North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

What exactly is Erdoganism?

The spectacle of Erdoganism is much closer to a tribal state than to a state governed by the rule of law.

Ahmet Insel
7 December 2020, 7.52am
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
| / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

This article is based on a lecture delivered by the author during the First NORIA Meeting on Turkey held on 19-20 October 2020

The current regime in Turkey is an autocracy, a regime tailor-made for the strong man. This regime can be called Erdoganism. It is a hyper-presidential regime that makes the separation of powers obsolete and operates with a vertical power structure. This term, used by Putin to describe the power architecture in Russia, is perfectly suited to describe the political and institutional architecture of Erdoganism. Certainly a Turkish-style power vertical, much messier, applied more by trial and error. Consequently with arbitrariness and randomness much more present than in classic autocratic regimes.

One of the salient features of Erdoganism is that it is above all a regime of arbitrariness. It is a regime that does not respect its own rules and invents new ones according to the necessities of the situation. The abuse of repression by the judiciary and the disappearance of legal security in general are the most visible consequences. The mass dismissal of teachers and civil servants by simple administrative decision, without official reason and without the possibility of appeal, the appointment of administrators in the place of Kurdish elected mayors but dismissed by the Ministry of the Interior, the imprisonment of lawyers, journalists, and even deputies, are some of the manifestations of this repressive arbitrariness.

Parliament is emptied of its prerogatives in favour of presidential decrees. The laws themselves are randomly followed by the authorities and the judiciary. This repression is orchestrated directly from the presidential palace. Of course there are clans and power struggles within the nationalist Islamic alliance, but the Erdogan clan continues to have the last word.

The situation is very similar to the situation described by the German jurist Ernest Fraenkel in his book Dual State written in 1941, which describes the functioning of the German judiciary under Nazism. The hierarchy of norms in the legal field sometimes works and sometimes not. The most recent example of the disappearance of the hierarchy of norms is the refusal to recognise the legal legality of the decision of the constitutional court by a criminal court. This practice, which is similar to the means used by totalitarian states, is not implemented in a systematic but almost random manner.

It is a regime that does not respect its own rules and invents new ones according to the necessities of the situation

The arbitrariness of power is the loss of predictability, the reign of randomness and insecurity. It allows the regime to show, if necessary, scenes that have a democratic aspect, in particular the existence of a parliamentary opposition, but with a parliament that is very limited in its prerogatives. Real electoral competition but with massive inequality to the benefit of the president's party. Freedom of speech is violated widely but not systematically. A desire for a conservative ideological framework but without substantial content other than the use of the resources of the religious nationalism.

Despite massive arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and convictions, prohibitions that increasingly cover the social space and the accentuation of the centralisation of all power in the hands of the one who is at the same time head of state, head of government and head of the majority party, the situation in Turkey remains paradoxical. Neither total dictatorship, although it is approaching it, nor illiberal democracy.

The repression exercised by the government is impeccable, noisy and excessive because Erdoganism has not succeeded in establishing hegemony in the Gramscian sense of the term. It has not been able to constitute a cultural domination that modifies collective beliefs and collective practices in order to establish a new system of domination. Roughly half of society refuses to submit to his ideological domination and keeps the hope of chasing him out of power through elections. Hence a more massive recourse to the criminal justice system to repress, criminalise and silence.

To sum up, we are really facing a situation that resembles the one described by Fraenkel. On the one hand, a functioning of the state that follows the rules laid down by the constitution, laws and regulations, and on the other hand another functioning of the state that is largely free of all legal and institutional constraints. A real dual state. Turkey has had a long tradition of authoritarian power and a kind of state within the state: the so-called deep state.

The situation in Turkey remains paradoxical. Neither total dictatorship, although it is approaching it, nor illiberal democracy

The dual state of Erdoganism and its vertical of power functions differently from the traditional state within the state. The latter was discreet, capillary within the institutions and, above all, obsessed by the durability of state power.

The dual state of Erdoganism was noisy, talkative, permanently staged and obsessed with the potential consequences of the loss of power on the members of the ruling clan. It is a power that carries the project of de-institutionalisation, of destroying the institutions inherited from the past but without a global, coherent project for a new institutionalisation. In this sense, Erdoganism is an autocratic regime which considers that all its political actions in the broadest sense are beyond legal control.

Criminal justice can function according to the needs of this policy (the imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtas, Osman Kavala, or the lawyers of Cagdas Hukukcular, Ahmet Altan and many others), laws and regulations can be enacted according to the needs of this policy such as a controversial law passed on July 2020 to allow the creation of multiple bar associations in each provinces to favour pro-regime lawyers and to bring bar associations and their national umbrella organization under greater government control, and the state budget can be committed without significant parliamentary or legal control. The HDP can be criminalised. Professional organisations such as the order of doctors accused of terrorism.

Erdogan often asserts that the state he heads is not a tribal state. But the spectacle of Erdoganism is much closer to a tribal state than to a state governed by the rule of law.

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