North Africa, West Asia

The decline of Erdoğanist authoritarianism: a new chance for “democratization” in Turkey?

The Istanbul municipal elections might be the beginning of the post-Erdoğan period. But is it the end of authoritarianism?

Sinem Adar Yektan Türkyılmaz
16 August 2019
Celebrations after the Istanbul mayoral elections re-run, in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 23, 2019.
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Picture by Depo Photos/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Turkey continues to be a most intriguing case for political analysts of the global wave of authoritarianism. Ekrem İmamoğlu’s resounding ballot-box victory against a humiliated Binali Yıldırım in the re-run of the Istanbul municipal mayoral election on June 23 added new impetus to the already bourgeoning curiosity about Turkey’s political future. As the number of post-election analyses has mushroomed, pundits have almost unanimously celebrated this landslide victory as a revitalizing moment for the opposition and a nearly fatal blow to Erdoğan’s grip on power.

Observers have cast this moment variously as proof of: 1) ‘how democracy is/has won;’ 2) the vanquishing of populism; and 3) ‘the persistence of human agency under authoritarianism.’ Indeed, İmamoğlu’s June 23 win went far beyond expectations and has set the hopes up for an opposition that, in our view, is best defined as an ad hoc association. Given the suffocating and dire political climate that prevails in Turkey at present, such a crushing blow to Erdoğanist authoritarianism has thus understandably spread a renewed sense of optimism among many analysts.

Despite the merits of these accounts in capturing various aspects of this rather dramatic moment, they all fall short of locating it within a more prolonged, unfavorable process underway since the parliamentary elections of June 7, 2015 when the AKP government for the first time since it came to power in 2002 could not win enough votes and form a single party government. Overlooking how various events since then changed the political psychology of Turkey’s ruling elites, the configuration of power struggles within the state apparatus—and thus the nature of electoral politics—leave these accounts of June 23 Istanbul re-run decontextualized.

To put it more precisely, such analyses: 1) fail to assess the ‘new’ meaning of the ballot box and thus, the self-perception of the ruling elite, which has taken on a revolutionary character in the aftermath of the putsch of July 15, 2016; 2) disregard the magnitude and implications of the unprecedented accumulation of institutional destruction over the past three years and; 3) wishfully prophesize the potential implications of the June 23 elections as factual certainties.

We observe a collision of two seemingly contradictory trends in Turkey. First, as of the 2018 presidential elections, the range of instruments and the number of channels available to influence regime change have shrunk dramatically. That is, constitutionally defined means of political transformation have become de facto obsolete. At the same time, however—particularly following the June 23 elections in Istanbul—the prospects of an imminent political reconfiguration in the country have stretched to an extent unparalleled in the period since the Second World War.

These possibilities—not certainties—have indeed been progressively (and paradoxically) triggered by the authoritarian regime itself, in Erdoğan’s rigorous but simultaneously counterproductive efforts to consolidate his despotic rule. In short, the political space in Turkey after June 23 has burst wide open, and a range of possibilities present themselves.

At one end of the continuum lies the most likely outcome: that the broad regime coalition crumbles and a narrower, more sectarian and coercive ruling alliance is left in its place. On the other end, however, there stands the potential and historic opportunity for radical liberalization.

At present there is the potential to fundamentally remodel the relations between the state apparatus and the various key segments in Turkish society—confessional groups, ethnic communities and all the other social, economic and geographic peripheries in the country—in such a way that central power is decisively fragmented and delimited, and subject to fundamental checks and balances.

Erdoğanist authoritarianism: forcible but feckless

Following the June 7, 2015 election defeat, Erdoğan resorted to a series of austere and extreme maneuvers to hasten his long-standing plans for a ‘Turkish style’ presidential system—one that would concentrate all executive power in his hands. To that end, he enacted a series of bold moves, included implementing–initially de facto later de jure—the prevailing party and election alliance system and shelving peace talks with the Kurdish movement. These moves momentarily proved quite useful, resulting in the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) victory in the November 1 snap elections the same year.

If June 7, 2015 was a crucial turning point in the formation of new political dynamics, especially in terms of alliances, the putsch of July 15, 2016 was the second watershed event. It triggered a wholesale shift in perceptions among the ruling elites with widespread implications for the state apparatus. We should emphasize here that global dynamics—the worldwide rise of popular authoritarian regimes—and regional dynamics—the war in Syria and Iraq were crucial for the making of Erdoğanist authoritarianism. Yet, particularly decisive was the juncture of these dynamics with three local political factors that have arisen in the aftermath of the July 15, 2016 putsch: 1) a ruling elite with a revolutionary self-perception under the auspices of a cult of personality, 2) internal fighting and feuding in the state network, and; 3) a paranoid political psychology.

One major outcome of such a junction has been the emergence of a reign of fear. Unlike previous periods of state terror in Turkey, no group or individual has been exempt this time, including (indeed, especially) the upper echelons of the government, bureaucracy and military. Erdoğan’s ambition to establish strong one-man rule combined with a paranoid distrust of his own state apparatus had dealt body blows to institutionalism, the separation of powers and merit-based bureaucratic rationality. The cult of personality rule which is at the heart of the Erdoğanist authoritarianism could be enforced utilizing the energy of destruction, that is, at the expense of a debilitating and even crumbling state apparatus.

Over the past four years, Erdoğan has managed to concentrate force, that is, the legal and moral authority to arbitrarily reset the political, bureaucratic and economic system. Yet, the process of monopolizing authority has not remedied the acute paranoia of the leadership. Nor has it decreased Erdoğan’s dependency on non-AKP allies, particularly the MHP and the sectors of the Kemalist bureaucracy that are anti-West and opposed to Turkey’s involvement in the NATO alliance.

On the contrary, the more forcible and centralized around the cult of personality the regime has become, the less nimble and more reckless it has turned. The end result is an unprecedentedly volatile and vulnerable system. Having lost its capacity to address a long- or even medium-term political agenda, Erdoğan’s regime has lurched from one political, economic and diplomatic crisis to the next. At the same time, since the putsch in July 2016 this volatile system has been providing Erdoğan’s allies (current and former) and opponents alike with a steady stream of blunt political weapons to bludgeon his flimsy authoritarianism.

From the fiasco of March 31 to the humiliation of June 23

The period since March 31, 2019 has thrown the vulnerability of Erdogan’s authoritarian regime into sharp relief. Elsewhere, we have detailed the general characteristics of the political firmament and the brawl over the Istanbul metropolitan mayoral race after the March 31 elections. Here we would like to stress that Erdoğan’s ambition to carve out an aggressive majority to bolster and defend his popularity has pushed the otherwise scattered rival opposition parties closer and ultimately helped to galvanize an ad hoc alliance among them. Both the alliance politics that was put de facto into implementation after the June 7, 2015 elections and the shelving of the peace talks with the Kurds backfired and eventually costed Erdoğan dearly in the March 31 elections, when his party lost the biggest three cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir among many other metropolitan municipalities.

Ex post facto, the push for a re-run has proven a colossal blunder by the president. Even more damning was Erdoğan’s confusion and ambivalence in handling the Istanbul situation, following the opposition candidate’s narrow win there on March 31. Erdoğan was initially at sixes and sevens, uncharacteristically silent and then zigzagging back and forth about the ‘legitimacy’ of İmamoğlu’s win until early May. In contrast to his equivocation, key sections of his own party—especially the hardliner ‘pelikan’ clique—as well as the influential cabinet minister Süleyman Soylu, and Erdoğan’s major ally MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) leader Devlet Bahçeli, have pointedly rejected the legitimacy of the opposition’s win and fervently advocated a do over of the elections.

On May 2, Erdoğan stated that a re-run would bring victory to the Cumhur or People’s Alliance (PA) candidate; two days later the president called on the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to annul the result and re-run the elections. Despite this apparent return to belicose form, Erdoğan failed to quell rumbles within his party. Following the May 6 verdict of the YSK, some notable AKP members (including sitting MPs) were not backward in coming forward with public expressions of discontent about the re-run. Strikingly, for the first time since the putsch in 2016, Erdoğan has proved unable to suppress dissident voices within his party. The aura of Erdoğan’s cult of personality and his public image as an immovable force appear to be fading ever more by the day.

If the March 31 fiasco was the trigger for the long-expected faltering of the regime, the June 23 humiliation will probably be remembered as the tremor triggering its destabilization and eventual splintering. On March 31, the Millet İttifakı or National Alliance (NA) coalition secured a tiny margin of victory, thanks mainly to the decision by the leftist / Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) to support NA candidates. Yet, the June 23 humiliation came about with a contribution from all parties. Support from the HDP’s constituency rose to around 90% (up from 80% on March 31); NA supporters turned out at the polls in even higher numbers; and a sliver (4–5%) of AKP voters switched sides. Finally, more than half of voters identifying as supporters of the MHP (a part of Erdogan’s PA) that turned out, preferred the NA candidate İmamoğlu.

The formation of an alliance within an alliance?

Interesting enough, despite the confusion, poor campaign performance and economic deterioration, the AKP’s base of support has remained, by and large, intact. Meanwhile, the support among MHP electors for İmamoğlu increased by over 35% (from 186,000 to 253, 000). The government’s initiative to publicly release a letter from Öcalan—leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—a few days before the election day scandalously backfired. In this letter Öcalan implied that HDP should remain neutral between the PA and NA and should maintain a third path.

Bahçeli’s statement criticizing the HDP for not complying with the message of Öcalan, who—Bahçeli claimed—‘intervened to stop the HDP’s abuse [referring to the HDP’s support to Ekrem Imamoglu]!’ arguably did more harm to the cause than good. Yet, even before the release of Öcalan’s letter, a PA campaign tainting İmamoğlu as being Greek for being born in the eastern Black Sea province Trabzon—a region where the MHP has a solid support base—possibly also contributed to the increased support for İmamoğlu and high abstention rate among MHP followers.

What is particularly significant is the inverse correlation between the MHP constituency’s contribution to the PA and Bahçeli’s influence over the PA alliance and even over the AKP itself. A crucial development in the post-March 31 period is the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s success in bypassing Erdoğan by forming an alliance with the hawkish elements inside the AKP. Interestingly, after the June 23 re-run, Bahçeli did not abstain from critically and condescendingly commenting on the AKP’s internal strife. On June 26, Bahçeli forcefully assured his party’s loyalty to the PA and rejected allegations that he would call for early elections.

Later, on July 2, the MHP leader harshly condemned the founding figures of the AKP—including the former president Abdullah Gül—who are expected to form new political parties. Notably, Bahçeli used sharper expressions than Erdoğan himself in his critique of AKP splitters.

Devlet Bahçeli’s course during the election campaign was, however, very curious. Notwithstanding his promise to ‘lay his bed in Istanbul’ to rally for the PA candidate Binali Yıldırım, Bahçeli paid only a one day visit to the city. The images released to the media represented a show of the MHP leadership’s might than a man out on the hustings. The media were bombarded with pictures of his limousine accompanied by a convoy of party cadres in shiny black cars crossing Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge. Meanwhile, less than a week before election day—when all the political attention was focused on Istanbul and the AKP’s leadership was becoming increasingly concerned about the upcoming election results—a video clip was posted on the MHP’s official twitter page depicting a blissful Bahçeli driving joyfully his classical 1982 Chrysler LeBaron, and greeting cheering supporters. The soundtrack was an arabesque-style song by Ferdi Tayfur, referring to the misfortunes of prisoners and demanding general amnesty – an issue that had previously been raised by Bahçeli and vehemently rejected by Erdoğan.

Apparently for Bahçeli ensuring a win for PA candidate Yıldırım was not the top priority. Nor was he much concerned about the protests among his own party base. Meanwhile, during the election campaign there were a series of attacks on journalists and politicians widely attributed to assailants close to the MHP’s leadership. It is noteworthy that one of the victims was Murat Alan, the news director of the pro-AKP newspaper Yeni Akit, who had spared controversial words about the General Staff a few days before the assault on a TV debate. Another victim was Metin Bozkurt, a founding member of the İYİ Party (İP)—a splitter party from the MHP. Bozkurt had organized campaign events among ülkücüs (literally “idealists”, a title widely associated with the supporters of the MHP) in favor of İmamoğlu. Strikingly, the attack was publicly welcomed by senior figures in the MHP, such as Ahmet Yiğit Yıldırım who wrote on his twitter account, "Either we will silence them completely, or we will make blood come out of their mouths." Given Bahçeli’s conduct on the campaign trail and what appears to be efforts to punish the ‘enemies’ of the MHP and sections of the state apparatus, the MHP leader seems bent on protecting his influence in the bureaucracy and the MHP’s organizational unity above all else.

One could also infer that the MHP leadership’s forecast of a political upheaval after the Istanbul elections was also an underlying reason for his campaign behavior. We suggest that Bahçeli’s alliance within the PA alliance—that is, his cooperation with groups within the AKP at times even effectively bypassing Erdoğan—will be key in mapping the new political battlefield and shaping the expected cracks in the AKP as well as in configuring the political and bureaucratic battles and division of power once Erdoğan has left the scene. Perhaps well aware of this, the president—in a rather unorthodox post-election statement in the format of a newspaper ad—cited the MHP leader by name at the top of a list of supporters, despite Bahçeli’s ambivalent stand during the election campaign. Erdoğan has not been in a position to spare Bahçeli’s backing—especially at a time when his leadership is under fire from all sides, including his own party circle. He now seems to have no choice but keep Bahçeli on board at any cost as also apparent in his most recent unusual visit to Bahçeli in his private house.

Has democracy—or at least the supremacy of the ballot box—been restored in Turkey?

In one of our post-March 31 analyses, we suggested that ‘voting has become, at least for the ruling clique, “indicative” and no longer “determinative” for political representation.’ This observation was not grounded solely on the particular scuffle over Istanbul, nor was it based upon the specific post-election developments. First and foremost, the current regime (still) deems its ultimate source of legitimacy not in the ballot box but from the blood its supporters spilled against the putschists on July 15, 2016. That is to say, the political elite claims the right to revolutionary authority based upon its victory, ironically, against a faction within the state apparatus.

This aspiration was most recently expressed during the commemoration of the defeat of the putsch. In his speech at the national assembly, President Erdogan likened the bombing of the Turkish Grand National Assembly building by puschists on July 15, 2016, to the targeting of the parliament during the war of liberation. Likewise, in his speech, an AKP spokesman Mehmet Muş compared the quelling of the Gülenist’s attempted coup to earlier pioneering heroic initiatives in Turkish history, such as the initial incursion of Turks into Anatolia and Atatürk’s arrival in Samsun on May 19, 1919—a date sanctified by Kemalists as the beginning of the war for ‘national liberation.’ Such comparisons between the post-July 15, 2016 Turkey and the onset of heroic initiatives in the past are also abundant among the hawkish columnists close to Erdoğan such as Ibrahim Karagül. It would thus be premature and naive to argue that this conviction of the leadership has easily changed and that democracy and the ballot was dead one day only to be resurrected the next. Moreover, signals from the PA leadership suggests how adamant they are about drawing on this source of legitimacy in a revolutionary manner—that is, by transcending constitutionally delimited norms and political precedents.

On June 17, Erdoğan declared that unless İmamoğlu apologizes for insulting the governor of Ordu, a province on the Black Sea coast, he would not be worthy of holding the post of mayor—nor, crucially, eligible to do so. Similar comments were seconded by Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, and Devlet Bahçeli. After the election, multiple tools from the repertoire of disenfranchisement were deployed. These included discrediting and/or criminalizing of elected mayors, paralyzing/stalling due process, and restricting the jurisdiction of municipal governors and deputies—often by depriving them of the central funding they depend on to function. Such practices targeted municipalities newly won by the opposition, particularly İstanbul and Ankara, and HDP-run precincts. On June 27, only four days after the elections, Abdülkadir Selvi, a columnist well connected to the inner circle of the AKP, wrote that during the post-election Central Administrative Board meeting of the party, Erdoğan proposed the expulsion of İmamoğlu by pushing for (imposing, to be more precise) a guilty verdict on charges he insulted the governor of Ordu. According to Selvi, the deputy chairman of the party, Hayati Yazıcı, objected to Erdoğan’s ‘revolutionary’ bid, reminding the president of the ‘legal’ limits of such a court verdict. Most recently, on July 26, Erdoğan noted that the members of the city councils would continue to do what is good for the nation. Bahçeli was even more explicit in declaring the mayor-elect unsuitable for office. Three days after the election, the MHP leader stated that ‘İstanbul has not been commanded to competent hands.’

We cite only a few examples here but we could go on. Yet, more indispensable for the discussion is to explain an apparent contradiction: The night of the Istanbul election—even before the vote count was over—the highest-level representatives from the ruling block—starting with the PA candidate Binali Yıldırım himself—rushed to deliver statements of concession and, one hastens to add, in an excessively exhibitionist and exaggerated manner. In the following days, PA spokespeople repeatedly declared their defeat as a victory for democracy and the immutability of the ballot box in Turkey.

Why would these figures court such defeatist attention in this way, especially when going up against Erdogan and the AKP in public has been a great taboo for anyone within the ruling network in recent years? We suggest that these statements are nothing more than an indication of a heightened concern to maintain the loyalty of the bureaucracy and signs of distress about harmonizing the spreading cacophony within the party and keeping non-AKP allies in the orbit of the ruling clique.

We have already noted that since the putsch of July 15, 2016, the foremost source of anxiety for Erdoğan—definitely more than challenges posed by the formal opposition parties in the country—has been the perceived discontent (both latent and surfacing) within the state apparatus, his own party, and the PA alliance. As of March 31, ‘internal’ strives and disaccord turned into an imminent challenge which is further intensified in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat of June 23. It should thus not come as a big surprise that Erdoğan would begin a marathon of meetings with the AKP MPs in groups even as he kept arguing with potential splitter leaders such as Ali Babacan to deter them from founding new political parties. Meanwhile, he already started scapegoating ‘the old comrades’, first within his close circle later publicly, who ‘stabbed them [the AKP] in the back’ for the election defeat.

A major predicament for the ruling elite is the tension between the self-proclaimed entitlement as revolutionary guards and regime builders and the country’s socio-political reality and historical legacy. The June 23 ballot blow have thrown the vulnerability and clumsiness of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism into sharp relief. Yet, that should not lead us to assume that the regime has abandoned its self-proclaimed revolutionary entitlement or learned it ought to pare the so-called ‘democratic regime’ down to ‘normalcy’.

It should be recalled here that leaders of the regime claim the revolutionary entitlement not to topple an ancien regime but to crush a clique that was once a major ally. It would thus not be surprising if we were to witness a new wave of bombardment of ‘the enemies of the regime’ once Erdoğan feels relatively secure about his home-front; nor would it be unexpected to see groups of erstwhile comrades turned, once again, into internal enemies to be raised up as the new prime targets of a quixotic ‘struggle for survival’. In fact, to this point, Erdoğan, after almost a week of silence, declared on July 26 that “those who are involved in betrayals like these [referring to the potential new party formations and other dissidence within the AKP] will pay a heavy price.”

Post-Erdogan politics

Overall, we argue that even though Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will perhaps continue to be the most prominent name in Turkish politics for the foreseeable future, March 31 definitely marked the decay of his cult of personality. He might remain a loud voice; yet, he became one of the many voices lacking the competence and authority to mute other voices. In this respect, the municipal elections on March 31 will be remembered as the beginning of the post-Erdoğan period in Turkish politics. But does that also signify the end of authoritarianism? Absolutely not.

We would like to remind the reader of the distinguishing characteristics of Erdoğanist authoritarianism that we noted earlier—namely, 1) a ruling elite with a revolutionary self-perception under the auspices of a cult of personality, 2) internal fighting and feuding in the state network, and 3) a paranoid political psychology. The only element in this triple pillar of authoritarianism that is fading, is the cult of personality.

Thus, we are left with a political firmament in Turkey in which various elite factions within the ruling block are more dispersed. Particularly important here are the increasingly more visible divisions and cracks within the AKP. These factions within the AKP and the non-AKP components of the alliance are progressively more susceptible to centrifugal forces—which might give birth to a new ruling elite out of the current PA. Under these circumstances, one might plausibly expect the rivalry and infighting—not to mention the paranoid political disposition—to intensify along with an aggravation among the multiple challenges and a boost to expectations of a tectonic political shift.

To put it in a nutshell, rather than translating smoothly into ‘normalization’ the withering away of the dominance of the Erdoğanist cult of personality instead renders the regime and its elites more erratic and volatile. Combined with the collapse of those regular and routine governance mechanisms—namely, the disintegration of institutionalism, bureaucratic rationality and the separation of powers—which could provide the system with resilience to thwart excessive seismism, the country is left extremely vulnerable to marginal scenarios. In other words, on the one end of the continuum one might expect the current ruling block to concentrate into an even narrower ruling coalition or even a faction through ‘highly contentious’–i.e., non-institutional and non-constitutional—political means.

On the flip side of the picture, ironically, the making of Erdoğanist authoritarianism has generated ample opportunities for a radical liberalization of the Turkish political system. Scrapping institutional discipline, liquidating the bureaucratic guardians, disposing of the ‘traditional’ cadre structure and confusing the ideological compass that defined the ‘old’ imperious state apparatus, without effectively replacing them with ‘new’ ones, presents a historic moment for a comprehensive and thorough transformation.

Such a revolutionary shift is destined to remain solely as a hypothetical possibility if left without appropriate collective political action and programmatic and strategic intervention. We deem it an exaggeration to expect such a prodigious political initiative from the ad hoc association represented by the current opposition circles. We could cite various factors relating to the structure of the NA that would make such an initiative difficult to execute. What is arguably most salient is the risk averse coalition that stands opposed to the Erdoganist regime. In other words, the pressing concern that, were it to fall, all manner of unpredictable and highly undesirable outcomes might follow. This risk aversion seems to have many local and international players content with seeking ' normalization' within the existing system.

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