Turkey faces the damage of Erdoganism

Since the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in June 2018 as President of the Republic, thanks to the support of his ally from the nationalist far right, Turkish society has been living under a presidential regime: a strong autocracy in which the separation of powers has become obsolete even though it continues to appear in the constitution. As a result of an authoritarian drift that began at the turn of the decade in 2010, the current autocratic regime is based on a Turkish-style ‘vertical power system’ built around the person who is not only the head of state but at the same time the head of government, official and effective head of the majority political party and head of the army. The President concentrates in his hands the executive and legislative powers while dominating the judiciary through his ability to directly appoint the vast majority of the members of the High Court, the Council of Magistrates, and Prosecutors and the Constitutional Council. This tight control over the judiciary has been reinforced by the dismissal of more than a quarter of the judicial members since 2016 and their replacement by ruling party supporters through a fast-track process and the opaque selection and appointment procedures. The European Court of Human Rights no longer hesitates to condemn Turkey for the direct interference of political power in the judiciary and recent reports by the European Parliament denounce the disappearance of the rule of law.

The stranglehold of Erdoğan, his party members controlling every branch of public administration as well as a large part of the media complete this picture. The long reign of the AKP which has been in power without interruption since late 2002 with Erdoğan at its head, had created the necessary conditions to transform the state into a party-state. This transformation has accelerated since 2013. The large demonstrations against Erdoğan known as the Gezi protests during June 2013 revealed for the first time the rejection by a large part of the youth and urban middle classes of his authoritarian, conservative, patriarchal, and overly intrusive mode of government.  The malfeasance and corruption unveiled in late 2013 were silenced by repressive means and Erdoğan was elected in the summer of 2014 as president of the Republic by universal suffrage, a first in Turkey.

The newly elected president proclaimed that « from now on the regime has become de facto presidential ». Yet he lost his parliamentary majority in June 2015. Effectively preventing the formation of a « grand coalition », he succeeded in re-running the elections and reassuming the majority leadership role in a climate of violence, attacks, and repression. Ultimately, the quickly suppressed coup attempt in the summer of 2016 allowed Turkey’s strongman to officially suspend the rule of law. The state of emergency he had declared right after the coup attempt has remained in force for two years. It allowed him to complete, on the one hand, the fusion of party and state and, on the other hand, the consolidation and generalization of a criminal justice system practicing the doctrine of « criminal law of the enemy ». Since 2016, about 150,000 officials have been dismissed and the number of people in prison has almost doubled.

The constitutional amendments introducing a presidential regime were accepted at a referendum held on 16 April 2017 under the state of emergency and in an atmosphere of high tension and repression with a very tight majority: 51.4% of « yes ». However, unusual manipulations during the vote-counting process created suspicion about the outcome of the ballot. Finally, with the organization of the presidential and legislative elections in June 2018, the presidential regime took office by right. Thanks to the alliance formed by his party with the MHP, Erdoğan managed to be re-elected and hold the parliamentary majority. Since then, MHP, a far-right nationalist party, without directly participating in the government, has been reinforcing the impulses of power for an increasingly aggressive Islamo-nationalist posture.

The gagging of the written and audiovisual press, as well as the severe control, imposed upon social media provide the means to maintain the status quo. In this respect, the main concern of the autocratic power is to secure a relatively effective universe of « alternative truths » among its electorate. This policy of framing information, led directly by Erdoğan himself and his close entourage is followed by a very strong political re-centralization effort through reducing the already meager autonomies granted to the local authorities in the 2000s, and shrinking space for all civil society organizations.

This unique type of presidential regime symbolized by the pharaonic presidential palace can be called Erdoganism. It is the perpetuation of the authoritarian drift of the AKP’s power and also builds on the systemic authoritarianism present in the foundations of the Republic of Turkey. Erdoganism is a regime of arbitrariness and, above all, unpredictability in both the political and economic spheres. Regulations, even laws, can suddenly change by a simple presidential decree. Far from bringing about a real movement of institutionalization of a new era, Erdoganism proceeds primarily by de-institutionalization, deregulation, and « de-legalization ». All these allow the presidential power to have great flexibility and availability in decision-making.

The accompanying legal repression is also marked by arbitrariness. Repression is not implemented with the systematic rigor of a totalitarian dictatorship. It rather leaves random spaces of freedom without any guarantee of their permanence, and the presence of these spaces of freedom allows the leaders to claim that they are democratic, especially before the Western leaders.

Erdoganism is also the bearer of a cultural project. It is the project of changing the civilizational landmarks of the Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal and those who supported and followed him in the modernization/westernization of post-Ottoman Turkey. However, the AKP when it came to power through democratic means in 2002 had a completely opposite party program. By declaring, at the time of the creation of his party in the summer of 2001, to « leave the clothes of Milli Görüş » -the Turkish political Islamic movement in which he started his political career and was elected in 1994 mayor of Istanbul-, Erdoğan positioned himself as a fervent supporter of EU membership to « complete the march of modernization » in Turkey and appease the age-old clash between conservatives and modernists through a « conservative-democratic » government in the image of European Christian democracies. With the prospect of EU membership dimming, Erdoğan began to gradually resort to themes of political Islam, stoking resentment against the West, sometimes equated with the Crusaders, and calling for taking historical revenge on the country’s modernist elites. His increasing resort to the themes of political Islam further accelerated after the successive failures of the Muslim Brotherhood during the ‘Arab Spring’ and the military coup against Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Starting from the 2011 general elections, which the AKP won for the third time with 50% of the vote, Erdoğan began to abandon his strategy of rallying to the center in favor of a conservative policy that more explicitly aims at increasing the presence of Sunni Islam in the public space. Building on Turkey’s historical social divides in ethnic (Turks-Kurds), confessional (Sunni-Alevi), and cultural (Islamist/conservative-secular/modernist) topics, he has sought to position himself as the natural leader of Turkey’s conservative Sunni « sociological majority ». Moreover, by denouncing the « internal enemies » and their international backers, namely the West, the EU, international Zionism, Soros, etc., as the reasons for the difficulties encountered, he is trying to capitalize on the nationalist reflex, the greatest common denominator of Turkish society to maintain his power.

In parallel to this strategy, the ruling alliance pursues a policy of re-Islamisation of the public space and deploys an aggressive Islamo-nationalist ideology. This ideology, as far as foreign policy is concerned, does not displease a part of the civilian and military bureaucracy, including those in the Kemalist ranks, who are looking towards Eurasian, anti-Western alliances, and more generally in favor of an authoritarian national-capitalism while claiming to be committed to Turkish secularism and the heritage of Kemalist reforms.

The criminalization of the parliamentary opposition is the centerpiece of this strategy. The main target is the pro-Kurdish, left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Currently, 59 of the 65 elected mayors who are members of this party have been stripped of their mandates by the decision of the Ministry of the Interior and civil administrators have been appointed in their place. A considerable number of elected officials and members of this party, as well as lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists, are incarcerated on the now all-purpose charge of being in contact with « terrorist organizations ».

Facing the decline in popularity of Erdoganism

The depletion of economic growth that had allowed the AKP to solidly win the support of the working classes and the new urban middle classes in the 2000s, followed by chaotic management of the Covid pandemic19, have greatly diminished the popularity of the political party and its leader.  Deteriorating relations with Turkey’s Western allies in NATO have aggravated the loss of confidence in the future of the Turkish economy and led to the drying up of foreign capital flows. The vicious circle of the depreciation of the Turkish lira, inflation, stagnation, and unemployment is speeding up the downfall of the AKP and its ally in the polls.

Discontent among the population has become visible since 2018. This was confirmed by the results of the March 2019 municipal elections, where AKP candidates were outpaced in seven of the ten largest cities by the united opposition candidates. Failures in public policy implementation have become increasingly evident as a result of a nomination policy based exclusively on party loyalty. Blatant crony capitalism and its consequences complete the picture.

Erdoğan’s main political strength has always resided in his electoral success. That is why elections have now become his Achilles heel. In the next presidential elections, normally scheduled for June 2023, he must succeed in obtaining the majority of votes. This now seems to be in jeopardy according to the opinion polls announced since the beginning of 2021. The success of the anti-Erdoğan alliance in the 2019 municipal elections and the specificity of the presidential election by universal suffrage have stimulated the rapprochement of the opposition parties. Today, surveys show that a large majority in Turkey wants to return to the parliamentary system, expresses an unfavorable opinion of the head of state and a more substantial majority does not want religious themes to be used in election campaigns. However, the Islamo-nationalist strategy pursued by the AKP-MHP alliance also relies on an increasingly daily and directive presence of the President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs. This increasing Islamisation of the public sphere consolidates a partisan conservative core but also widens the circle of voters dissatisfied with this development.

The strengthening of military means in the hands of the police, the emergence of paramilitary forces, the reinforcement and generalization of the repressive practices of the security state, the frequent recourse to hate speech, and themes of revenge by the two leaders of the majority are worrying signs of the increasing tension in the circles of power. This tension is growing due to the resistance coming from the civil society, which is manifested in particular by the women’s movement, local environmental organizations, and the opposition media that uses new information technologies skillfully. Moreover, the electoral support for HDP, despite its daily criminalization by the government, is not eroding and the support for centrist parties is constantly rising. The elected mayors of Istanbul and Ankara are emerging as strong anti-Erdogan candidates in opinion polls. Despite legitimate concerns about the holding of the next elections in 2023 and the acceptance of a possible defeat by Erdoğan, the importance attached by the population to the governmental legitimacy stemming from the ballot box, including among conservative voters, for the time being, constitutes the last important bulwark against the dictatorial impulses that are manifesting themselves in the entourage of the Head of State.

There is also the big question of the probable chaos that the defeat of Erdoganism will bring. Indeed, the social and economic damage of Erdoganism, his Islamo-nationalist authoritarian populism that has been in power for too long, will be very difficult to repair in the medium term if it ever agrees to peacefully cede power. Given the immensity of the economic, social, and political changes required to leave the autocratic regime through democratic means, a possible post-Erdoğan era does not present a rosy picture. As a result, the future remains rather bleak in any case and, despite a reasonable expectation of the overthrow of the Islamo-nationalist authoritarian power in the next elections young graduates are continuously fleeing the country. The great challenge of the post-Erdogan era, if the democratic forces succeed in defeating the autocrat at the ballot box, would be to make sure that there can be a better future for the society where people are calm, ready for the peace, and liberated from their socio-historical agonies which have permanently nurtured authoritarianism in Turkey.