BACKGROUND: On June 14, 2016, in an interview with Bloomberg, Chief Presidential Advisor Mehmet Uçum declared that Erdoğan’s insistence on changing the Turkish constitution and introducing a presidential system was because he was anxious to prevent the current parliamentary one “from potentially producing an authoritarian regime.”
This will come as a surprise to most Turkey observers. Particularly since the 2013 Gezi Park Protests demonstrated that he could not realize his dreams by democratic means, Erdoğan has become increasingly repressive in a desperate attempt not only to tighten his monopoly of power but also to impose his totalitarian vision of a society homogenized according to his own beliefs and prejudices. The result has been to send Turkey spiraling into its worst crisis in nearly forty years: stripped of even the pretence of judicial impartiality and the rule of law, torn by social tensions, wracked by violence – particularly from the war in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country – and internationally isolated. Once touted by Washington as a model for other Muslim leaders to follow, Erdoğan is now reviled by the political classes in Europe and the U.S. and lampooned as a caricature of an oriental potentate in the popular Western media.
Even in the Middle East – where his strident attacks against Israel once made him a hero on the Arab street – Erdoğan’s ruthless suppression of dissent, his relentless nostalgia for a largely imagined Ottoman past, his hectoring insistence that the Muslim world should look to him for leadership and the wearying familiarity of the manner in which he has lavished the state’s resources on personal aggrandizement have seen his reputation plummet. Many in the region still aspire to the lifestyles they believe are enjoyed by Turks. Very few wish to be ruled by Erdoğan, particularly as his growing authoritarianism is not only eroding the perceived freedoms that once made Turkey attractive but is now threatening to stifle the country’s economy.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took office in November 2002 in the slipstream of the introduction by the previous government of an Economic Stabilization Program, which had been drafted in cooperation with the IMF following the economic collapse of 2001. Under the careful stewardship of the then Economics Minister Ali Babacan, the AKP shepherded economic recovery. It did not instigate it. In fact, despite the AKP’s repeated promises to do so, Erdoğan refused to introduce much-needed structural reforms. In recent years, as the pace of growth has slowed, the Turkish economy has become heavily dependent on domestic demand, which – given the country’s low savings rate – has been largely financed by borrowing from abroad, particularly in US dollars. As a result, Turkey is now highly vulnerable to any downturn in foreign lender confidence at a time when faltering domestic consumer confidence and proposed legislative changes to make it easier for Erdoğan to seize companies owned by his perceived opponents are already ringing alarm bells in the country’s business community.
Nor is it possible to describe Turkey as a functioning democracy. Even though voters can still exercise the right to make a choice at the ballot box, they are manifestly unable to make an informed choice. As his control over the media has expanded in both breadth and depth, Erdoğan has become increasingly able to shape the public discourse – dictating not only what does and does not appear in the mainstream media but also the vocabulary used to describe events. Ironically, Erdoğan’s failure to deliver on his promises of peace and prosperity at home and respect and influence abroad has led to an intensification in the Erdoğan personality cult – to the point where it now serves as a substitute for achievement. Erdoğan himself has taken to portraying each failure as proof of his greatness, claiming that they are all products of nefarious conspiracies by his domestic critics and scheming Western powers to try to prevent Turkey’s otherwise inexorable rise to global pre-eminence under his leadership.
In practice, Erdoğan has now made his political survival dependent on inculcating a siege mentality amongst his followers, which has led to suggestions that his toxic rhetoric is merely a ploy to consolidate his popular support base. However, immured within his grandiose palace and enveloped by a coterie of sycophantic advisors, Erdoğan increasingly appears to believe what he says.
IMPLICATIONS: In reality, what Erdoğan is pushing for is not a presidential system but an Erdoğan system, which has been customized to his own needs and personality. But there will come a time when Erdoğan is no longer in office. The more his devotees laud what they claim are his exceptional qualities, the more they beg the question of who will succeed him – with or without a presidential system.
There is little prospect of Erdoğan being able to draw on his own family to establish a dynasty. Erdoğan’s prioritization of loyalty over ability has inevitably exacerbated the competence deficit in his administration, and has been one of the main reasons for its recent record of failures and fiascos. Like many autocrats, Erdoğan has been reluctant to groom a successor for fear that s/he may launch an early bid for power. Consequently, although his successor may come from within the Turkish Islamist movement, s/he is unlikely to be an Erdoğan loyalist or to be drawn from his inner circle. This increases the likelihood of a purge of the Erdoğan nomenklatura from the state apparatus once Erdoğan himself is no longer in power. It is unclear to what extent this is likely to lead to a reversal of the de-institutionalization of decision-making that has come to characterize the Erdoğan Era. But, given that his successor is unlikely to be able to match Erdoğan’s monopoly of political power, there would likely be at least a partial re-strengthening of Turkey’s institutions. However, restoring public faith in the rule of law and judicial independence will be a major challenge and will take time.
But, for the foreseeable future, there appears little possibility of the return to the system of military tutelage. Chief of Staff General Yaşar Büyükanıt’s failed attempt to prevent the AKP from appointing Abdullah Gül to the presidency in April 2007 revealed what most of the generals had known for years, namely that the military’s ability to shape Turkish politics had been reduced to little more than bluff and bluster. The slew of court cases brought by members of the Fethullah Gülen Movement from late 2007 onwards – such as the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations – were not the cause but the product of the realization that the era of military tutelage was over. Nevertheless, the failure of their commanders to defend hundreds of serving and retired officers against patently fabricated charges of plotting a military coup has meant that few would follow them if they ever decided to try to stage a real one.
Nor does there appear any prospect of a re-imposition of the interpretation of Kemalism that prevailed before the AKP came to power. It is currently unclear whether Kemalism will be able to reinvent itself by historicizing Atatürk and focusing on reinterpreting some of his principles – such as secularism and modernity -- rather than seeking to imitate the practices of Atatürk’s lifetime. However, many Kemalists now acknowledge that some of Kemalism’s more draconian practices – such as banning females wearing the hijab from attending university – amounted to persecution. Indeed, the AKP’s championing of pious Sunni Muslims has brought them into the social mainstream and helped break down some of the prejudices they previously faced. Although Erdoğan has repeatedly attempted to portray his critics as being anti-Islamic, the divisions between his supporters and opponents are much deeper than those between secularists and religious conservatives – and the dividing lines are not contiguous.
Nevertheless, even without Erdoğan’s pernicious influence, beneath a superficial tolerance, large sections of Turkish society still regard diversity as something to be suspected rather than embraced and celebrated. Similarly, Erdoğan’s aggressive reform of the education system, to increase the compulsory inculcation of a particular interpretation of Sunni Islam, shares with the previous Kemalist regime a tendency to regard education as an instrument of social engineering rather than as a means of personal development.
One area where Erdoğan has broken new ground – and inadvertently laid the foundations for an eventual solution – is on the Kurdish issue. Erdoğan’s primary reason for initiating a publicly acknowledged dialogue with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2009 appears to have been to try to reap the short-term political rewards of being able to claim credit for persuading the organization to announce a ceasefire, rather than because he ever considered passing reforms to address the underlying causes of its insurgency. Since he unilaterally abrogated the dialogue in March 2015, Erdoğan has repeatedly vowed that there can be no return to talks unless the PKK disarms and disbands. This is not going to happen. As a result, Erdoğan has now become a prisoner of his own rhetoric. Even if he has the desire to do so, he cannot return to talks without a humiliating – and potentially politically crippling -- about-face. Nevertheless, the breaking of the taboo on “negotiating with terrorists” and the dramatic decline in casualties during the PKK ceasefire in 2013-14 means that there is now a broad consensus in Turkey – including among many in the AKP – that the Kurdish issue can only be resolved through negotiations, not on the battlefield. This is not to say that finding a solution will be easy after Erdoğan has left. But it appears impossible while he remains in power.
CONCLUSIONS: Such has been Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics that – however it occurs – his eventual departure from office will almost certainly be followed by a period of uncertainty and confusion. The performances of neither the opposition parties nor his opponents within the AKP inspire confidence that the end of the Erdoğan will be automatically followed by the establishment of an effective government. But, once some form of functioning administration is in place, it is likely to be the recipient of considerable diplomatic, economic and political goodwill from the international community.
In itself, Erdoğan’s departure will not resolve Turkey’s many problems and challenges. But the fear is that the longer Erdoğan remains in power, the greater damage will be done -- not only to the social fabric of the country but also to what has always been an incipient rather than an established democracy.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
Image attribution: news.mak.ac.ug, accessed on June 23, 2016