Mustafa Akyol writes for Al-Monitor:
Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan made a public remark that gave shivers to Turkey's liberal democrats. After complaining about the obstacles that Turkey's archaic-minded judiciary has raised against elected governments, he took on something more fundamental: “Time and again,” he said, “the obstacle we face is this thing called separation of powers.
In the next few-days, senior names in Erdoğan’s party spin-doctored this comment. What the prime minister actually opposed, they explained, is the judiciary’s overstepping into the political realm — such as blocking the privatization of state companies out of a commitment to “Atatürk’s principle of statism". About a week later, Erdoğan himself confirmed that his intention was to condemn not the separation of powers, but its misuse.
Yet still, Erdoğan’s reckless comment was taken by some as a manifestation of his gut feelings, if not true intentions, about the nature of political power: that he wants minimum checks and balances on the executive, which is dominated by none other than himself. Those who prefer bolder terms even spoke of Erdoğan’s “dictatorial ambitions".
In fact, it would be unfair to call Erdoğan a “dictator.” Such rulers run a country by brute force and eliminating all opposition by decree. Erdoğan, however, owes his political power to the ballots. As the leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), the most successful political phenomenon in recent Turkish history, he has been winning every election since 2002 with a steady increase in his votes. “The people", in other words, certainly give Erdoğan a mandate.
Moreover, the ten years that the AKP has spent in power has been mostly a decade of economic progress and political reform. Thanks partly to the European Union accession process and partly to the AKP’s own vision, which has proved less nationalist and more pragmatic than most of its predecessors, many liberal changes have taken place in Turkey. Military tutelage and police torture became history. Minorities, ranging from Kurds to Christians, gained new rights.
In addition to that, the fears by Turkey’s hard-core secularists that the AKP would destroy the secular republic to create a “shariah state” also proved to be wrong. Despite its Islamist roots, the AKP evolved to a “post-Islamist” party, which, in the words of Oliver Roy, “recast[ed] religious norms into vaguer conservative values, [such as] family, property, honesty, the work ethic.” Today, the AKP is still too religious-minded for Turkey’s seculars, but the tensions between the two camps — such as role of religion in public life, religious education, or abortion — are not too different from what can one find between moral conservatives and secular liberals in the United States.
But all such accomplishments of the AKP have recently been overshadowed — not by the “hidden Islamist agenda” that the secularists feared, but a more mundane problem: lust for power, especially Erdoğan’s personal lust for power.