Is the problem Erdoğan or the system?

As Turkey battles both the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to create an enemy, as it did in the past, to cover up failures so that it can unite its supporters and consolidate votes. Alas, this attempt has yet to succeed.

Ali Erbaş, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, preached against the sins of adultery and homosexuality on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.

Several rights organisations have condemned Erbaş’s comments, while the AKP - or to be more precise, the Turkish president and AKP chairman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - has taken the opportunity to both support the director and to create a new enemy.

Turkey’s bar associations, in particular, continued their criticisms of Erbaş despite Erdoğan’s support.

Everybody knows that Turkey has been under one-man rule for some time. The German Bertelsmann Foundation even released a report that called Turkey “a de facto dictatorship”. It is evident to all that no comment from any government official will be made without Erdoğan’s knowledge.

Any run-of-the-mill criticism of the president or any of his ministers has had the potential to turn into an investigation for a while now. So much so that a lawyer was investigated for calling Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu “the bald minister,” though charges were dismissed later.

If the criticism pertains to Erdoğan, house raids and investigations of insulting the president often come into play.

The privilege is only for the government and those it partners with, while attempted lynchings of the opposition, threats, and outright attacks are mostly overlooked. State apparatuses in Turkey have become tools for the government to punish opponents, and even criticism voiced on talk shows can lead to broadcast suspensions.

For much of the opposition, the only two ways out of Turkey’s downward spiral are the AKP losing an election, or Erdoğan dying. It is widely believed that following either event, the AKP would enter a rapid process of dissolution.

A slightly deeper observation would yield that the issue is no longer just one-man rule, or Erdoğan. Those who reap the benefits of the system the AKP has established will not wish for its failure. Such members of the bureaucracy, judiciary, police forces and intelligence services in particular would work to ensure Erdoğan’s successor continues the cycle as it is.

If the AKP loses an election, its successors will be prevented from doing their job as they wish and made to face a diverse range of obstacles, like the opposition mayors of Ankara and Istanbul do now. What truly needs to change in Turkey is this mentality, but that is quite the feat to accomplish. The AKP did not figure out how to orchestrate it on its own.

The AKP’s original cadres came from the reformist wing of the Welfare Party (RP), an Islamist party founded in 1983 by Necmettin Erbakan. They went through a similar process during that time. A year after the RP came to power in a coalition government in 1996, the Turkish army made a push to remove them. Erdoğan, then a member of the party and the mayor of Istanbul, was jailed in 1999 for a poem he had recited, and was removed from office. Now, the same practice is playing out again, but with changing sides.

Those who have read the wildly popular Harry Potter series will remember that wizards would avoid speaking the evil Lord Voldemort’s name, out of both fear and a wish to have him forgotten.


While the current climate in Turkey allows for the targeted criticism of the person responsible for any hiccups in a given area, the arrow never points to Erdoğan. People try to criticise the AKP chairman without saying his name, much like for Voldemort, because to directly stand against Erdoğan is to have the complete state apparatus standing against you.

In the book, all of Voldemort’s aides had to be defeated first so it was possible to defeat the lord. The same pattern is present in many works of literature and cinema. History also shows us clearly that a victory was only possible after allied states came together.

The same is necessary to go against the AKP government now. If the opposition does not come together in the true sense of the word, if the discriminatory attitude against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) continues, there can be no victory in the fullest sense. The HDP’s contribution to the equation was seen clearly in the 2019 municipal elections, when the AKP lost two of the most important provinces, Ankara and Istanbul.

But would everything change for Turkey if the AKP loses a general election? The answer is, unfortunately, no. That would necessitate a series of actions, easy to speak of but quite a lot harder to actually take, including a full revision of laws in a manner that respects international law, to modernise the education system with a sincere emphasis on science and education itself, and to provide the best services and equal standing to all of the country without leaving out even the smallest village.

Otherwise, state apparatuses will always be a bat looming over those who oppose the governing entity. Whoever takes the majority among cadres will acquire power. Views will change, but the dysfunction will remain the same.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.