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Unpacking Turkey’s Crisis with The New Sultan: Book Review

By Oya Aktaş

Soner Cagaptay owes a special thanks to Recep Tayyip Erdogan for scheduling the constitutional referendum fortuitously to coincide with the launch of Cagaptay’s new book, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey. The results of the April 16th referendum—Erdogan winning just over half the vote, the opposition objecting to irregularities, but Erdogan ignoring their complaints and pushing ahead with his agenda—perfectly encapsulate the core argument of Cagaptay’s book: Turkey’s polarization has catapulted the country into a severe crisis, and Erdogan is at least in part responsible for the extent of this polarization.

The New Sultan chronicles a political history of Turkey through the lens of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s early life, introduction to politics, rise in the AKP, and consolidation of power. After a decade and a half in office, Erdogan has become the most unassailable leader in the history of the Turkish Republic since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s founder. Ataturk established the republic in accordance with his vision of a secular, Western nation; Erdogan now wants to transform Turkey into its antithesis: a conservative, Islamist state. But while Erdogan’s vision for Turkey is diametrically opposed to that of Ataturk, the two leaders share the same methods: top-down social engineering, especially through public policy and education. The New Sultan argues that the time for Ataturk’s social engineering methods have past, and Erdogan will encounter significant challenges when trying to impose his vision on a country comprising a mélange of social, political, ethnic, and religious groups.

Erdogan’s method for building political support has been to demonize groups that oppose him strategically; he alienates one group while aligning with the others, but once he has achieved his political aims, he reshuffles alliances. Using this strategy, he cracked down on the secularists in the Ergenekon military trials, the leftists and liberals in the Gezi Park protests, the Gulenists following the December 2013 corruption scandal, and the Kurds in summer 2015. Since Erdogan courted certain groups while estranging others, he was able to ensure that the opposition could not form a united front to oppose him effectively. Now that Erdogan has run out of domestic enemies, he has turned his sights outwards, demonizing foreign countries and pursuing an aggressively nationalist line in order to increase his base by courting ultra-nationalists—to Turkey’s long-term detriment.

To ameliorate the crisis of modern Turkey, Cagaptay advocates in The New Sultan for a new constitution that will guarantee rights for all of Turkey’s opposing factions. By ensuring freedom of religion for conservatives and freedom from religion for seculars, as well as providing broad individual freedoms for all citizens, including the Kurds, this constitution could resolve the grievances that are currently tearing Turkey apart. However, Cagaptay also emphasizes that Turkey’s opposition needs a charismatic leader with enough political clout to unique a fractured opposition and champion this political transformation.

Cagaptay launched his book at the WINEP event last week along with two other Turkey experts in Washington DC: Middle East Institute’s Gönül Tol and Journalist Amberin Zaman. Among others, Cagaptay had a special thanks to Oya Aktaş for her assistance preparing the book.

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