As Recep Tayyip Erdogan returned as president of Turkey on Monday, armed with sweeping executive powers, he found cheerleaders in the subcontinent. “Brother nation” Pakistan rushed to congratulate Erdogan even as the results were emerging on Sunday. It is not clear yet whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi has followed suit, but congratulations have poured in from various sections of the Muslim community in India.
Messages of celebration were circulated on social media. Madhyamam, the third-largest Malayalam daily, published by a Jama’at-e-Islami controlled trust, was all praise for Erdogan on Tuesday. The leader dominated the headlines on the page for international news and a profile of the president, printed in a coloured box, runs under the legend, “Erdogan: the politician who knows Turkey’s pulse.”
The editorial page ran an opinion piece entitled, “Turkey becomes powerful; Erdogan too”. It praised the “strong man in Turkey” for achieving economic development and examined the “prospering” of the democratic space in his country. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s entry into parliament and Erdogan’s apparent outreach to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, a rebel group fighting against the oppression of the ethnic minority, were proof of the president’s democratic temperament, according to the writer.
Meanwhile, in Kashmir, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the separatist Hurriyat (M), was one of the first to congratulate Erdogan. Later, Hurriyat (G) leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani warmly commended Turkey’s economic growth and “stronger position in the international arena” as well as Erdogan’s moral support for Kashmiri independence. He may have been recalling Erdogan’s offer to facilitate multilateral talks on Kashmir last year. “Our long and painful walk to freedom demands and deserves more practical and concrete steps from every freedom-loving nation especially the collective forum of Muslim countries,” reminded Geelani in a statement.
The English daily, Greater Kashmir, took note of Erdogan’s victory speech, where he called his return to power a win for “all oppressed people in the world”.
The Turkish leader’s brand of politics has spawned a new noun in foreign policy circles: Erdoganism. In Turkey, it is replacing the dogma of Kemalism, named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revolutionary leader who set up the Turkish Republic in 1923, banished the Ottomans to museums and embarked on a project of militant secularism. Erdoganism, which invokes the glory of a lost Ottoman past, depends on a rhetoric heavy in religious themes and symbols and aims to create a “pious generation” in Turkey, also has resonances outside the country.
One of the main components of Erdoganism is a form of pan-Islamism, where the Turkish leader positions himself as the “hope” of a suffering Muslim world, under siege by the imperialist West and its allies. It holds a degree of appeal for various marginalised Muslim populations: in Kashmir, where a separatist movement has brought on heavy-handed state action, and in the Indian mainland, where Muslim minorities feel increasingly insecure in the face of majoritarian hate.
But it is not undiluted admiration across the board, and urban, educated Muslims give rise to heated debates when they warn against the undemocratic effects of hero-worshipping leaders, whether it is Erdogan or Modi.
The similarities between the two leaders have often been pointed out. Both swept to power in countries longing for “strongmen” and decisive governance. Both used religious nationalism to construct a homogenising identity for their respective countries. Both thrive on a cult of personality, positioning themselves as outsiders to a corrupt power complex, using a story of struggle and rise from humble origins to reach out to a large mass base.
Erdogan and Modi also peddled a certain idea of economic growth and development, glittering with ambitious infrastructure projects and the promise of upward mobility. The sheen of development has not worn off over time, even if the reality falls short of expectations. With Modi, sluggish growth figures and punishing economic policies, such as demonetisation, have not been electorally damaging so far. Turkey is already in the middle of a “slow burning economic crisis”, with the Turkish lira plummeting and foreign investments waning. Still, many voters see Erdogan as their only hope of economic stability.
The similarities get darker. As Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer has written, both Modi and Erdogan have grim records when it comes to safeguarding the rights of minorities and giving space to dissent. Stonepelters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, for instance, met with the same kind of security crackdown as youth on the streets of Kashmir. While India keeps slipping on press freedom, Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison and virtually no independent media.
Both leaders have also chosen brute force when it comes to dealing with armed rebellions. The Modi government has aborted almost all political process and relies on military operations to deal with militancy in Kashmir. Erdogan’s image as the defender of the oppressed takes a hit when it comes to the large Kurdish minority in Turkey. A pro-Kurdish party may have made it to the Turkish parliament, but its leader contested and won from prison. Earlier this year, the Erdogan regime also rejected a French mediation offer, saying he would not talk to “terrorist organisations”. In the past, the Turkish president has launched military campaigns in the Kurdish areas of South East Turkey and he now extends the offensive to Syrian Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria.
But in some respects, there may be a difference in degree as well as method. In India, majoritarian chaos has spread largely through hate crimes like lynching and vigilante violence, all under the acquiescent silence of the government. While the Modi government has displayed both repressive and centralising tendencies, it cannot yet compete with the Erdogan regime. In Turkey, the powers of the president spread out to hold the country in a vice-like grip.
After an attempted military coup in 2016, Erdogan declared a state of emergency which enabled a wave of purges. Figures vary but, according to a website run by young Turkish journalists, over 151,000 state officials, teachers and bureaucrats have been dismissed under government decrees, over 140,000 detained and nearly 80,000 arrested. Thousands of schools and universities have been shut down and thousands of judges and prosecutors dismissed since July 2016.
Finally, in 2017, Erdogan won a referendum to enact sweeping constitutional changes that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. In an executive presidency, Erdogan will have the power to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, enact certain laws by decree and declare an emergency under which he can dismiss parliament.
As the June elections approached the Turkish countryside was awash with red national flags and around Erdogan’s hometown, Rize, larger than life posters of the president declared the advent of the “world leader”. Going by his record in Turkey, however, the “oppressed people” that he claims to stand for have little reason to be optimistic.