Book Review: The New Sultan: Erdogan and the crisis of modern Turkey – Soner Cagaptay

This book by Soner Cagaptey does not qualify as a personal biography of President Erdogan, the details of his personal life hardly find a reference. Instead, what it can be classified as is his ‘political biography’. It is also the story of the decline of high Kemalism in Turkey or the rise of Islamism in Turkey.

The readers gets a glimpse of the society that Turkey was under Kemalism, divided vertically between the westernized upper class secular elites, inhabiting the posh urban landscapes of Istanbul and the average Turk drawn from the hinterland seeped in his Islamic tradition. The Kemalist constitution had kept these ‘regular’ conservative Turks out of political power and had (unsuccessfully) tried to de-culturise and de-islamise them. To maintain ones cultural and religious identity meant foregoing the chance for upward mobility. This fueled resentment in the likes of Erdogan who whose father had moved into Islatanbul from Anatolian hinterlands in search of livelihood. Erdogan grew up in the rough neighborhood of Kasimpasha, influenced not only by the hardships he encountered there but also the camaraderie and the sense of community amongst the inhabitants. A good student and a football player, he finally had to forgo his education in the religious Imam Hatip schools (which he liked) and move to schools providing secular education, for in Kemalist Turkey, that was the only way to acquire higher university education.

The book details Erdogan’s rise to power, first as the successful Mayor of Istanbul (he was however imprisoned and disqualified during his term because he made a reference to Islam and the faithful in one of his speeches). His AKP party came to power in 2002 and he became PM in 2003. His party had come to power when Turkey’s economy and polity was in shambles. Adopting pragmatism as his principle for governance Erdogan and his AKP have delivered spectacular economic growth (but for the last few years) and controlled inflation. In fact during their regime Turkey has moved from being a poor to a middle income country. The Turks in turn rewarded them by constantly giving them larger seats and vote shares at the hustings.

While many have accused him of being Islamic, my own opinion slightly differs. Erdogan is culturally Islamic, he has tried to modify the curriculum and introduced Islamic studies but there is no desire/talk to impose the Islamic legal code (Sharia) over society. The Kemalist constitution was deeply restrictive, imposing all kinds of restrictions on education, dress etc and the AKP has only removed those restrictions. In fact the AKP tried hard to bring its laws in consonance with the laws of EU (even abolishing the contentious death penalty) , with a view to finally gain full membership of EU, but despite all their efforts, it was the EU which turned its back on Turkey.

The book also mentions his failings; the desire to be another Ataturk, it seems, consumes Erdogan. He is accused of being a dictator and it is true, that many of his opponents have been cut to size through means, not exactly legal and constitutional. A shrewd politician, he has mastered the art of making friends, using them and then dropping them at will. He has defanged the military which (like in Pakistan) had assumed the constitutional role of the defender of Kemalism. His foreign policy infused with the desire to make Turkey the predominant power in the middle east (a throwback to the Ottoman empire days) does not seem to be working, so much so that Turkey today, does not have many friends in the middle east or around the world. The Kurdish issue still remains to be settled.

The recently concluded elections in Turkey have sounded a warning bell to Erdogan. While AKP still is the largest party, the loss of Ankara and Istanbul shows that he needs to do a course correction if he has to retain power. I saw him address his party day before yesterday on You Tube. He did sound pretty self critical, much more than I had even seen him in the past. Hope he realizes the fragility of power…hubris has a short self life in politics…but then Erdogan is a survivor. Earlier too, whenever they have lost vote share, AKP has always bounced back in the next election.


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