Does the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu split provide an opening for Turkish democracy?

Institutions are the most useful tools for autocrats helping them ‘encapsulate’ or ‘co-opt’ opposition and resistance, and the AKP will continue to hijack them so long as it is in power.

Bilge Yabanci
6 May 2016

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announces resignation, May 5, 2016. Burhan Ozbilici / Press Association. All rights reserved.This week the widening rift between Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan was officially acknowledged when Davutoğlu’s resignation as the party leader was announced after a long meeting between the two. An extraordinary party congress will be held to elect the next leader.

The discord between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu was well-known for a while; but it reached a peak last week when the Prime Minister was stripped of his power to appoint the heads of local AKP branches through a decision taken by the pro-Erdoğan members of the AKP’s executive board. There were rumours about ‘an internal coup’ against Davutoğlu, especially after an anonymous blog called Pelikan Dosyası appeared a few days ago with many claims and conspiracies in an evident attempt to discredit Davutoğlu.

Despite the respect for him among party cadres, since he came to power, Davutoğlu has not been able to assert himself as a strong and autonomous prime minister. His loyalty to Erdoğan made him hesitant to voice his disagreements and publicly support alternative policies. Erdoğanists within the AKP have easily discarded Davutoğlu without creating dissent among AKP voters. Yet, the intra-party division might also trigger a fundamental shift in Turkish politics that could finally reverse the authoritarian trend in Turkey.  

The mass support behind the AKP is unquestionable. Contrary to many expectations, AKP voters did not desert the party after the 2013 corruption scandal. They turned a blind eye and even defended their party after the sexual abuse of 45 children in the dormitories of Ensar Vakfı, one Islamic charity organisation with strong links to the AKP, was covered up by the government. What lies behindsuch mass support?  In their work on durable autocracy, Beatriz Magaloni[1] and Jennifer Gandhi[2] argue that the robustness of ruling parties and consolidation of autocratic regimes depend on a perception of the party on the part of both the opposition and the voters that it is cohesive and invincible. This intra-party cohesion is created through elite unity or the prevention of elite rivalries and defections.

Many recent studies on the persistence of authoritarian regimes have argued that elite collective action lies at the heart of sustaining dominant party regimes and consolidating illiberal governance. Jason Brownlee argues in Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratisation[3]  that party organisation is central in regulating elite conflict and ensuring allegiance. When elite interests clash, political parties act as mediators to contain rivalries and find mutually acceptable solutions. However, for those ruling parties that initially relied on a broad coalition for support from otherwise disparate groups, maintaining a cohesive group of elites behind the party is difficult.

Dan Slater[4] refers to the elite collective action behind authoritarian party regimes as ‘protection pacts’. In a strong and ideal protection pact, state officials, party cadres, business and communal elites and middle classes unite against a common challenge to the hegemony of the party. It is not only the shallow material concerns of patronage behind the support, but also the shared threat perceptions that trigger almost a natural collective support behind the party.  

Elites do not only offer legitimacy to the ruling party or its leader, but also coercive and material benefits to maintain power.

When the elites are keen to act collectively, the party can devote its resources (material, political, ideological and intellectual) to strengthening elite unity through distribution of resources and privileges, to extend the control over social and political fields, and also to respond to contentious action — protests and public expressions of dissidence — through heightened party control over the state and its institutions and more oppression of free speech. The result is an extended mandate in office and autocratic holdout.

Transition to democratisation is only possible when the elite coalition breaks down. When political or social elites desert the party because the party fails to settle intra-elite conflict, ‘opportunities for democratisation’[3] open up.

With the help of an organised opposition, this critical juncture can put a country back on the path to democratisation.

The argument about the survival of authoritarian regimes can be extended to the ruling parties in semi-authoritarian regimes like Turkey. The AKP has managed to establish and maintain such large scale mass support and an image of invincibility through strong leadership backed by a unified elite group. Earlier, there were smaller scale intra-party disputes, when founding cadres such as Ertuğrul Günay, Abdullah Gül, İdris Naim Şahin, Bülent Arınç left the party over disputes with Erdoğan. The AKP’s recent shift towards authoritarianism and its position on the Kurdish peace process have also ended the alliance with liberal elites. Some critical voices inside the party resigned after the corruption charges.

So intra-party dispute is not new for the AKP. However, Erdoğan’s full control over the party as the leader with the wide support of the electorate helped the AKP sail through these crises of elite dispute without any party split. The elites who deserted the party went into either oblivion or lacked the charisma or support of Erdoğan to challenge him by establishing an alternative party. After each intra-party rivalry in the past, Erdoğan has further consolidated his leadership and monopoly over the AKP.

So, what are the scenarios after the most recent intra-party row? There are at least three possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, with the new AKP leadership more loyal to Erdoğan, patronage through distribution of economic and political privileges would be more and more concentrated around the small clique composed of Erdoğan’s family (his son-in-law and the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Berat Albayrak was already mentioned as the future PM), Erdoğanists in the AKP such as, Binali Yıldırım, Efkan Ala, Numan Kurtulmuş, and Bekir Bozdağ, and some loyal business circles.

This means that the AKP would lose the intellectual support and experience of broader skilful cadres to connect the party to the masses. Also, reliance on the support of a smaller elite group of the most loyal politicians, party apparatchiks and business people motivated by ‘provision pacts’[4] or patronage would not sustain a long term coalition, as it is vulnerable to economic downturns, further competition and fragmentation among the loyal clique for further privileges.

In this case, it is doubtful whether the charisma of Erdoğan and his populist discourse of antagonism and crisis between ‘us’ the victimised masses and ‘them’ secular, western, Kemalist elites could carry the party steadily into the future. A ruling AKP reliant more and more on a small inner circle with the only main motivation to support the AKP as long as the material benefits flow will be very vulnerable in the future.

Under this scenario, if a well organised opposition can unite to challenge the AKP’s rising authoritarianism and mobilise collective action, there is optimism for reversing the authoritarian trend and restarting the democratisation process and societal reconciliation.

However, and in the second scenario, in the short and medium term, the response of the AKP would be tightened authoritarian control and excessive use of security forces, further crack down on the opposition and basic freedoms. With the support of the new party cadres under the unquestioned leadership of Erdoğan, the AKP can turn into a political machine utilising state resources as a tool for its patronage networks and usurping institutions further, while oppressing dissidents.

Still, together with the stagnated production and projected mediocre economic growth and increasing oppression of freedoms, a small party circle totally obedient to Erdoğan cannot sustain AKP electoral support and the image of invincibility. Without the broader protection pact behind the party, the AKP would be the actor most responsible actor for climbing violence with the PKK and the instability at the borders, and will eventually start to lose elections.

A third scenario would occur if Erdoğan wins another victory out of the intra-party crack and the opposition fails to capitalise on a potentially weakened AKP due to the party organisation's failure to reconcile elite disputes. Unfortunately, the two biggest opposition parties CHP and MHP seem far from confronting the AKP’s hegemony. The MHP has long been ‘a loyal opposition’ coming to the aid of the AKP whenever a contradictory issue requires a larger majority than the number of AKP seats. The party has lost the hearts of many of its voters, as the leader Bahçeli’s insistence was the main reason behind the failed coalition-building talks after the June 2015 elections. With intra-party struggles for leadership of their own, the MHP cannot become a credible opposition to the AKP’s hegemony.

What is truly surprising is the recent compliant behaviour, whatever the motivations for this might be, of the CHP in supporting the removal of the immunity of MPs. The proposal by the AKP is an attempt to charge the HDP parliamentarians with support for terrorism in a clear move towards more state-backed oppression of the opposition. After several brawls and organised attacks against the HDP members of the parliamentary committee, the draft law was accepted thanks to CHP support. The CHP leadership’s position has even shocked the party’s loyal supporters; and more importantly, it proved the difficulty of uniting around a counter-AKP coalition for the opposition parties.

Besides, the EU has recently turned enlargement conditionality into an empty shell by opening up new negotiation chapters, and offering visa liberalisation and financial aid as a part of the EU-Turkey refugee deal. Seemingly, the EU has no intention of taking the authoritarian consolidation in Turkey unduly seriously and deploying conditionality to achieve democratic reform in such candidate countries in the foreseeable future.

Under this scenario, Erdoğan has his unquestioned leadership over the AKP confirmed, the opposition is either weak or stripped of its voice and without any external pressure from the EU for democratisation, there is nothing between Erdoğan and a strong presidential system with a totally pacified parliamentary opposition.

As people would continue to associate the AKP rule in Turkey with stability and order, despite its authoritarian practices, mass support behind the AKP and Erdoğan can be reconfirmed through elections in the future.

Yet, Erdoğan’s leadership will not be sufficient to maintain the illiberal regime created by the AKP. The maintenance of regimes, whether democratic or authoritarian, does not depend on particular individual charisma or leadership, but broad institutional structures. Erdoğan and AKP are aware of the power of institutions. This is the main reason behind the discussions about creating a strong presidential system, controlling the electoral arena and the judiciary through undemocratic practices skewed towards the ruling party and writing a constitution without society-wide deliberation.

Institutions are the most useful tools for autocrats helping them ‘encapsulate’ or ‘co-opt’ opposition and resistance, and the AKP will continue to hijack them so long as it is in power.

The recent discord among the high-level cadres of the AKP provides an interesting opportunity for reversing the authoritarian trend maintained by the image of the AKP as a cohesive and invincible party. Whether this will create open elite dissent within the AKP after the party congress on May 22 and whether a weakened AKP could lead to the formation of alternative coalitions is yet to be seen.



[1] B. Magaloni, Voting for Autocracy: Hegemonic Party Survival and its Demise in Mexico, 1 edition. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[2] J. Gandhi, Political Institutions under Dictatorship, Reprint edition. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[3] J. Brownlee, Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization, 1 edition. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[4] D. Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[5] B. Geddes, “What Do We Know About Democratization After Twenty Years?,” Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci., vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 115–144, 1999.

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