Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced during his inaugural address Monday that Turkey is entering a “new era,” where the nation will take center stage in geopolitics and citizens are expected to submit to the will of the state for the greater good of Turkish identity.
Members of Erdoğan’s party, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), took to Twitter, sending the hashtag #NewEraWithErdogan to the top of the worldwide trend list on Monday. Supporters in Turkish media warned those who saw themselves as more than Turkish to abandon all other identities in the “new era.”
If the repetitive use of the term “new era” and call for ethnonationalist unity appear familiar, it is because a much larger nation-building project is underway halfway across the planet. In China, Xi Jinping has made his “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” the heart of domestic and foreign policy, styling himself as the benevolent father figure of the nation and enacting policies to both turn China into the world’s dominant superpower and crush any individuals who fail to conform to Xi’s definition of Chinese identity.
It is not the first time Erdoğan has appeared to take a leaf out of Xi’s book. The Turkish head of state made an economic tour of Africa this year promoting a Turkish version of joint projects that sounded eerily like China’s One Belt, One Road program. He has purged over 100,000 from public jobs, most soldiers and policemen, in crackdowns reminiscent of Xi’s “corruption” arrests.
Yet the use of language so similar to Xi’s in his “new era” propaganda signals a more complete turn away from Western political norms and a greater victory for China’s viral authoritarianism.
Like Xi, Erdoğan defines his country’s “new era” as one in which his greatly expanded powers will bring in great prosperity for those who behave under his rule.
“In the new era, Turkey will improve in every field, including democracy, fundamental rights, freedoms, economy and large investments,” the president promised in his speech on Monday, specifically referring to the “new era” following the replacement of the nation’s parliamentary system with a presidential one. Erdoğan has absorbed the powers of the prime ministership, which no longer exists, and can largely rule by decree, without most of the checks on executive power common in presidential systems in the West.
“Turkey is leaving behind a system which cost the country politically, socially, economically,” Erdoğan promised, calling the new system “far beyond our almost 150-year-quest for democracy and what we have experienced through the history of our 95-year-old republic.”
The “new era” language was all over social media, shared through image macros celebrating Erdoğan by members of the AKP.
— Dr.Ravza KAVAKCI KAN (@RavzaKavakci) July 9, 2018
— Hasan AKTAN (@AktanHasann) July 9, 2018
While Erdoğan’s speech hinted at the “new era” being one of historical empowerment for Turkey, what he left out of the speech surfaced in the fiercely pro-Erdoğan newspaper Yeni Safak, whose editor-in-chief Ibrahim Karagül regularly pens columns calling for the total destruction of Erdoğan’s enemies and wild conspiracy theories tying anyone critical of Turkish policy or Islamism generally to Israel.
“Regardless of who we are, regardless of where we stand, our common criteria is going to be homeland, nation, and state. We are all in a position to redefine ourselves based on this criteria,” Karagül wrote in anticipation of the inauguration, demanding that all within the country submit to a “Turkish” identity defined by Erdoğan. “What we have now is Turkey. As a whole, a common cause, as a reality of the region and the world, we have Turkey. Everybody is going to adjust themselves according to Turkey.”
“All political parties, fronts are required to retest themselves in terms of nativity,” Karagül insisted.
Lest anyone question how close Karagül and his firebrand opinions are to the highest echelons of power in Erdoğan’s Turkey, the editor posted photos on his Twitter account Monday boasting of his prime seat at the president’s inauguration.
Bu ülkeden, bu milletten,
bu tarihten gurur duyuyorum.
Muhteşem bir geleceğe yürüyoruz.. pic.twitter.com/pajDf3hzi4
— İbrahim Karagül (@ibrahimkaragul) July 9, 2018
Erdoğan’s speech bore clear resemblances to Xi Jinping’s three-hour address to the Communist Party of China in October. “It is time for us to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” Xi declared, he too announcing a “new era” in Chinese history and threatening anyone who stood in his way.
Like Erdoğan, too, the most overt ethnonationalist language was left out of the hands of the dictator himself, passed down to state media. China’s Global Times has repeatedly asserted the superiority of “traditional Chinese culture,” whether it be in implementing a better communism than the Soviet Union or in allegedly avoiding sexual assault scandals like the West’s.
What it means to be Turkish in Erdoğan’s country has long been a matter of concern for the nation’s ethnic Kurdish minority. Erdoğan has imposed Turkish language and Islamic education throughout the country for “forge a pious generation” of Turks. Speaking at a campaign stop last month, Erdoğan dismissed the idea of Kurdish national identity entirely.
“No one should be searching for a state for [Turkey’s] Kurds. The state of the Republic of Turkey is the state of all of us. Kurds’ state is the state of the Republic of Turkey,” Erdoğan said in the heavily Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, according to Hurriyet.
“Our Kurdish brothers and sisters are under protection of the state of Turkish Republic. Of course there is a right to voice different political demands. But it has to be done within legitimate boundaries,” he warned.
Diyarbakır has been one of the areas of Turkey hardest hit by Erdoğan’s state of emergency, imposed in July 2016 after a failed coup attempt against his rule. The military overran much of the city for months, imposing new curfews as recently as this year and justifying it because of the alleged presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the region, a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
Erdoğan’s treatment of the Kurdish south is a milder version of what Muslims in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, have seen the past two years. Uighur language, the dominant tongue in the region, has largely been replaced in schools by Mandarin teaching. Curricula teach “core socialist values” to children legally banned from attending religious services. All cars in the province must use a GPS tracking system that tells the government where they are at all times. Most alarmingly, Xi Jinping has reportedly set up “political reeducation camps” for those suspected of being insufficiently loyal to Xi Jinping, or at least too devoutly Muslim.
Political reeducation camps may not be coming to Turkey soon, but much of Turkish Kurdistan’s political leadership is languishing in jail. The presidential candidate who won Diyarbakır, Mardin, and much of the Kurdish southeast, Selahattin Demirtaş of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), was forced to campaign in jail, where he has been for over a year for allegedly supporting terrorism by advocating for Kurdish rights. Dozens of HDP politicians, including elected lawmakers, join him in prison, and many Kurds fear that the cells will fill all the faster in the “new era.”
The Kurds have much to fear, but so does the West. Observers have long warned that Erdoğan appears to have sympathies for radical Islamic ideologies and fascist policies. Yet he appears to be inching closer and closer to the global authoritarian left led by China – if not in ideology, at least in strategy, and definitely in lack of interest in hearing dissent.