Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Tuesday week will mark a year since police first tried to clear Istanbul’s Gezi Park, sparking enormous protests. Turkey was bracing itself for a new round of riots. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, had looked set to overcome the disturbance. The protesters – though drawing in more than the hippies and leftists he had originally dismissed them as – were, like opponents of the Vietnam war in America, very much a privileged minority.
Nixon’s silent majority – resentful of the urban elite’s wealth, piqued at their privilege and with a contempt spiced by not a little envy of their freewheeling lifestyle – had backed Erdogan during the riots and in local elections the following year. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held on to Istanbul and Ankara: many liberals had hoped they would lose. Next up are the presidential elections, which Turkey’s Prime Minister, barred from a third term has to win to stay in the game.
Though usually described as as Islamist, bearded radicals, physically indistinguishable from Shoreditch hipsters and fired with irrepressible lust to fight holy war, the AKP’s voters don’t fit that particular bill. Islam may be their religion, but they have more in common – from extreme social conservatism to inefficiently concealed suspicion of Jews – with Poland’s Law and Justice party or those of our own members whom Number 10 is not at all unhappy to lose to UKIP.
Many will have had some contact with the network of Fetullah Gülen, a cleric whose schools and charitable foundations pervade lower middle-class Turkish life, and have grown to have huge influence in the country’s media and business world. That Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has for some reason fallen out with Erodgan emerged last December, when Gülenist police officers uncovered evidence of massive corruption in high government circles. The Prime Minister transferred hundreds of officers away from the investigation before it got to his son, and replaced half his cabinet to purge Gülen’s allies.
These ructions have not brought Erdogan low. Despite losing the secular business elite (which had supported him because of economic growth, peace with the Kurds and his taming of the army) and Gülen’s highly influential network, he seemed to have persuaded Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s current president, to leave him a clear run for the presidency (that Gul hails from the same party shows how dominant it is).
Notwithstanding signs of panic – such as trying to ban Twitter, and attempts to rehabilitate soldiers imprisoned in charges trumped up, it would seem, with the help of those Gülenists in the judiciary now gunning for his own son – the election was his to lose. He may have lost more and more of the privileged classes, but he still had the silent majority.
Erdogan’s ten years in power made them a lot better off. Religious schools educated their children, more effectively than the state would have done. Some of them even went to university. These social changes might have happened anyway, but Erdogan’s AKP ascribed the improvement to Islamic ethics, and took the credit.
Then the catastrophe at the mine in Soma happened. Almost 300 men were killed. Just weeks ago, the Government used its majority to vote down an investigation into its safety record. When Erdogan visited the mine, his security men gave miners’ relatives the treatment previously reserved for the decadent “alcoholics” (as he calls all drinkers) and “homosexuals” of GeziPark.
One of his staffers even took it upon himself to join in the beating himself. (The staffer’s resemblance to Ed Miliband is quite extraordinary but I rather doubt the Labour leader was in Turkey taking advice to counteract his wimpish image: stick to the cost of living crisis, Ed.).
No longer outsiders standing up for the ordinary man, the AK have become the power elite. Expect Gülen and his advisers to dust off the ending to Animal Farm: “the creatures looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Erdogan, self righteous in his Muslim piety, would no doubt take extra offence at the insult, and point to the arrest of 18 mining executives – but his accession to the presidency is now in doubt.