm and welcoming. You have some division in the country, particularly between east and west, which I'd like to get to in a minute. But, where is he trying to take the country, because the European Union is obviously an option, Turkey's been a candidate for European Union membership for many, many years now and some aren't sure that they'll ever get there. But, obviously, Erdo?an's activities aren't necessarily taking him in that direction. What is the goal that he has in mind?

DOSTER:  His political background, I'm sure you know, was in Islamists. So you cannot create a modern, liberal, democrat leader, who was an Islamist and a very radical Islamist in his young ages. So, he wants to be the leader of the Middle East. He wants to be the leader of the Arab world. And he wants to be the leader of the Sunni-Islam. But, first, Turkey is not a typical Middle East country. Turkey is a country which has multiple faces; Mediterranean country, Black Sea country, Balkan country, etc. Yes, of course we have lands in Asia, we have close relations with the Arab world, but we are not Arabs. Arabs do not think that Turks are us. Second, Turkey is the first secular country in the Muslim world, but unfortunately, we have been losing our secular. Third, he wants to be the leader of the Middle East, but you know that Turkey is in the United Nations, the European Commission, and Turkey has been a candidate, more than 50 years, to become a member of the European Union. But now, he is turning his face to our east. For example, he asked Mr. Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia and said that if they do accept Turkey as a member of Shanghai corporation organization, then we can quit European Union. So, this is the case.

GRILLOT:  So you're concerned that obviously, that secularism might become a thing of the past in Turkey?


GRILLOT: Well, let's take a turn maybe from internal politics to the domestic politics of Turkey and look at its neighborhood. Obviously, Turkey's in a tough neighborhood in some ways. Obviously Syria is on its border. Turkey has struggled significantly with the war in Syria, the refugees and in fact there've been some violence that has crossed over into Turkey. So a lot of pressure on Turkey because of that. Iran is in the neighborhood, Iraq. So you have a very important geopolitical position but you also have a lot of challenges because of the neighborhood that you're in. Tell us a little bit about how those relationships affect what's going on in Turkey and particularly how the war in Syria has that impact.

DOSTER:  Napoleon Bonaparte told that "the geography is the destiny of the country." So, you cannot change your neighbors. Syria is a country that we share our longest borders, more than 900 kilometers. Iran is a country that has a really strong tradition, culture, and political power. Iraq is a country which is de facto dividing between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in the northern part of the country. Armenia is another country that we have really important historical problems. And also of course, Greece. And Russia is the strongest and the biggest neighbor of that region for us. So, we cannot change our neighbors, but we can create good relations with them. Let's take the Syrian case: Syria has so close relations with Iran, with Russia and with Iraq also. And, unfortunately, at the beginning of the events in Syria, our Prime Minister, our secretary of state, told that in two weeks, maximum in one month, Assad could lose his position but he is still gaining power. On the other hand, because we are losing our secular faith, the problems between Turkey and Iran, most of them are the countries that are competing for becoming regional power in the area. Now, our Prime Minister and a kind of Islamic values, problems on this issue because Turkey is becoming dead in the Sunni world, and Iran of course is the leader of the Shia world. So, those kind of religious issues are called as problematic in our domestic policies and in our foreign policies because in Turkey about 10 or 15 percent of our population is not Sunni. So, they have no close relations with Iran and with the leading groups in Syria. But unfortunately, our state department does not care about those kinds of things.

GRILLOT: Well to complicate this matter even further, Israel is also in the neighborhood and Turkey has actually had historically good relations with Israel.

DOSTER: We have Jewish people in our country.

GRILLOT: So, this really makes Turkey an incredibly important country not only geographically in terms of those crossroads but the fact that it has all of these pressures on it to engage in good neighborly relations with all of these people including Israel. Its not just Sunni and Shia and Muslims but the Islamic world and the Jewish state down the road.

DOSTER:  Logically, if a country is the enemy of Israel then it should be the close friend of Iran and Syria but in this case, it doesn't show that we accept that kind of logic. Turkey has bad relations at the same time with Israel and with its greatest enemies in the world. On the other hand, for example, Jewish lobby in the USA is a kind of strategic partner for Turkey. Against Armenian and Greek lobbying in the USA because of the bad relations between Turkey and Israel, we lost our partners here. Second, Israel is a kind of strategic ally for the USA. And Turkey defies itself that because of the NATO engagement Turkey is an important ally in the region. These two countries define secular world and define peaceful relations in that area. Turkey is one of the first Muslim countries who recognize Israel as a free country, but when you see the last five or six years, relations with Turkey and Israel. All the relations between not just the countries but between people start to lose what is important.

GRILLOT: Well, I have to end on this note, Bar??. I've been to Turkey many times, it’s a fantastic place to visit and I imagine live. What is it here, and despite all of these challenges and the difficulties, what are hopeful for because it seems like there's still remains a lot of hope in Turkey. The Turkish people remain extremely hopeful about their existence and their future. What drives that hope?

DOSTER: Turkey is a country between two continents with nearly eight million people, about 160 universities, about 150,000 academic scholars. So, of course there are important reasons for us to be hopeful for our future but on the other hand, because of the democratic situation, many people, including me, are not so optimistic.

GRILLOT: Well, Bar?? thank you very much for being here today and discussing this very important and fascinating country with us. I appreciate it. Thank you.

DOSTER: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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