How Erdoğan Is Fomenting an Anti-Western Mindset in Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes a speech at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey on June 21, 2023. (Photo by Binnur Ege Gurun Kocak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

We are captives of the present. Up until the May elections, most observers of Turkish politics focused (correctly) on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans regarding foreign policy. Questions about domestic policy concentrated mainly on whether Erdoğan would return to economic orthodoxy and what strategy he might deploy to win back municipal governments in local elections next year. What is beginning to emerge, however, is Erdoğan’s desire to engage in social engineering so that his constituents’ world and societal views mirror his own. This desire has strong undertones of fascism that will close off Turkey’s population off to values and norms associated with the West.

Erdoğan has struggled to top the 50 percent threshold necessary to hold power in his last three presidential elections. This has vexed him, as it’s become abundantly clear that half the country doesn’t want him to remain president. To win successive elections in 2014, 2018 and 2023, Erdoğan has relied on an increasing degree of authoritarian antics to ensure that he retains power. The biggest components of this strategy include state and media capture. In the case of the former, the judiciary, law enforcement, and rule by executive fiat have ensured a state apparatus that has become one with Erdoğan. The president decrees; the state implements. In the case of the latter, it is no secret that Erdoğan has overseen the construction of a media environment that is overwhelmingly loyal and compliant to make his image shine. 

Despite having an overwhelming amount of control and influence over fundamental institutions, though, Erdoğan has been unable to gain the votes of Turkey’s educated, Kemalist, pro-Western, secular, and critically minded individuals. It’s not for a lack of effort. Throughout his tenure as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, many individuals who identified with one or a combination of these demographics gravitated to Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), mainly because the AKP of that era successfully projected itself as a big tent party that delivered economic growth and political stability while seemingly positioning Turkey on the path to European Union (EU) accession. That AKP and the Erdoğan who led it no longer exist. 

Erdoğan’s base of voters has increasingly shrunk to a narrower demographic, one that is suspicious of the West and its values and is paranoid about its intentions for Turkey. It is a worldview that fundamentally meshes with Erdoğan’s, who still believes that the United States was complicit in the failed 2016 coup and that Turkey can thrive wholly without being beholden to Western impositions.

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