On October 29, the Republic of Turkey will celebrate its centennial. Whether it does so as a flawed and fractious but revitalized democracy or a dug-in authoritarian kakistocracy depends on the judgment of 60-plus million Turks, who will trudge to the polls to cast a ballot on May 14. The stakes are higher than at any point since 1950, when — on that same date — the Republican People’s Party (“Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi,” CHP) of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his successor İsmet İnönü (which had ruled the country since its founding) lost Turkey’s first free and fair election to the upstart populist Adnan Menderes.
It’s no coincidence that the present election falls on the anniversary of the one that inaugurated Turkish multiparty democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for the past two decades (longer than Atatürk himself) chose that date precisely for its resonance. It’s meant to imply a lineage between himself and Menderes, the suave landowner-turned-politician who vanquished the Kemalist establishment at the ballot box and ruled for 10 years — until he was deposed by Kemalist officers, tried by Kemalist judges and hanged by the neck. Erdoğan likes to portray himself as the martyred Menderes’ heir and redeemer: a champion of the pious masses against the secular elites who founded the country and ruled by coercion (at first outright, later from the shadows) but whom he has managed to tame and relegate to perennial opposition. Like Menderes, Erdoğan made his political bones by playing to the peoples’ grievances while delivering them services and the satisfactions of schadenfreude; like Menderes, he has faced attempts at undemocratic ouster by the courts and the military; and, like Menderes, he has grown paranoid, overweening and authoritarian during his years in office. But, unlike his hero and model, Erdoğan has managed to stave off all efforts to remove him.
Erdoğan has persevered by playing opposing factions against each other — first this one, then that one, then another, in turn — until he sidelined, neutralized or co-opted all of them. Since 2018, when the office of prime minister was abolished and superseded by a new executive presidency, Erdoğan has ruled with no checks or balances on his authority. As what amounts to an elected strongman, he exercises more power than any leader since Atatürk.
Yet Erdoğan remains constrained in one crucial respect: he cannot dispense with competitive elections. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk never needed to run against competition. His legitimacy derived from victory at Gallipoli in World War I and again in Turkey’s War of Independence and from the immense prestige that accrued to him as founding father of the nation. Erdoğan has no such prerogative. His legitimacy — even in the eyes of his supporters, who laud him as the avatar of their collective will — stems from victory (after victory, after victory …) at the ballot box. Atatürk and his ideological successors have proved to be consistently useful foils in those contests, serving as bogeymen more than serious rivals. But now Erdoğan seems determined to step out of their shadow entirely. Winning reelection in the year of the republic’s centennial, on the anniversary of the founding party’s ouster (and against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, its current leader) is meant to signal the end of the Kemalist era and seal Erdoğan’s status as the father of a new dispensation.
There is just one problem, from Erdoğan’s perspective: it seems he may lose. Even though he has flagrantly abused his position as incumbent — by dictating media coverage, changing electoral laws, jailing critics, preemptively invalidating his strongest prospective opponent and deploying state resources to buy support — he trails in most polls. There are questions about the polls’ accuracy, but in the aggregate they lead to an inescapable conclusion: despite being tilted, the race is tight. Erdoğan’s victory is far from assured. That, in and of itself, is unprecedented. Although his subordinates and stand-ins have sometimes stumbled, Erdoğan himself has not come close to losing an election since his first forays into politics in the 1990s.
What happened? How did Turkey’s most successful politician lose his magic touch at the height of his power and on the cusp of what he hopes to be his crowning triumph? As several recent books indicate, the answer lies, ironically enough, in the very way Erdoğan managed to surmount the Turkish state. In the process of consolidating his power, he wrought inadvertent changes to the country’s political, social and economic structure. These have altered the landscape in ways he did not anticipate, and to which he has failed (and may be unable) to adapt. To put it another way: the socioeconomic ground has shifted under Erdoğan’s feet, in no small part because of his own policies. As a result, his brand of populist politicking, so long and so phenomenally successful, is no longer viable.
As Dimitar Bechev makes clear in his excellent new book “Turkey under Erdoğan: How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West,” Turkey’s mercurial president is an extraordinarily talented politician. A charismatic populist par excellence, he has exhibited a remarkable capacity for cultivating, corralling and motivating his base — a plurality of the electorate for whom he is a veritable folk hero. “In this country there are White Turks, as well as Black Turks,” Bechev quotes him quipping — using loaded terms to juxtapose the republic’s traditional secular elites, whom he loathes, with the pious Anatolian masses, whom he champions. “Your brother Tayyip [Erdoğan] is from the Black Turks.” Styling himself as the Black Turks’ tribune, Erdoğan has built a spectacular career by taking on and subverting the Kemalist establishment, from which he reminds the masses they feel alienated, and under whose “tutelage” (a favorite epithet of grievance) he reminds them they chafe. Along the way, Bechev demonstrates, Erdoğan has evinced a keen sense for society’s fault lines and for which way the wind is blowing, as well as a genius for changing course — and if necessary, his feathers — to attract enough fellow travelers to put him over the top at the polls.
It was Erdoğan’s first self-reinvention that facilitated his breakthrough onto the national stage. Having come up through the ranks of the staunchly Islamist Welfare Party, he enjoyed his first electoral success in 1994, when as a dark horse candidate he was voted mayor of Istanbul. Although he proved to be an effective and popular mayor, four years later the courts stripped him of office and sentenced him to prison for reading a poem containing Islamist sentiments at a rally. Shortly thereafter, they banned his entire party for violating the law’s strictures against admixing religion and politics. Realizing that a frontal challenge to the Kemalist “deep state” was a lost cause, Erdoğan renounced Islamist politics per se and resolved to rebrand himself as a “conservative democrat.”
After emerging from prison, Erdoğan declined to join Welfare’s successor party and instead founded his own, in alliance with provincial business interests, aiming to capture the historically predominant center-right ground in Turkish politics. This turned out to be a stroke of genius. As Bechev demonstrates, Turkey’s economy had undergone a tectonic shift after the 1980 coup état— from a statist model of economic development based on import substitution to a free-market economy based on exports — and was on the cusp of a long boom. By appealing to an ascendant class of conservative entrepreneurs, who had seized the opportunity presented by newly opened markets to build a plethora of small- and medium-sized enterprises based on low-cost, labor-intensive manufacturing in the tertiary cities of inner Anatolia, Erdoğan was able to greatly expand his base of support.
In addition to these economically minded voters and his preexisting core of supporters motivated by religion and ressentiment, Erdoğan appealed to Turkey’s liberals and ethnic minorities by supporting measures aimed at strengthening human rights and liberties, pushing for membership in the European Union and challenging taboos surrounding the nation’s troubled history with Armenians and Kurds. These stances, along with his wholehearted embrace of free trade, made Erdoğan an attractive prospect for Western observers as well. Desperate, in the wake of 9/11, for a happy alternative to the likes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, they showered Erdoğan with attention and support. “The fact that a political party could blend, in an ostensibly seamless fashion, Islam and a commitment to democratic norms made pundits and policy makers in Washington, DC, … talk of Turkey as a model for the Muslim world,” Bechev writes.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (“Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi,” AKP) was modeled, to a large degree, on the Motherland Party of Turgut Özal, the mastermind of the economic reforms pushed through in the wake of the 1980 coup d’état, who dominated Turkish politics from the resumption of elections in 1983 till his death 10 years later. After Özal’s passing, the political scene fragmented, as Özal’s party fell into less capable hands and failed to stave off the challenge from a wave of new, more narrowly focused parties (including the Welfare Party, in which Erdoğan cut his teeth) founded by politicians who had dominated the stage in the 1970s but sat out most of the 1980s under a ban from the coup’s architects. Under their leadership, which changed frequently, Turkey in the 1990s suffered from a series of unstable, incompetent, corrupt and ruinously profligate coalition governments. Deficits skyrocketed and were covered by reckless and unsustainable short-term borrowing. “As a result,” Bechev writes, “foreign investors starting divesting from Turkish assets, leading to depreciation of the lira, inflation, a slump in domestic demand, rising unemployment and falling wages — and ultimately wholesale economic meltdown” in 2001.
The AKP was perfectly poised to benefit from this calamity. A big-tent party that welcomed people of various persuasions, promised sound economic governance and was untainted by association with the recent collapse, it did surprisingly well at the 2002 polls. Although it received only 32.48% of the vote, the AKP secured an overwhelming majority in parliament because most of the other, now-disgraced parties failed to clear the electoral threshold. It and Erdoğan have dominated Turkish politics ever since.
Economic recovery had begun under the preceding government, which invited Kemal Derviş, a respected economist at the World Bank, to design and implement a three-year program of much-needed reforms. However, that did not stop Erdoğan from taking credit and turning Turkey’s subsequent spectacular growth into an integral part of his brand. “The image of the restless 1990s lies at the heart of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mythology,” Bechev writes. “From early on, he portray[ed] his rule as a remedy to the ‘lost decade,’ much as Vladimir Putin cast himself as Russia’s savior from the chaos he inherited.” During Erdoğan’s first 10 years in power, the per capita gross domestic product tripled from $3,600 to $12,600, and the country benefited from an astonishing — and frankly transformative — amount of infrastructural development. The result was what Erdoğan and his supporters took to calling “New Turkey, with its world-class hospitals, highways, glitzy shopping malls, gargantuan airports and towering housing estates, all for the people,” according to Bechev.
This model of construction-led development has been central not just to Erdoğan’s popularity but also to his consolidation of power — as the political scientist Yeşim Arat and the economic historian Şevket Pamuk make clear in their book “Turkey: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism.” Their approach is different from and complementary to Bechev’s. Whereas Bechev’s book is the most comprehensive treatment of the Erdoğan era to date, offering soup-to-nuts coverage of major political and foreign policy developments (it should serve as the starting point for anyone new to the topic and as a handy reference for old hands), Arat and Pamuk’s is a thematic inquiry into, as they put it, “what makes the citizens of a democracy support authoritarian rule” and “how political elites … shape and manipulate the preferences of their constituency for authoritarian ends.” As a result, they dig deeper into Turkey’s history and focus on changes in its socioeconomic structure, seeking to identify “the most important causal variables and causal connections” underlying “the rise and rule of” the AKP’s “Islamist elites.”
Arat and Pamuk’s study is framed around two implicit questions, the first of which is: Why did Turkey’s original secular elites fail? Here, much of what they have to say echoes Bechev and needn’t be belabored. (In a nutshell: “The secular elites made mistakes, and the Islamist elites capitalized on them.”) Much more interesting, for our purposes, is their second question: How did the new Islamist elites, including the AKP, manufacture consent? Here, they go into quite a bit more detail than Bechev is able to, with his broad scope, and they put their finger on a key development he passes over but briefly: namely, the way in which Erdoğan has used state power to favor a particular sector of the economy — construction — in order to deliver services and amenities to his grassroots supporters and create a faction of tycoons loyal personally to him.
This story begins long before Erdoğan’s rule itself, with the massive exodus of “traditional pious villagers from the heartland of Anatolia” to Turkey’s cities in the decades following World War II. “Only a small minority of the migrants could find good jobs after they arrived,” Arat and Pamuk write. Nor could they find housing. Most ended up squatting on public land on the outskirts of cities like Istanbul and Ankara, where they slapped together single-story shanties of cinder block and cement called “gecekondus” (literally meaning “something placed overnight”). At first these neighborhoods had no services: no electricity, no running water, no access to public transportation, no schools. As a result, political parties competed for residents’ votes by promising to deliver services and by passing amnesties granting them property rights and exceptions to building codes.
For a time during the 1970s, these neighborhoods were bastions of support for Turkey’s political left, which in coordination with labor unions had a strong grassroots presence that provided opportunities for both employment and political representation. Things changed in the 1980s, when after the coup the generals cracked down on the left (destroying these networks), and Özal’s Motherland Party devolved much of the relevant authority for land development and construction to municipalities. This provided an opening for Islamist parties, such as Welfare, which were much better organized at the local level than their secularist rivals and proved more adept at responding to the urban poor’s material needs and ideological concerns. That, in a nutshell, is how Erdoğan first came to power as mayor of Istanbul. He and many other “politicians who founded the AKP in 2001 developed their skills in these networks,” providing “deliveries of coal, and food boxes containing flour, tea, sugar, rice and other goods in exchange for votes,” Arat and Pamuk write. Then, once they had enough votes to take power, they dealt “with issues of garbage collection, water shortages, public transportation, and healthcare.”
When Erdoğan became prime minister in 2003, he took advantage of another legacy of the Özal era: the Mass Housing Administration (“Toplu Konut İdaresi”), which had been established in 1984 to build housing on public land and sell it to low-income individuals on favorable terms, and the Mass Housing Fund, which extended credits to the Mass Housing Administration outside the main state budget (and thus with minimal oversight). Erdoğan also changed the state’s traditional stance toward “gecekondus.” “Rather than continue to turn a blind eye to the occupation of … state land,” Arat and Pamuk write, “AKP governments began to protect [it] and evict those who occupied it.” Erdoğan attached the Mass Housing Administration directly to the office of prime minister and granted it extensive new powers to allocate public land to private companies, and to build — by itself or in partnership with those companies — not just massive housing complexes but also “business structures for industry, education, healthcare, and tourism.” He also passed legislation exempting it from financial-disclosure requirements that apply to other public companies. “The agency’s operations thus became more opaque,” they write, “as it expanded cooperation with large and medium-sized construction groups close to the government.”
The upshot of all this is twofold. First, Erdoğan has been able to enact an almost unfathomable transformation in Turkey’s urban fabric, one that most of his supporters celebrate. Millions of Turks now get to live in high rise complexes that look like dystopian anthills from the perspective of Westerners used to more commodious accommodation. This is only because Westerners are wont to associate such developments with the blight of crumbling and crime-infested housing projects in their own countries; instead, these look like the height of luxury and modernity from the perspective of someone born in rural squalor or an urban “gecekondu” with no sewer access. The residents also get to shop in shiny, air-conditioned malls, receive medical treatment in massive new public hospitals and enjoy other amenities associated with modern urban life that were inaccessible to most of them a generation ago. A great many of them, too, have found employment building these things: the construction sector relies on the labor of new migrants who haven’t the skills or the connections to find other work.
Second, Erdoğan has used the state’s distribution of land, contracts, credit and legal favors to foster a cohort of loyal (and indebted) construction magnates and businesses. “Relations between the government and … construction companies” are characterized by “extensive networks of patronage,” Arat and Pamuk note. Business groups close to the party are favored in tenders for “large-scale energy, infrastructure, and housing projects,” as well as “in the allocation of credit by public and private banks.” They also receive preferential treatment “in various areas such as their tax assessments” and in the interpretation of environmental and other “regulations related to their business.” In return, they are expected to dedicate a portion of their wealth “to organizations or causes as requested by the party and its leadership.” The most egregious of these cases have involved the purchase of newspapers, television channels and radio stations from older, more established moguls — pillars of the secular establishment — who ran afoul of the government and were forced to sell off their properties in the face of legal threats. So, in the end, Erdoğan’s cooptation of a biddable construction sector has led not only to the formation of a new economic elite, which funds his party’s operations, but also to the creation of a compliant media sphere, which has proved quite the asset as he fended off challengers and consolidated power.
The only party besides the AKP to win parliamentary seats in 2002 was the revivified (but hardly vibrant) Republican People’s Party. Closed down by the generals after the 1980 coup, it had been refounded in 1992 but played a negligible role in that decade’s dramas. As a familiar but relatively untainted brand, it served as a repository of votes for Turks who rejected the status quo but could not countenance an erstwhile Islamist. Alas, Bechev argues, the Republican People’s Party offered little in the way of substance; its leaders were “hardline secularists” who “chose to go down the identity politics path” and threw in their lot with elements of the “deep state” that sought to remove the AKP through military and judicial pressure rather than elections.
Things came to a head in 2007, when the AKP chose Abdullah Gül, one of the party’s other founding fathers, as Turkey’s new president. That office, which was elected by parliament rather than directly by the people, was conceived as being above politics and had more often than not been occupied by staunchly Kemalist generals and judges. While day-to-day control (and most political authority) resided in the office of prime minister, occupied by Erdoğan, the president had certain powers, particularly pertaining to bureaucratic appointments, designed to ensure that the levers of state could not be subverted by forces — say, Islamist forces — anathema to the republic’s founding ideology.
The Republican People’s Party responded by petitioning the Constitutional Court to invalidate the parliamentary vote for Gül on specious procedural grounds; the court (backed by the military, which issued a stern memorandum criticizing the AKP’s actions) duly complied. Erdoğan countered by holding a plebiscite to amend the constitution so that presidents would thenceforth be elected directly, which passed with a resounding 68% of the vote, and by calling early elections, which the AKP swept by 10% more than the last time; Gül was installed as president. “The story repeated itself the following year,” Bechev writes, when the Republican People’s Party “nodded in agreement as the Prosecutor General … petitioned the Constitutional Court to close the AKP, on the grounds that it had violated the principles of secularism, and to ban its leaders.” This time, the chastened court demurred — though in lieu of closure and banning, it could not help but levy a fine.
Erdoğan emerged from these episodes strengthened but enraged. “There was hardly a better way to give credence to the underdog narrative spawned by the Islamists,” Bechev notes, “than the CHP’s wholehearted embrace of the military and judiciary’s attempts to overturn the outcomes of democratic elections.” It proved to be a turning point. “If one is to pick a date when Turkey started backsliding,” Bechev argues, the day the closure case was decided “is probably the best candidate.” Having seen that the public responded to the Kemalists’ patent iniquities by rallying behind his cause, Erdoğan realized that his best path toward consolidating power was by appealing directly — intermediate institutions and liberal niceties be damned — to the “national will.” That phrase, ever since, has been magical for his legitimacy.
Erdoğan’s “main takeaway from the closure case was that the judiciary needed to be tamed,” Bechev writes. Gül’s new position as president helped insofar as he was able to make certain appointments, but these were neither numerous nor frequent enough to effect the kind of wholesale reorganization Erdoğan desired. Therefore, in 2010, the AKP called another plebiscite, which to make a long story short allowed it to pack the courts under the sugarcoating of a number of widely popular but largely cosmetic liberalizing and democratizing amendments. To make an even longer story even shorter, these changes helped the AKP bring the military to heel as well, through the prosecution of senior officers under trumped-up charges in the infamous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials.
The AKP’s ally in these maneuvers was a secretive, incredibly wealthy and widespread religious movement owing its allegiance to the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. Descended from a different, more ecumenical and less strident tradition than Erdoğan’s brand of Islamism, Gülenists have typically eschewed open politics in favor of building up a network of businesses, media outlets and schools, so as to exert influence through civil society. Additionally, they have placed educated cadres in important positions, from the shadows. The movement’s “trademark,” as Bechev puts it, “was the infiltration of its members into the bureaucracy, the police, and the judiciary.” Since the AKP had few technocratically competent cadres when it first came to power, the Gülenists were its “natural partners. They both shared the belief that Islam should occupy a central place in the public sphere and state institutions and saw the Kemalist establishment as the adversary.” Gülenist officials therefore supported Erdoğan from within while its media organs supported him from without; and as Kemalists were purged or sidelined, the Gülenists’ network expanded to take their place.
This symbiotic relationship held so long as the Gülenists and the AKP shared a common enemy, against whom cooperation was mutually beneficial. But as the old establishment gave way to the new, the two factions found themselves competing for power. In 2012, a Gülenist prosecutor summoned the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization for questioning over leaked recordings of his negotiations with Kurdish militants. In 2013, the Istanbul Security Directorate, under Gülenist control, detained 52 individuals close to the government — including the sons of three cabinet ministers — over an alleged sanctions-busting and money-laundering scheme. In 2014, leaked recordings of wiretaps seemed to indicate that Erdoğan and his son Bilal were themselves implicated in the corruption. The AKP closed ranks and began denouncing the Gülenists as terrorists and members of a “parallel structure” analogous to the old Kemalist “deep state.”
The AKP’s falling out with the Gülenists coincided with its disenchantment of another early ally: Turkey’s ersatz liberals. In the summer of 2013, a small demonstration over the razing and development of Gezi Park in central Istanbul met with a vicious crackdown. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for segments of Turkish society that had stuck by Erdoğan through his purges of the old Kemalist establishment which, in their idealism and naïveté, they had taken for liberalization and democratization rather than simple consolidation of power. Seemingly overnight, this local conflict metastasized into a massive, nationwide protest movement in which millions of Turks, from diverse and traditionally antithetical walks of life, took to the streets. This was done in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets to protest the state’s intolerance of dissent and resort to wanton cruelty. “Gezi provided a foretaste of what was to come in Turkey,” Bechev writes. “The days of the AKP as a broad-based movement were over.”
One group was conspicuously absent from the Gezi coalition: Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Erdoğan had been courting them, hoping to trade concessions over broader linguistic and cultural rights — and a peaceful resolution to Kurdish militants’ longstanding insurgency — for their support. In this drive he hoped to amend the constitution and, yet again, to create a powerful executive presidency. Barred by internal party rules from holding a fourth term as prime minister, Erdoğan in 2014 ceded that office to Ahmet Davutoğlu, his former foreign minister, and ran instead to become Turkey’s first directly elected president. He won handily in the first round, with 51.65% of the vote, which was more than 13 points ahead of the second-place candidate. Technically, he had to resign his membership in the AKP to assume the higher office; and technically, most constitutional powers were now in the hands of Prime Minister Davutoğlu; but in practice, owing to his immense popularity among both the public and the party’s rank and file, Erdoğan, whom his supporters had taken to calling “reis” (meaning “chief”) still exercised supreme authority.
Erdoğan began behaving like an executive president avant la lettre, arguing that “having been directly elected, he enjoyed popular legitimacy and represented the national will to a greater degree than his predecessors,” according to Bechev. That rationale may have sufficed for his supporters, but it did not convince the opposition. If by some miracle the opposition wrested control of parliament away from Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s position would be rendered suddenly tenuous: hence his desire for a constitutional amendment to align de jure prescription with de facto practice. But the AKP was just a few seats short of the number needed to pass an amendment that could be put up for plebiscite, and the Kurds were the only group beyond his base that Erdoğan hadn’t yet alienated.
The Kurds, however, weren’t having it. Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (“Halkların Demokratik Partisi”), had a surprisingly strong showing in the 2014 presidential race and believed his party would cross the 10% electoral threshold in the upcoming general elections and enter parliament of its own accord — a first in Turkey’s history. He therefore declined to throw in his lot with Erdoğan and the AKP, and in fact declared his intention to deny Erdoğan an executive presidency, in hope of attracting recently disabused liberals to his own cause.
As it turned out, that is exactly what happened: in the June 2015 elections, the Peoples’ Democratic Party crossed the threshold with room to spare, along with the Republican People’s Party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (“Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi,” MHP), as a result of which the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. It was still the biggest party and would be able to govern as the leading member of a coalition; but it would have no chance of amending the constitution. Erdoğan’s supremacy would be imperiled; his move to the presidency might turn into a case of being “kicked upstairs.” In response, Erdoğan pivoted and reinvented himself yet again — this time neither as an Islamist nor a “conservative democrat” but, rather, as a nationalist.
Blocking Davutoğlu’s attempts to negotiate a workable coalition — and then refusing to let the Republican People’s Party try to form one, as the constitution would seem to require — Erdoğan called new elections in November. In the meantime, he turned on the Kurds with a vengeance. Instead of courting them he began castigating them as terrorists who threatened the integrity of the state and nation. Rekindling war with militant adherents of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party — and accusing the Peoples’ Democratic Party of being naught but a front for that organization — Erdoğan stoked nationalistic fervor and portrayed himself as a bulwark against disorder as the security situation deteriorated and terrorist attacks wracked the country.
Erdoğan’s gambit worked. Siphoning off votes from both the Peoples’ Democratic Party and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party, the AKP regained its parliamentary majority (though the Peoples’ Democratic Party still managed to clear the threshold by the skin of its teeth). His position was secure, at least for the time being. “But the price the country as a whole paid was steep,” Bechev argues. “The election resulted in Turkey’s ‘exit from democracy’ and the metamorphosis of the government into a hybrid regime with an all-powerful president at the top.”
Victorious but anxious to forestall the recurrence of such a challenge, Erdoğan remained fixated on amending the constitution. In 2016, he finally got his chance, when Gülenist military officers — who had risen to positions of authority after their Kemalist predecessors’ purge — attempted a military coup. It was an abject failure. Erdoğan called his supporters out onto the streets and they responded in force, mobbing soldiers and clambering atop tanks to quash the abortive uprising. All parties and segments of society condemned the putsch and declared the Gülenists criminals and traitors, including the Republican People’s Party which, nine years before, had itself pushed for Erdoğan’s removal by undemocratic means. There was widespread agreement, across factions, that such moves were illegitimate, regardless of their target, and that Turkey must turn the page on this vestige of its past.
Alas, this rare moment of unity proved to be short-lived. Five days after the coup attempt, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency, under which the cabinet — meaning he himself — could legislate by decree. Purges followed on a massive scale, and not just of Gülenists. The crackdown soon took on a life of its own, expanding to include Kurds, liberals, secularists, journalists — anyone who had proved to be a thorn in Erdoğan’s side. In the end, hundreds of thousands of individuals (few of whom participated in the coup itself) lost their jobs, their property or their freedom.
Having finally cleansed state institutions of unreliable elements, Erdoğan set about ensuring his place atop it. Over the next two years, under conditions that were decidedly less than free or fair, owing to the continuing state of emergency, he finally managed to pass a constitutional amendment replacing Turkey’s parliamentary system with a super-presidential system and won election to the new position. He did so with the support of the Nationalist Movement Party. Pleased by Erdoğan’s crackdown on Kurds, it had abandoned the opposition to ally with the AKP, providing cadres to replace many of the Gülenists purged from Turkey’s security forces; and the now supine Supreme Electoral Council connived to change rules pertaining to the counting of ballots after voting was already underway. Even under these conditions, the referendum passed by only a slim margin. Without the purges and emergency powers attendant on the coup attempt, it likely would have failed. No wonder Erdoğan deemed the Gülenist’s blunder “a gift from god.”
The coup attempt was the catalyst for Erdoğan’s final consolidation of power, but it was his embrace of anti-Kurdish nationalism that set the stage for it and that serves as the glue holding together his present coalition of supporters. However, as Gönül Tol demonstrates in her brilliant new book “Erdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria,” this latest stage in Erdoğan’s protean political career seems to have run its course, with blowback threatening his electoral fortunes, and it is unclear where or how he might pivot from here.
Tol’s book looks at Turkey through the prism of its evolving Syria policy which, she argues, “has played a unique role in Erdoğan’s political survival strategy.” To him, “foreign policy has never been primarily about the international pushes and pulls.” Rather, “it has been first and foremost about his domestic strategy to keep his grip on the country. Foreign policy serves as the medium through which his [shifting] ideology is expressed and reproduced. In other words, foreign policy has helped Erdoğan tell the voters what he stands for and how he imagines the national identity.” It has also served more concrete ends, “as a vehicle to divide and eliminate his rivals and consolidate his base.”
During the AKP’s early years, when “Erdoğan advocated democracy and human rights to sideline the secularist establishment, particularly the military,” he pursued a foreign policy dubbed “zero problems with neighbors.” Under it, Tol explains, he “sought to cultivate close ties with regional countries using trade and investment,” thereby diminishing “the military’s role in politics.” Since the republic’s founding, “the narrative that Turkey was surrounded by hostile countries legitimized the military’s oversized sway.” By demonstrating that Turkey had “zero problems” with neighboring countries like Syria, “the Erdoğan government wanted to challenge that narrative and limit the military’s role in political decision-making by desecuritizing Turkey’s Middle East policy.”
After Erdoğan managed to pack the courts and subdue the military, that concern no longer obtained. His aim shifted, as we have seen, to “replacing the country’s parliamentary system with an all-powerful presidency.” However, Tol notes, he could not “justify establishing what was practically a one-man rule with the conservative democratic brand.” Therefore he “decided to rely on the country’s religiously conservative segments and the Kurds.” By appealing to a sense of Sunni solidarity and offering “to find a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish problem,” he hoped “to generate support from conservative segments of the country for his power grab.”
Erdoğan’s Syria policy did an about-face as a result. As Tol explains, Erdoğan’s new domestic political agenda “translated into a foreign policy that advocated Muslim unity and alliance with other Islamists globally.” In the wake of the Arab Spring and the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, this meant supporting opposition forces fighting to oust Bashar al-Assad. “Turkey under his watch” already served as “a shining example” of “democratic awakening,” Erdoğan argued, according to Tol. “The ‘true representatives’ of the pious masses” had come to power through elections and “ended the reign of ‘internal colonizers.’” Now, by helping Arab Islamists topple their own autocratic regimes, Turkey would lead “a similar transformation in the region.”
Transform the region Erdoğan did, albeit not in the way he intended. While Assad’s regime clung tenaciously to power, Syrian Kurds opposed to his rule managed to carve out a zone of de facto autonomy along the Turkish border. This presented both a problem and an opportunity when Erdoğan gave up courting Kurdish support and reinvented himself as a Turkish nationalist. He recalibrated his Syria policy accordingly. As Tol catalogs in detail, “toppling the Assad regime” through proxies “took a back seat to curbing Kurdish gains” through direct military intervention. Once again, Erdoğan’s eye was on his domestic prize. “Framing the Kurds, and those who would stand by them, as the biggest threat to Turkish territorial integrity … facilitated his efforts to criminalize legitimate Kurdish opposition and drive a wedge between his opponents,” she argues. “In return for unleashing a bloody war against the Kurds at home and in Syria, he secured nationalists’ backing to recapture the parliamentary majority his party lost in 2015, win the referendum to switch to a presidential system in 2017 and assume sweeping new powers in 2018.”
Erdoğan’s Syria policy paid off, from his perspective, helping him first neutralize the Kemalist establishment and then consolidate power. But stoking war next door had one massive unintended consequence: Turkey now hosts 4 million Syrian refugees. At the beginning of the conflict, when Erdoğan was posing as a pan-Islamist leader, he made a point of keeping the border open and welcoming the Syrians who fled across it. “Turkey extended generous assistance and provided expansive services in refugee camps,” Tol writes, “including primary and secondary schools, community centers, supermarkets, and playgrounds. Refugees were given refrigerators and stoves, and in some cases TVs and air conditioners. They were provided with cash cards and a monthly allowance.”
At first, Tol notes, “Turkey’s religious and nationalist circles were not opposed to Ankara’s generous support of the Syrian refugees. They bought into Erdoğan’s ‘compassionate Islamist’ narrative that called for Sunni Muslim solidarity against the ‘Alawite Shiite’ oppression perpetrated by the Assad regime.” As the economy took a sharp downturn in 2018, however, public attitudes toward refugees began to harden. By this point, many Syrians had left the refugee camps and settled in Turkey’s cities, where they were perceived to be driving up rents, undercutting wages and stealing jobs. Incidents of intercommunal violence became distressingly common. Anti-refugee sentiment cut across party lines; resentment was growing even among the AKP’s base. “By 2019,” Tol notes, “a large segment of society did not want to live in the same city as Syrians and wanted them to go back to their own country.”
The refugee issue played a key role in that year’s municipal elections, when the AKP lost control of most of the country’s big cities. “Nationalist backlash against the millions of Syrian refugees was second only to the economic problems in bringing about the AKP’s poor performance,” Tol writes. “Election results showed that the nationalism Erdoğan had advanced for many years had come back to haunt him. It was his winning formula when nationalism targeted the Kurds; it became a liability, when Syrian refugees became equally hated, if not more so, by large segments of the country.”
The AKP’s election losses represented “a stunning defeat for a leader who had won almost every election since coming to power,” Tol writes. “Losing Istanbul hit Erdoğan particularly hard.” It was the city in which he had been born and raised and launched his political career by becoming mayor. His party had controlled it ever since, and — as the country’s financial capital and largest city by far — it was crucial to the “well-honed system of political patronage” upon which his power rested. “Losing Istanbul risked disrupting this network and losing a significant source of revenue to the opposition at a time of great economic difficulty.”
Ekrem İmamoğlu, the victor from the Republican People’s Party, had won by just 13,729 votes (or 0.17 per cent of the total) by running “a low-profile campaign condemning Erdogan’s divisive politics,” Tol writes. He called on Turks to work together to tackle “pressing problems such as urban poverty and youth unemployment” and won people over with “his positive rhetoric, pious background, and … easy rapport.” His supporters ran the gamut from “Kurds who were unhappy with Erdogan’s crackdown” to “working-class Erdogan supporters who were hit hard by economic recession.”
Hoping to repeat his trick of 2015, Erdoğan pressured the Supreme Election Council into voiding the election and scheduling a rerun. This time his tactic backfired spectacularly; İmamoğlu won the second time by an astonishing 800,000 votes — a 10% margin. Appalled by his naked attempt to subvert the results, Erdoğan’s own supporters had defected in droves to deliver a message: even thou shalt respect the “national will.” Within hours of his victory, a hashtag began trending on Twitter, Tol notes: “SuriyelilerDefoluyor,” or “Syrians are getting the hell out.”
Thanks to his embrace of nationalism and the constitutional reforms it enabled, Erdoğan nowadays enjoys what Bechev calls “quasi-monarchical status.” His power is more or less unchecked; the only question is whether he can hold onto it. On this latter point, Bechev is of two minds. Turkey is not “doomed to authoritarian rule,” he says. “The country has a history of competitive politics stretching back more than seven decades, [an] advanced level of socioeconomic development and links to the West that, other things being equal, favor a return to electoral democracy in the future. Citizens believe their vote counts and still turn up in high numbers at the polls.” All of that “contrasts with other authoritarian polities, say Azerbaijan, Russia or Abdelfatah El Sisi’s Egypt, where multi-party politics and elections are a mere façade.” As a result, Bechev argues, “there is no reason to rule out” a “transition back to democracy,” even if “we cannot be certain whether, when and how” it will occur. “The country’s fate is now in its own hands. It is to Turkey’s voters that Erdoğan owes his career. They will ultimately decide how the story ends.”
Nowadays, the authors of all three books point out, Turkish voters — even Erdoğan supporters — have reason to complain. “There has been no shortage of cases worldwide where constituents trade their freedoms for stability and well-being,” Bechev notes. But over the last half decade, Erdoğan has provided neither. “Unlike other autocratic or semi-democratic regimes in regions such as East Asia, Turkey’s presidential system has failed to deliver on its promise to produce high levels of growth and prosperity.” That contrasts mightily with the brand Erdoğan established early on. Early AKP governments were staffed with competent technocrats who made sensible decisions in the national interest. But “AKP 1.0” has been “supplanted” by “a circle held together by nepotism and loyalty to Erdoğan.” This “opaque, personalist regime,” where “family ties, power and money all go hand in hand,” has “failed to deliver efficient policy making or economic growth.”
Tol agrees. While campaigning for the presidential system, she notes, Erdoğan promised that concentrating authority would lead to efficiency. What he has delivered is incompetence. He has destroyed the independence of the central bank, taken control of monetary policy, insisted on unsustainably low interest rates — justified by a theory, euphemistically described as “unorthodox,” that high interest rates lead to inflation — and surrounded himself with unqualified sycophants. “Financial institutions ha[ve] been hollowed out,” she laments, “and key figures who were responsible for advising the government on the economy and who had challenged problematic economic decisions” are all long gone. One of them is now leading an opposition party.
As a result of all this toadying and dysfunction, Turkey’s economy has gone from bad to worse in recent years. When the AKP lost control of Istanbul, Ankara and Turkey’s other major cities in 2019 — with economic concerns at the top of voters’ minds — “inflation was at nearly 20 percent,” and “the lira stood at 5.7 to the dollar,” Tol notes. Today, inflation is at 55%, and the lira trades at 19.5. Turks accustomed to thinking of themselves as middle class now struggle to pay their rents (which are soaring, despite all the concrete the Mass Housing Administration and private developers have poured) and anxiously track the price of groceries. The ever-rising price of onions, a staple in the Turkish diet, has become a running black joke and gripe.
Erdoğan has tried to blame Turkey’s worst economic crisis since 2001 on foreign powers and plots. But, as Tol points out, the fault is his own. “The populist policies Erdogan pursued on the economic front, such as providing clientelist aid and cheap consumer credit, helped him centralize power,” she writes. But that strategy depended on low interest rates in developed countries and favorable global conditions. “As those conditions started changing, Erdogan’s economic miracle started failing.”
This has led not just to popular discontent, but also to problems for one of Erdoğan’s core constituencies: Turkey’s more than 3 million small- and medium-sized enterprises. Their backing has been “a bedrock of Erdoğan’s political support and key to his electoral success,” Tol notes. But they “have been hit the hardest by … the uncertainty around Erdoğan’s monetary policy.” Whether they remain loyal to Erdoğan, against their own economic interests, is one of the biggest questions in the upcoming election. So is the degree to which Turkey’s recent earthquake — which reduced much of the southeast to rubble, laying bare the corruption and corner-cutting practices of so many building moguls — has taken the shine off Erdoğan’s fetishization of construction. Promises to build back quickly may win support — or they may ring hollow, as though tone-deaf, doubling down on a tragically failed model.
In any case, Turkey’s lackluster economic performance “does not bode well for the regime’s ability to appeal beyond the core of AKP supporters,” Bechev notes. What is worse, from Erdoğan’s perspective, is that his core itself may be eroding. Contrary to what one might expect after 20 years of Islamist rule, “secularism appears to be gaining, not losing ground,” he writes. “A 2018 survey by pollster Konda found, for instance, that the percentage of those identifying as ‘religious conservatives’ had dropped from 32 to 25 percent in the space of a decade. The share of citizens fasting during the holy month of Ramadan went from 77 to 65 percent. The AKP’s dominance does not translate into a wholesale identity shift. There is a good chance it is actually yielding the opposite effect as it erodes the appeal of Islamist politics.”
Erdoğan’s nationalist base is imperiled, too. “Turkish nationalists are not as homogenous as they were,” Tol writes, and their priorities are shifting. “The Kurdish question has dominated their agenda for decades but Syrian refugees are now … a more pressing problem.” A growing number of Turks now view Syrian refugees as Turkey’s predominant “security threat and a danger to the ethnic make-up of the country.” Two-thirds agree “that Turkey needs to do more to protect its borders against refugees.” The Nationalist Movement Party has been bleeding support because of its leader’s reluctance to criticize Erdoğan’s refugee policies. As a result, Erdoğan has been forced to lower the election threshold from 10% to 7% to ensure that his allies make it into parliament. Meanwhile, the İyi Party, an offshoot of the Nationalist Movement Party, is Turkey’s most strident anti-refugee party and, consequently, its fastest growing; it is now the second-largest party in the opposition after the Republican People’s Party. “The rise of … [its] star, while the MHP’s is in decline, exposes an uncomfortable truth for Erdoğan,” Tol argues: “the strategy of relying on Turkish nationalism to tighten his grip on power has run its course. But,” she hastens to add, “Erdoğan does not have that many options.”
Indeed, the AKP itself is showing signs of fracture. “More and more people in the ruling party’s circles quietly argue that alliance with the ultranationalists is hurting the party’s brand and dealing a blow to Erdoğan’s electoral fortunes,” Tol reports. One AKP member of parliament told her (off the record, of course) that “I think it is the beginning of the end.” Others (or perhaps the same one; her granting of anonymity makes it unclear) told her that Erdoğan has “lost his populist touch” and “shot himself in the foot” by doing away with Turkey’s parliamentary system. “Although the new presidential system placed unprecedented power in Erdoğan’s hands,” she explains, “it also made it more difficult for him to win elections” by requiring that he get more than half of the vote, whereas under the old system he could form a single-party government with a mere plurality.
Erdoğan’s push for the new presidential system has also had the unintended consequence of unifying the opposition, a first in Turkish history. “Under the new system, if a candidate is unable to capture more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round …, the top two contenders enter a run off,” Tol explains. That has forced parties to form electoral alliances. “Turkey’s opposition is deeply divided along ideological lines. They are split among Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, secularists and Islamists.” In the past, those differences proved insurmountable. “But their rejection of the executive presidency,” which all of them are intent on doing away with, “has provided common ground.”
Tol refuses to make a prediction about the outcome of the upcoming election, but her optimism is palpable. She writes of Erdoğan’s “descent” and notes that he is nowadays “at his most vulnerable.” She clearly sees the 2019 municipal elections as a possible augur of his defeat. The Supreme Election Council’s nullification of the first vote in Istanbul “strengthened the pessimistic view that Erdoğan would do anything not to lose the city a second time,” she notes. “They were wrong.” She does not say as much, but by pointing out how the dynamics in play then are still in play now — and indeed have only increased in intensity — she implies that the opposition has a decent chance of victory.
Arat and Pamuk are more circumspect. They consider “the prospects of fair electoral campaigns or fair elections” to be “dim,” but they rule nothing out. However, it bears noting that their book was written before the 2019 elections took place and before the opposition proved it could unite. Consideration of the factors Tol deems auspicious might have altered their judgment. The thrust of their analysis would seem to indicate so. “AKP’s ascent to power was an unintended consequence of the tutelary secularism of Turkish republicanism,” they write. Does a similar logic not apply to the opposition today? Was İmamoğlu’s victory not an unintended consequence of Erdoğan’s own authoritarian and exclusionary dispensation? Might today’s opposition stand a chance of winning, as the AKP once did, by virtue of representing (as they put it in the AKP’s case) “the most effective challenge to Turkey’s illiberal democracy and the promise to ameliorate it”?
Bechev, in the end, is having none of this. Notwithstanding his aforementioned caveats about Turkey’s democratic tradition — and the possibility of its restoration at some point beyond the horizon — he is thoroughly pessimistic about the prospects for Erdoğan’s ouster. “What matters is who counts the votes as much as how many ballots each candidate gets,” he cautions. Moreover, “from Erdoğan’s position, there is arguably no alternative to holding onto power as long as possible through a variety of means, including … outright repression.” As a result, he concludes, “Erdoğan won’t surrender power. His iron grip on the country’s politics won’t change, whatever the cost.”
These arguments are impossible to refute, and they may be right; only time will tell. But Bechev’s own account of Erdoğan’s rise gives ample reason to doubt that things will play out so simply. From the perspective of 2002, he writes, “the choice between the backward looking and at times xenophobic Republican People’s Party and the AKP, which put forward a democratic and pro-European agenda was … clear-cut.” Whereas the Republican People’s Party “stood for the ancien régime, Erdoğan and Gül spoke the language of political liberties, democratic participation and Europeanization.” The situation today is precisely reversed. The AKP now represents the ossified, authoritarian establishment, and by Bechev’s own telling, its rule has, if anything, pushed the youth toward a more liberal mentality. Turks of the rising generation — 5 million of whom are set to vote for the first time this Sunday — are by all accounts less conservative and more desirous of personal liberties than their forebears. Why would they then choose differently?
Bechev’s answer would seem to be that their choice won’t matter; they’ll be either euphemistically cheated or, worse, fed the truncheon. But what makes him so sure? As his narrative so amply demonstrates, Erdoğan enjoyed his greatest successes precisely in the face of blunt coercion. Whether from the Kemalist court in 2007 or the Gülenist coup in 2016, when Turks perceived him — and by extension, the “national will” — to be suffering grave injustice, they rallied behind him and would not allow the wrong to stand. We have already seen that, when the shoe was on the other foot, and Erdoğan tried to cheat İmamoğlu (and himself flaunt their will), they responded in the same manner: with rebuke.
None of this is to say that Erdoğan can’t, or won’t, resort to trickery or force, if such is his last option. But will it work? Will Turks take electoral theft lying down? If they don’t, will the police, the judges, the gendarmes, the officers — the members of the AKP itself — really line up to enforce a result that they know to be fraudulent, just because the chief says so? History suggests not, but no one really knows. Including Erdoğan himself.
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