Henri Barkey
Jun 26 2018

L’État c’est Erdogan

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s victory at the polls on Sunday marks a decisive event in modern Turkish history. This is not a transition to a democratic presidential system, or to a dictatorship for that matter, but to a personalised autocracy.

Under the new constitutional system, not only do all powers flow to the presidential palace, but the president, as both head of state and a political party leader, assumes a dual role that is quite unique. First and foremost, there are almost no checks and balances constraining his powers as parliament is reduced to a rubber stamp, especially because his alliance controls a majority of seats. Still, most of what he needs to do he can do by issuing decrees.

Secondly, much of the state apparatus will be beholden to him, as he appoints most of its officials. These include judges, military officers, university leaders and all bodies that are entrusted with overseeing civil society institutions. While the president already had some of these powers, what is different is the degree to which he will be able to politicise appointments and eschew societal balances.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is in complete control of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as there are no competing centres of power or dissenting ideas. Almost all the original founders of the AKP among whom Erdoğan was primus inter pares, have either been purged or have left. Today, he is surrounded by advisors who would not dare to contradict him, much less challenge him.

This yet is not the 1930s; Turkey is an important country with a sophisticated economy. Its management requires complex solutions to a myriad of difficult problems. Erdoğan, for instance, believes that high interest rates cause inflation and not the other way around as economists everywhere argue. To date, the Turkish central bank has done its utmost to stick to economic orthodoxy. Will an emboldened Erdoğan now turn the tables on the central bank?

The electoral campaign demonstrated the power of the presidency. Erdoğan owned the airwaves and opposition parties were shut off from both private and state channels, which only covered Erdoğan and his party. Economically, Erdoğan controls the economic rents that he distributes to all, from large crony companies to local communities. This relationship will become even stronger as the country goes forward. People will have few choices but to curry favour with the party. The challenge for the opposition, therefore, becomes even more difficult as it has access to none of the resources with which to compete.

On the other hand, AKP’s Achilles Heel is its lack of institutionalisation and its reliance on only Erdoğan; he is its only raison d’être.

Erdoğan now has a choice; he can either be magnanimous in victory or tighten his control over society. Magnanimity would require him to try to unite the country and relax the repressive measures that have resulted in so many innocents being jailed on spurious charges. Releasing not just high-profile prisoners, but also many who were caught up in Kafkaesque prosecutions, such as for having opened an account in a bank that was later deemed suspect. Moreover, as much as he claims that the Kurdish problem no longer exists, he can restart the peace process he abandoned in 2015.

Alternatively, the temptation to seek revenge on all those who opposed him may be further goaded by this entourage who have no loyalty other than to him. The fact is there are no restraints on his powers. As for the Kurdish issue, Erdoğan does confront a structural problem; his junior coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) that provides the president with a parliamentary majority, is vehemently opposed to any deal with the Kurds.

The MHP was a surprise winner in the polls as it garnered 11 percent of the vote when the expectations had been that it would struggle. Complicating matters is the fact that the fourth largest party, the Good Party that aligned itself with the opposition, is also a nationalist party hostile to Kurdish demands. The MHP and the Good Party together polled some 20 percent and these two may try to patch up some of their differences in the months ahead.

What will be a determining factor will be the state of the economy. The need for external financing may force Erdoğan to moderate and seek conciliation, as foreign investors want an end to the polarisation.