Erdoğan is the catalyst not the cause of Turkey’s authoritarian future

This week we caught up with Ahval columnist and political scientist Gökhan Bacık to discuss where Turkey’s current political system is heading and possible changes to the state’s power structure. Bacık had the following to say:

Turkey has reached a consensus that the country’s current predicament is not just a product of the state system, but society as a whole, with a wide range of the Turkish political demographic – from Islamists to secular Kemalists – adhering to this theory

The Turkish political structure is essentially one where the bureaucrats and military make the key decisions. While Turkey has a parliament and supreme court, those authorities linked directly to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan intervene when necessary – shaping both government branches accordingly.

Erdoğan is playing a game on his own terms where the opposition is unable to change the rules. And it is not clear what anyone can do if they are not happy with the status quo. They could take to the streets in protest – an approach the opposition would appreciate. But the fact of the matter is there is a different power structure in Turkey today than there was a decade ago.

The question is whether Erdoğan will keep things the way they are or if there will be another ideological transformation in Turkey. Because remaining within the confines of the current system would eventually no longer serve Erdoğan’s long-term goals.

Will circles closely linked to Erdoğan’s government come out and declare that Western democracy is insufficient and that Islamic democracy is the truest form of governance? Because, based on what has happened in Turkey, the end of the road is in sight. The current trajectory will end in an existential questioning of Western democracy and entirely change the political system.

The current circumstances are exhausting for Erdoğan too. Using your veto power repeatedly in an authoritarian regime within a democratic system is politically costly and becomes a gradually more difficult process to lean on as time passes. Erdoğan’s rule is under the guise of a democracy but the ruse is unsustainable. As such, it is necessary to call the political system what it actually is in order to consider returning to democratic values.

In any case, the system in Turkey has unofficially changed since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002 and should be carefully scrutinised since the current situation cannot be explained with the old political theory.

Not only did Turkey’s political system change, but its economic system as well. The state has been very active in the economy, through moves such as printing more Turkish lira and injecting it into the market.

Erdoğan’s repeated economic intervention also included his removal of Turkish Central Bank Governor Murat Çetinkaya for not lowering interest rates fast enough last year and Turkey’s Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency (BDDK) temporarily banning lira trading at Citigroup, UBS and BNP Paribas after the currency fell to a record low of 7.27 per dollar in early May.

What we are experiencing is statism, a doctrine of giving a centralised government control over economic planning and policy. In Turkey’s case, this is a third-world type of statism.

The current government’s economic policy carries arguments of a free market. But it is not time for the economic system to reform. There are already signs of such drastic remodelling in Turkey through a change in political attitude towards the West. In Turkey’s military bureaucracy, there is already an ingrained anti-Western sentiment.

The government preceding the ruling AKP fell out with the United States long before Erdoğan took power. If you listen to Kemalists, you will hear dreams of modernisation, but none favour Europe. There are no pro-Western actors left in Turkey and Turkish relations with the West are based on pragmatism. Ankara’s pro-Westernism ceased to exist in the 1970s.

That pre-Erdoğan policy model was similar to those of China and Russia, and one which aspires to become more secular, without the West. Moreover, the West’s ability to impact Ankara has decreased over the years.

The expectation that the Turkish economy will play a positive role in the future of Erdoğan’s government is gone. Turkey’s political economy has changed. The middle class will become poorer, but this will only have a limited effect on Erdoğan’s overall popularity since it is the poorer economic classes that support him.

When it comes to future elections, financially, Turkey is being relegated to a lower global league. The people of Turkey are growing accustomed to this change. So why would Erdoğan place his power at risk and leave the door open to possible snap elections? Whether he will take this route or hold elections as scheduled in 2023 be revealed in the weeks and months ahead.

Although Turkey has a parliament and judicial courts, which are necessary institutions in the democratic process, they only function through Erdoğan’s intervention. Yes, this country wanted to modernise and prosper, yet after almost 200 years since the Tanzimat period, a time when the Ottoman Empire went through a series of constitutional reforms in the name of modernisation, what we have in the end is a Turkish authoritarian regime.

There will be no Norway that emerges from Turkey. There is a peculiar, harsh political culture that has formed in Turkey - one that the country does not wish to abandon. It is not only the state that defends it, but the people as well. Society wants a strong leader. It does not wish to rely too much on institutions and it does not hold in high regard intermediary organisations.

The Republic of Turkey is nearing its centenary and it is possible to discern the traits and society that make up the current state of the country. This nation does not have the capacity to produce pro-Western sentiment.

This is Ankara’s political model, a stylistically Turkish authoritarian regime that views the world through a lens of suspicion. Moreover, it also sees that the people are quick to follow the state in holding enmity toward other groups and individuals.

A Western-style state will not emerge from here, but rather an Islamist-Turkish variation. Turkey will inevitably want to label this political structure.

The only democratic practice maintained in Turkey is a commitment to the ballot box. Turkish society holds the ballot box in very high esteem. There may be a risk at this juncture where Erdoğan is concerned, but as long as he does not hold a snap election, it is safe to say that for now, he is not going anywhere.