Has Turkey under Erdoğan become a 'war regime'?

* The following article is the first in a series by Yektan Türkyılmaz - Turkey: Manufactured Chaos? 


Turkey’s once acclaimed “Muslim democracy” has been on a sharp downward spiral over the past six years. 

Since the spring of 2013, the country has suffered successive and manifold episodes of turmoil: 

  • The already rising tension over a construction project on one of the few public parks left in central Istanbul erupted into widespread civil unrest (the Gezi Park protests, May-August 2013) across the country.
  • A few months later, the political scene witnessed the forceful collapse of the ruling elite block (the abortive corruption investigation/high profile arrests of Dec. 17-25, 2013).
  • The government’s adventurous policy in Syria significantly added to the simmering instability.
  • Kurdish protests against the government’s reluctance to allow international support for the besieged Kurdish city of Kobani escalated into violent ethnic riots in October 2014. Meanwhile a wave of deadly bomb attacks targeted cities.
  • A crucial watershed was the resurgence of armed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July 2015. Fighting escalated into urban warfare, resulting in the destruction of Kurdish towns (July 2015 - May 2016).
  • The most far-reaching outcome of the downward spiral was the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
  • The transition from parliamentary regime to a “Turkish style” one-man-rule presidential system was approved by a slight margin in a April 2017 referendum and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected the first president of the new system on June 24, 2018.
  • But the ballot fiasco of the People’s Alliance of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in March municipal elections last year, and subsequent humiliating loss in the re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election in June, raised the doubts about the future of the regime.
  • Finally, on Oct. 9, the Turkish Armed Forces and its proxies kicked off a daring military incursion into the areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The staggering series of political episodes surely points to a still ongoing tectonic shift in Turkish politics. On the other hand, the acuteness of each of these incidents often muddies the observer’s view of the overall picture.

Answers to the questions ‘what is simmering in Turkey?’ and ‘what sort of consequences can this tectonic movement potentially have on the country’s domestic politics, on the broader region of the Middle East or even at a global scale?’ frequently fall prey to the mesmerising and baffling effects of the above-mentioned incidents, each of which is dramatic enough to distract the observer from the patterns of reconfiguration of the elite structure and the elites’ policymaking objectives. 

With these questions in mind, I would like to analyse the bumpy political course of the country, particularly in the post-2016 putsch period. The failed coup is a milestone, particularly regarding the self-perception of the ruling elite and their view of the source of political legitimacy. 

After the coup attempt was quelled, for the victorious regime block and, more specifically, for Erdoğan’s leadership, the foremost source of legitimacy was no longer the ballot box. Rather, the regime bloc began justifying its legitimacy with reference to the blood of their supporters - “the true citizens” (millet), who took the streets to defeat the putschists.

In other words, the ruling elite began to see itself as a 'revolutionary vanguard' entitled to exert unrestrained authority to reshape the political system, society and cultural norms.

This desire is reflected in its efforts to dismantle state institutions, shelve formal processes, liquidate bureaucratic cadres and erase public symbols that epitomise Erdoğan’s imagined ancien regime, or to put it in his words, eski Türkiye (the old Turkey). 

In more general terms, what distinguishes the post-putsch Turkish political scene from previous periods of authoritarianism is the unique convergence of three political factors:

  • A ruling elite with a revolutionary self-perception and cult of personality.
  • Internal fighting within the state.
  • A political psychology marked by paranoia. 

This convergence had major consequences for Turkish politics and society. A fundamental effect is the creation of a reign of fear, which, remarkably unlike the “usual suspects” targeted by conventional state terror - often abbreviated as the 3 Ks - Kürt, Kızılbaş and Komünist (Kurds, Alevis and Communists) – left no group exempt, especially those at the highest echelons of the military and civil bureaucracy. 

Erdoğan’s ambition for power has created an authoritarian regime that is progressively forcible, but increasingly feckless.

But despite the regime’s self-entitlement as revolutionary founders of a new Turkey, it lacks a long-term programme, a coherent ideological compass and human capital. Instead, the ruling elite responded to emergencies with reckless maximalism to overcome each and every crisis by inciting an even more severe crisis.

In other words, since the putsch, the regime elite presented an emulation of 'revolutionary leadership'; they engendered destruction without building the institutions of a new system. 

As a result, Erdoğanist authoritarianism effectively shattered the precarious old Turkey, without creating a stable, new social, political or cultural order. It remains a destructive force, deriving its energy from the destruction of the old regime. 

If the June 24, 2018 presidential elections that endowed Erdoğan with almost unrestrained powers practically exhausted the odds of opposition forces rehabilitating the system through constitutionally prescribed means, the humiliating defeat of the regime bloc in last June’s Istanbul mayoral election re-run marked the domestic political limits of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. 

Erdoğan already showed clear signs of loss of control of the ruling bloc, indicated by his stuttering messages and the spread of discontent within AKP ranks following the shocking setback in the Istanbul local elections on March 31.

Yet, the scandalously short-sighted decision to push for an election re-run in Istanbul and the ensuing ballot humiliation not only revealed the fragility of Erdoğan’s regime bloc, but also demonstrated that Erdoğan’s cult of personality was becoming increasingly vulnerable.

The incursion into Syria on October 9, 2019 is yet another watershed and a major twist in Turkey's ongoing political drama.

In the upcoming series of articles for Ahval, I will discuss the potential domestic, regional and global consequences of the ruling elite spreading its so-called 'survival struggle' (beka mücadelesi) over the physical and diplomatic battle zone beyond its borders. 

The point I raise here is not that the military incursion into Syrian Kurdish-controlled areas is merely an instrumental manoeuvre by the Erdoğan regime simply to cling to power. Nor am I proposing that this move can merely be put down to the regime’s anti-Kurdish fervour.

But rather I point to the irrecoverable and widening rift between the vulnerabilities of the regime and the imperial, grandiose self-image of the elites that fuels defensive, maximalist and tactless action almost worldwide.

I argue that as of Oct. 9, Turkey has adopted an active war regime, which has rendered borders obsolete. Thereafter the domestic political destiny of Turkey is dependent, by and large, upon beyond-borders dynamics, and the world, critics, appeasers and supporters of the current regime alike, has an ever-increasing Turkish problem to cope with.

In the next article, I will detail this rift.

© Ahval English

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

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