Thursday, October 15, 2015

Narcissism and politics: Erdogan, the AKP and Islamism

A recent article looked at the link between narcissism and politics. It comes as no surprise to most people that a significant number of politicians are narcissists. The article looked at the characteristics that distinguish a "narcissist politician", some common themes, behaviour, and also the inevitability of a narcissist politician's transformation: from the initial perception as "saviour", to the moment when the curtain is finally drawn for all to see; and the narcissist politician is shown to be an unstable and dangerous fraud, who has little interest in the people he is meant to be serving, and only creates division and distress in society to mask his inevitable failings.

In that article we looked at the example of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose personality exhibits many of the qualities that could be commonly-associated with a narcissist. In this article we will look at another contemporary leader who exhibits the qualities mentioned (and others not yet mentioned) that are synonymous with a narcissist politician. This next politician "fits the bill" down to a tee (as detailed in this excellent analysis by Sam Vaknin).

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the President of Turkey. He is the founder of the AKP, the party that he created, acting as its leader, then Prime Minster of Turkey, until his succession to becoming President last year.
Narcissist politicians are usually populists, who use their over-size personality to win the admiration of their support base. At the same time, in order to win support, there is the need for a "story" and a "grievance", which gives the leader and his support base a common bond and a sense of brotherhood and common cause. It is this "common cause" and sense of grievance that holds both the narcissist leader and his followers in a "double bind", where they reflect each other's sense of self, and give the original seed that plants the idea that the leader and his followers are bound together in a special mission to "right a wrong".
A narcissist leader is someone who is fundamentally insecure and plies on the insecurities existing in his support base; likewise, the support base (in this case, political Islam) receives positive reinforcement in its pathology from its narcissist leader. In this way, both the leader and the support base are bound by their respective sense of insecurity and shared identity in their unjust "grievance", Thus when the leader's insecure personality feels under threat, so does his support base, as he acts both as their "protector" and as their psychological conduit.  This theme will become critical later on.

In the case of Erdogan, this "grievance" was bound up with the nature of Turkish politics (as mentioned here, likewise with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood). The secular nature of the Turkish republic historically meant it was very difficult for openly religious parties to become successful. Erdogan had been mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s for the AKP's predecessor, the "Refah" Party. This party was then abolished amidst a political crisis after a brief (and controversial) period in government. Erdogan was later arrested and sent to prison for reading out a poem considered to be inciting religious violence. After being released from prison, he set about re-forming the main essence of the dismantled "Refah" party under his leadership, now known as the AKP. This period also coincided with a huge inflationary crisis in Turkey, which discredited the established secular parties in many people's eyes. Many of those eyes then turned to the AKP in the national elections in the autumn of 2002, resulting in an AKP government.

After concluding a political ban, Erdogan became the Prime Minister in 2003, succeeding his predecessor, Abdullah Gul, who had been keeping the AKP Premiership warm for him since the election. For a number of years, Erdogan was highly-popular, appearing as a statesmanlike, "father of the nation" figure to many. In his first term, Erdogan's moderation was conspicuous, as he sought to reassure floating voters that his Islamist-style government was not a threat to Turkey's secular traditions. At the same time, the economy was booming as had never been seen, and on the international stage, Erdogan was keen to impress on neighbouring powers, including the EU and the USA. This was Erdogan's "honeymoon period", and it seemed to last for a number of years.

Gradually, Erdogan raised issues that ticked boxes with his support base, while at the same time clarifying these moves to secularists as righting legitimate "grievances" that had existed under the status quo. Here we see the slow transformation of the narcissist "populist" politician to authoritarian leader (as has been seen many times before).
The narcissist, once secure in power, cannot be content with "things as they are": he begins to see threats to his position, and so begins to justify attacking his opponents - we see this with the "purging" of the military of those individuals that feared Erdogan's power, and in the infamous "Ergenekon" case. Thus the military was turned into an effective appendage of the government, whereas in the past it had sometimes deposed governments for various reasons. The judiciary soon went the same way, as it was also slowly removed of its more stubborn elements.
Likewise, once the narcissist is secure in power, his inflated sense of pride sees injuries everywhere, out of all sense of rational proportion. In this way, the media began to get regular interference from government on its editorial policy, or are told to be careful of the consequences of what they say. By the end of the 2000s, journalists and members of the bohemian art society were being pressurised by government to "toe the line" better, or face prison. Some failed to do so, and suffered the government's wrath.

It was in this gradually-darkening climate that the 2008 financial crisis hit Turkey. Over the coming years, the rhetoric from Erdogan gradually became more polarising, and more overt signs of the "Islamisation" of Turkish government became apparent. At the same time, relations with the West became more awkward, especially over Turkey's negotiations with the EU over eventual future membership.
It was clear that Erdogan was beginning to nail his colours to the mast more brazenly, both abroad as well as at home. The "Arab Spring" was seized by Erdogan as a moment to cement Turkey's growing influence in the Middle East with unmistakable intent. His conspicuous support for his "sister party" in Egypt initially saw encouragement from the West, only for this to sour when it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood were not interested in following Erdogan's "slowly slowly" policy of incremental steps towards an Islamic government. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's impatience to settle their "grievance" with the secular status quo led to a rapid return to a secular, military-led government. As a result, Erdogan's misjudgment at dabbling in foreign affairs meant he was now persona non grata in the Arab world's most populous country. This pattern would be repeated again - with far more immediate and devastating consequences for Turkey - in the Syrian Civil War.

 It was small things that caused the spark that would eventually boil over into the Gezi Park protests of May-August 2013. The gradual implementation of  the"Islamist" agenda resulted in small, incremental changes to aspects of social life in Turkey: in places like Istanbul, outdoor seating in bars was prohibited; meanwhile, cigarette advertising was banned. Often it was small changes that were quickly forgotten about unless prompted. Police tactics were also becoming increasingly aggressive towards political protests. At the same time, a large number of construction projects, often ran by businesses with close links to the AKP, began to proliferate, sometimes by flying in the face of environmental concerns. While these were by themselves small things - and while some of them could be argued were indeed helpful to Turkey's economy - the mood of society was growing darker at the changes some of them saw.
The Gezi Park protests were a protest about the bulldozing of a central Istanbul Park to make way for a pseudo-reconstruction of a former Ottoman barracks, kitted out as a shopping mall. To his detractors, this symbolised everything they hated in Erdogan and his government: a combination of disregard for other's point of view, corrupt Capitalism, and using superficial, "neo-Ottoman" nostalgia to appeal to the grassroots.
It was also Erdogan's reaction to the protest that demonstrated the true person behind the mask of the statesman. The Gezi Park protests showed to its critics what Erdogan and his brand of "Islamism" was really about. Invoking conspiracies by the "interest rates lobby", the Western media, and calling those protesters and critical Turkish journalists as traitors to their country, Erdogan displayed all the hallmarks of a narcissist politician when he feels he is under threat. Using ever more divisive rhetoric while praising the brutal tactics of the police, Erdogan was a man who was lashing out at those who had dared to jeopardise his plans, who had hurt his delicate sense of pride. With his insecurities seemingly revealed, he played another card by stirring up religious tensions; Alevis (a branch of Shia Islam) were targeted for criticism, resulting in days of protests in Alevi neighbourhoods. In this way, by appealing to the many prejudices existing with his own Islamist support base, he reinforced their own sense of victimhood.
 In the aftermath, the many deaths that occurred during the weeks of protests, and the many arrests and prison sentences that followed, were either brushed under the carpet or seen as hooligans getting their just desserts.

But these protests were only the start of the controversies; the tip of the iceberg.  At the end of 2013, a huge corruption scandal rocked the AKP government, seemingly bringing into jeopardy Erdogan's much-cherished plans to become President, and then transform the previously-symbolic (and non-partisan) role of President into something much more autocratic, in the style of someone like Vladimir Putin. Again, the same culprits were blamed as with the Gezi Park protests. Again, his support base rallied behind their "master", in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, and somehow the crisis was averted, after ministerial resignations and the prosecution of some minor politicians.
And so, later on in 2014, as expected, Erdogan progressed to the presidency. And it being Erdogan, it was only fitting that a new Presidential Palace had to be built, to fit the prestige of the role that Erdogan was to play. The former presidental palace, now considered too modest a setting for Turkey's new president, was to be replaced. But it appears that Erdogan was keen to make a double point of this new palace: first, it would be built on forestry land (actually the "Ataturk Forest farm"!) that was legally protected by statute - in other words, Erdogan was almost literally bulldozing over Ataturk's legacy; second, it would be one of the largest (if not, the largest) palaces in the world. It was also designed to be extremely lavish in its costs and materials used, without serving any real purpose than for the sake of it. Erdogan justified the incredible cost by arguing that it "improved Turkey's prestige". This is an answer typical to a grandiose narcissist leader, who equates his own prestige with that of his country, seeing the two as the same.
At the same time, since becoming president, Erdogan has been brazenly flouting presidential impartiality by using his officially non-partisan role as president to campaign for "his" party. But as usual, Erdogan's behaviour always went unpunished. Meanwhile, the number of arrests of individuals for "insulting the president" rose to previously-unprecedented proportions - including against a 13-year-old child!

The rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was a disaster for Turkey's Middle East policy. After supporting rebel groups in Syria, and seemingly tolerating the rise of extremist groups in Syria, the result for Turkey was two million Syrian refugees, and an ISIS presence in Turkey that was getting out of hand. By the summer of 2015, another factor was at play in Turkey.
The Gezi Park protests had found a political voice called the HDP.  This group was comprised of left-wing and liberal groups, but also - crucially -  Kurds. In the autumn of 2014, the failure of the Turkish government to fight ISIS in support of the Kurds in Syria had resulted in mass protests following the siege of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobane. By summer 2015 and the imminent national elections, this meant that the Kurds - a powerful bloc of AKP support up to this point - could no longer be relied on by Erdogan. Crucially, over the years Erdogan had made positive signs towards peace with the PKK, which had gained him great kudos from the Kurds. His Syria strategy had now destroyed that kudos.
It was at this point that, under pressure from the West, the Turkish government agreed to join in strikes against ISIS...only to start bombing the PKK as well. Before long, the PKK was the Turkish government's only real target. It seems apparent that, in his fury at the loss of Kurdish support, Erdogan was now restarting the fight against the PKK. Military tactics in Kurdish towns and cities in Turkey's east suddenly became much more confrontational and reckless.

The July elections produced in an inconclusive result for the AKP, eventually culminating in an AKP-led coalition to last until early elections in November. As we have seen since then, the divisive rhetoric and war against the PKK have resulted in levels of political violence and an atmosphere of division and distrust unseen since perhaps the 1970s.
Erdogan's support base is now all he has left: he has alienated the moderates, and he has infuriated the Kurds. By appealing to the insecurities and prejudices of his own Islamist support base, which were also reflections of his own narcissistic personality, Erdogan has brought himself into a crisis of his own making. Time will tell what his next move will be.

Using the cloak of Islamism and the fiery rhetoric of low populism has eventually taken his personality to the inevitable point where he has only bad options left. As with all narcissists in positions of power, they over-reach if they are unable to restrain their natural instincts. The example of Erdogan is an education in this pathology.

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