Yahya Madra
Dec 21 2017

What is Erdoğan’s game plan?

What is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political calculus, or game plan, in the short and medium term? Or better yet, is there a game plan? In a recent op-ed published in Ahval, Mark Bentley asked these questions and described how Erdoğan, on the economic front, is caught between the conflicting policy objectives of keeping interest rates low enough to stimulate the economy (further expansion) and of preventing the devaluation of its currency to keep inflation under control (corrective contraction).

While there is a global surplus of liquidity searching for high returns in “emerging” and “frontier” markets, Turkey’s geopolitical and authoritarian drift increases its risk premium. In other words, not only has the composition of foreign capital inflow become increasingly short-term (portfolio investment), but also those who are willing to invest in Turkey are expecting higher returns.

This demand for higher returns is reflected in the recent spasms of devaluation in the Turkish lira. In response, if the central bank wants to prevent currency devaluation, if only to keep inflation in check, it needs to introduce an interest-rate hike. (Turkey’s industrial production is highly dependent on imported intermediate goods, which means currency devaluation soon translates into price inflation.)

Yet, such a corrective contraction contradicts Erdoğan’s short-term political calculations. Erdoğan’s political future is dependent upon him winning local, general, and presidential elections that will be held in 2019, if not before. And to win the presidential elections, he needs to cobble together 50 percent plus one of the electorate. And he believes, like many political commentators, that the key to electoral success is maintaining economic growth. A prospective interest-rate hike to prevent devaluation will entail slowing down the economy and Erdoğan believes that he cannot afford that risk.

Bentley refers to the state of emergency as one of the reasons why investors are thinking twice before investing in Turkey. This may be true to the extent that the state of emergency functions as a signal of Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian and inevitably errant behaviour. The state of anomie that Turkey is in gives the impression that decisions are made on a day-to-day basis, scrambling to respond to a fresh crisis each day. The real concern for capital has never been democracy, but uncertainty and instability, and hence if authoritarianism is a problem for capital, it is only to the extent it breeds uncertainty.

Yet, despite all the mistakes Erdoğan makes, he seems to hold sway over approximately 40% of the electorate. In a commentary for the Turkish left-wing daily Evrensel, Foti Benlisoy describes the current equilibrium of social forces in Turkey as a “Bonapartist” one, in which the bourgeoisie, unable to cohere into a unified front, cannot fully establish its hegemony and give a decisive direction to the country. Nor are the popular classes (including the working classes) powerful enough to form a counter-hegemonic force.

While this description is a good starting point, it does not explain how Erdoğan is working his way through this “bad” equilibrium in the medium term. After U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers broke with Erdoğan, Erdoğan turned to the peace process with Kurdish armed separatists to gain time, perhaps following the Obama administration’s suggestion, and began to work on garnering new alliances to be able to re-staff and re-organise the bureaucracy to guard himself from attacks by Gülen and Co.

At the end of the day, Erdoğan had to organise the alliance with the nationalists (Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Vatan Party) because the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) refused to be the liberal junior partner in his vision of a presidential system. Or to put it more abstractly, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and HDP visions of the peace process did not have a place for each other: For the AKP, peace meant Kurdistan’s integration within Turkish capitalism under Erdoğan’s pastoral tutelage; for the HDP, peace meant the deepening of democracy, increased autonomy, and the institutionalisation of self-governance.

At some point between the longest ever National Security Council meeting on Oct. 30, 2014 and the abortive coup of July 15, 2016­, probably right after the June 7, 2015 election when the HDP received 6 million votes, Erdoğan felt weak enough to come to an agreement with certain factions of the military and the judiciary. Since then, he is enjoying what Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), a German constitutional law scholar with Nazi affiliations, once called, his “commissarial dictatorship”.

For Carl Schmitt, “dictatorship” can be conceived of as an internal moment of constitutional order. Schmitt argues that, if a republic is besieged (whether externally by another nation or internally by a revolutionary class or group), it must have a constitutional provision to suspend the law and introduce a state of emergency. Under this state of emergency, a “dictator”, gathering under its control all three branches of the state, will fulfil a commissarial function to avert the threat and subsequently return the republic back to the normal functioning of the constitutional order.

It seems like the Turkish bourgeoisie sees Erdoğan as a “commissarial dictator” that guides the republic through hard times, eventually to bring it back to constitutional order. Yet, Erdoğan acts more like what Schmitt calls a “sovereign dictator”. According to Schmitt, unlike the commissarial dictator whose task is to restore constitutional order, a sovereign dictator, claiming to embody the will of the people, uses the state of emergency as a window for changing the constitutional order.

Erdoğan is a sovereign. Not only because his “dictatorship” (in the Schmittian sense) is organised around the objective of changing the constitutional order. But also, because he is able to organise and sustain this state of emergency around a perception of Kurdish political will for self-governance as an existential threat for the survival of the republic as a unified entity. Erdoğan can continue to be a “sovereign” as long as the Turkish bourgeoisie and the nationalists uphold him as a “commissarial dictator”.

So far, commentators have argued that Erdoğan’s political success is a function of his economic success. Today, the opposite seems to be the case: His political machinations are barely keeping the economy afloat. This seems to me to be Erdoğan’s political calculus. Whether he may achieve his objectives is contingent on many factors, and there is a lot that can go wrong. Yet none of the counteracting factors can be a substitute for the construction of a genuine political alternative to his vision of corporate sovereignty.