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Gökhan Bacık
Mar 13 2019

Is Erdoğan the Turkish state? Upcoming vote is test

As Turkey approaches nationwide local elections on March 31, any debate on its future needs to answer one question: Is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the state in present-day Turkey?

This question is critical for several reasons. To begin with, Erdoğan is the absolute ruler of the country, and has set about creating a new political theology in which only his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has the right to rule. Numan Kurtulmuş, the AKP number two, recently equated unseating Erdoğan through elections with toppling him via a coup.

Islamist ideology is an important reference for the AKP. According to the AKP worldview, no other party has the Islamic legitimacy to rule and so leaving office is morally unacceptable. Though the AKP has so far failed to establish a full-blown Islamist government, it has been successful in transforming Turkey into a hybrid society where legitimacy is now derived from both secular constitution and Islam.

The state tradition in Turkey should be taken into consideration. Unlike in the West, Turkish statehood is almost independent of sociological dynamics and more like a separate entity above the nation. The usual logic of politics in Turkey is from top to bottom; it is the state that rules the political game, except for some short periods.

Unlike Western nations, Turks have so far not been able to limit their state with a social contract. But most Turks are not unhappy about having an absolutist state. Even serving the state is a virtue for the average Turk.

Mansur Yavaş, a lawyer and the opposition mayoral candidate for Ankara, recently declared that he had spent his life defending the state. His assertion proves there is no major difference between the AKP and the opposition parties on the matter of the state.

Seen in this way, historically speaking, it is logical to expect that the state will again determine Turkey’s future, but only if Erdoğan is not still equated with the state.

But given that the state always retains its central position, it also means that a post-Erdoğan Turkey would not be essentially different – the absolute statism would keep dictating politics in Turkey. The nature of state-society relations in Turkey has no capacity to generate Western-style politics or democracy.

But, if Erdoğan is now equal to the state, there is not much left to discuss about Turkey’s future. It is very likely the AKP will rule for many years. The only thing that might change this are international dynamics that could force Turkey to change, as happened in the late 1940s when the country was forced to become more democratic in exchange for a seat in the Western camp.

Probably aware of how foreign policy influences domestic politics, Erdoğan is in an aggressive search for an alternative foreign policy. The pragmatic relationship between Erdoğan and the West has almost reached its limit. Erdoğan’s administration desperately needs a completely new foreign policy orientation, as it will soon lose its ability to continue even pragmatic relations with the West.

Thus, the fate of Turkey rests on a simple question: Is Erdoğan the state?

If Erdoğan is now the state, he will stay in power as he wishes. If Erdoğan is not the state, the state will determine Turkey’s future even at the expense of Erdoğan. Among many others, I suggest the upcoming local elections will be a litmus test to observe whether there is any state to force Erdoğan to concede the results.

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