New faces, old ways: the dynamics of Turkish political leadership

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan belongs to a strong leadership tradition. Contextual and personal factors, from a lack of intra-party democracy to an insufficient system of checks and balances have historically empowered Turkish leaders.

Ahu Yigit
7 August 2013
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Algeria

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Algeria Demotix/Mohamed Kaouche. All rights reserved

On June 17, Egemen Bağış, the Turkish Minister for EU Affairs, penned a defence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s handling of the recent crisis, as it blossomed from its environmental origins, evolving into a more comprehensive wave of protests: “Turkey has the most reformist and strongest government in Europe and the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world”. In this note, published on the Ministry’s webpage, Bağış responded to the EU officials and politicians who had expressed their concerns over the excessive use of violence against protesters by Turkish police and reminded Turkey of its obligations as a candidate country negotiating EU membership.

Beyond demonstrating that Turkish officials make no secret of the EU’s loss of leverage over Turkey, Bağış’ statement also reveals how important the Turkish prime minister is to its political machinery, to the extent that government members do not refrain from using such strong and public expressions of their admiration.

Yet the current prime minister is no exception in Turkish political history. Turkish leaders have traditionally been far more powerful than post-Second World War German chancellors or American presidents who face institutional and cultural barriers to their exercise of power. Combinations of contextual and personal factors empower Turkish leaders in different ways.

Until the early 18th century, powerful monarchs who were considered to be the shadow of God on earth ruled Turkey’s predecessor Ottoman Empire. From the 18th century onwards, new political agencies emerged, but agency was still mainly shaped around leaders rather than institutions or grassroots organizations. It was a troika of leaders who ruled and sealed the fate of the Empire from 1912 to 1918: Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Cemal Pasha. 

With the transition to the Republic in 1923, context changed but tradition remained. Drafters of the 1924 constitution sought to avoid the emergence of a powerful executive. Yet President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had already accumulated enough political capital to dominate the Turkish political scene until his death in 1938. The second president İsmet İnönü, whom Erdoğan occasionally likens to a dictator, followed a similar course. 

Alongside the transition to multiparty politics in 1946 and the transfer of power from the Republican People’s Party to the Democrat Party in 1950, political power shifted from presidents to prime ministers, starting with Adnan Menderes, one of Erdoğan’s political idols. Turkish prime ministers, who are often also the chairmen of their parties, are empowered not only by the constitutional arrangements that give them vast authority but also by political party structures and an absence of intra-party democracy. As a result, members of political parties, whether cabinet members or aspiring candidates for political office, are far from empowered political agents. This is one of the reasons why leading AKP figures who might otherwise have been unhappy with Erdoğan’s crisis management failed to intervene over his dangerously polarizing rhetoric. Such a confrontation could have ended their political careers.  

Another contextual factor enforcing Turkish leadership is the country’s imperfect democracy. Back in 1996, following Guillermo O’Donnell, Turkish political scientist Ergun Özbudun described Turkey as a delegative democracy. This type of democracy is defined by a coexistence of the absence of considerable threats likely to result in regime collapse and the lack of initiatives geared towards achieving a more pluralist and representative democracy. Since 1996 much has changed for the better.  The erosion of military oversight over civilian politics has particularly raised hopes for the consolidation of Turkish democracy. But at the same time this has removed an important restraint on Turkish leaders’ exercise of power.

The change in the balance of power among political actors led to a shift in the typical Turkish political divide: state elites versus political elites. State elites including the army corps have been non-elected officials influential in a number of critical political issues. Political elites are election winners. The power of state elites has eroded over the last decade, whilst political elites have been able to assert their will more strongly than ever in Republican history.  

Yet the withdrawal of state elites was not accompanied by the insertion of an efficient checks and balances mechanism to allow for the emergence of a new pluralism. Instead the AKP government and Erdoğan in particular adopted former state elites’ methods for their own ends. They effectively incorporated the police force and the education system into a project geared towards the creation of a more conservative society. As a result, despite all optimism, Turkey could not transcend its delegative democracy status. 

One of the outcomes of delegative democracy is personalismo, where leaders enjoy extensive powers on paper as well as in practice as prime ministers, presidents or heads of political parties. Like many other Turkish leaders before him, Erdoğan also fits into this description. Erdoğan himself takes the most critical decisions regarding government affairs. What often remains for the ministers is the implementation of these decisions. 

There have been certain contextual limitations to Erdoğan’s exercise of power, especially in terms of foreign policy. As far as the Syrian civil war is concerned, Erdoğan has, quite aggressively, taken sides with the opposition forces against the Assad government and allowed them to use Turkey’s resources on levels that have not necessarily been made public. Yet when bombs exploded in the Turkish border town Reyhanlı in May 2013 claiming the lives of 52 residents and the spillover risks of the war became more immediate, Erdoğan’s foreign policy came under fire. It seems that the Syrian crisis will remain an important constraint for his decision-making. 

Another contextual restraint dictated by the prime minister’s earlier foreign policy commitments relates to the recent developments in Egypt. For Turkey, Egypt is certainly less of a security issue in comparison to Syria. Nevertheless, it is important for other reasons. The former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had the Turkish government’s full support and Egypt was a case study for the viability of the Turkish model for the region. Morsi’s removal from office by the recent military coup and the Muslim Brotherhood’s loss of power will have its impact on Turkey’s prestige as a regional actor.

Erdoğan’s recent stand has highlighted several personal resources significant to his decision-making. Erdoğan has proven himself to be a product of the Turkish political right tradition that equates democracy and politics with elections and simultaneously considers political activity outside the electoral realm unwelcome and at times, illegitimate. In this fashion, Erdoğan did not consider the recent demonstrations to be legitimate and denounced the protesters as terrorists. This is well suited to the tradition of the Turkish political right. Celal Bayar, a former president (1950-1960) who established the first successful opposition party, the Democratic Party, once described democracy as the majority always being more intelligent, moral and capable than the minority. 

Erdoğan’s insistence that the protesters have been manipulated by foreign forces echoes yet another archaism of the Turkish political right, which seeks to alienate dissent by associating dissidents with foreign agents. In an associated formulation, dissidents and especially the youth are considered incapable of forming an opinion based on their free will. Erdoğan was drawing upon this resource when he asked protesters’ parents to withdraw their ‘children’ from the streets.

Joseph Nye draws attention to a confusion that is widely encountered in the assessment of leadership. The word ‘good’ is used interchangeably to refer to both effective and ethical leaders. In this dichotomy, what differentiates a good ethical leader from a good effective leader is the achievement of ‘good results’ both for the leader’s own supporters and for outsiders, as opposed to achieving goals that are only beneficial to the leader’s own support base. Erdoğan’s performance in the last decade has managed to increase his votes in successive national elections, but it has also resulted in alienating a considerable segment of the Turkish population. Now Erdoğan’s effectiveness as a leader has also reached its limits since he cannot dictate the political agenda as he used to. 

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