Political schizophrenia before collapse

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s one-man rule, Turkey has come to adapt a distinct brand of political schizophrenia that is born out of authoritarianism and engages in anachronistic and unrealistic political discourse.

Closed, oppressive regimes push societies to match their behaviour to the values embedded in the political system when there is discrepancy between the two.

On an individual level, this discrepancy between an individual’s value expectations and their value realities leads to what is known as cognitive dissonance, a term coined by renowned American psychologist Leon Festinger.

There are three ways to address it, Festinger says. You can either change your values to match reality, change your behaviour to match your values, or change both your values and your actions.

Pluralist democratic regimes allow for an easier way out of this conundrum by bringing in different alternatives that update social and political values in line with the political realities. Oppressive regimes turn to coercion.

However, such coercion contradicts the nature of human societies, which constantly change and adapt. The schizophrenia this breeds continues until the system completes its collapse, as seen in Eastern Germany and the rest of the Eastern Bloc before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Turkey’s recent regressive moves – the Hagia Sophia conversion, the social media restrictions, the push to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, an increasingly vocal demand to reclaim the Islamic caliphate – all suggest a significant breakaway from the reality that Turks live in.

The Erdoğan regime is in an Islamist wet dream from the 1960s and the most detached it has ever been from the daily sufferings of its citizens. At this point, it would be quite a shock to wake up to reality, so it is difficult to blame Erdoğan.

The bubble of emerging markets bursting just as the Turkish economy took its unstoppable downturn has affected the country on various levels. Among the woes, Turkey’s communities have to grapple with every day are youth unemployment, the lira’s deep dive against foreign currencies, and the country’s corporations’ growing debt. Turkey’s Central Bank is inept and its public finances are managed opaquely, as very expensive and unnecessary infrastructure projects continue.

Add to that the global uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and you have a perfect storm ready to hit by early autumn.

Erdoğan may not wish to admit that he is a weak political leader, but that is the case since the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. To stay on top, he has to increasingly rely on his shaky coalition with the ultranationalists and their henchmen in the Turkish military apparatus.

Erdoğan’s relentless crackdown on Kurdish mayors only serves to alienate Turkey’s Kurds and turn them further away from the central government in Ankara. A significant portion of the youth has already turned away, as evidenced by the onslaught of dislikes and negative comments on a recent livestream the president held with a hand-picked group of 17-year-olds.

The schizophrenic state of domestic politics exposes itself via an aggressive set of objectives in Turkey’s foreign policy. The country is increasingly isolated from NATO and other Western organisations, with no prospect of EU membership. As such, Erdoğan’s ultranationalist alliance takes its chances with a series of foreign policy blunders in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara’s aggressive, short-sighted policies put it at odds with Greece and Cyprus, as well as Egypt, France and its supposed partner Russia.

The imagined Eurasian alliance doesn’t exist, but Erdoğan’s ultranationalist bosses don’t seem to mind. They allow Erdoğan and the mainstream media controlled by his close relatives to fabricate a caricaturised version of neo-Ottomanist propaganda to consolidate his voter base.

This tactic seems to have worked among the least educated middle-aged males in the conservative heartland of Anatolia. However, it has also pushed many of Turkey’s neighbours away. Many in the Middle East now renounce Turkish soap operas, once extremely popular in the region, as a tool of Turkish cultural imperialism.

Circling back to Festinger’s theory, the gap between realities and expectations under the Erdoğan regime is so wide that it is almost impossible to close by a rational reorientation of politics.

The only escape for the Erdoğan regime from such severe cognitive dissonance is death. Death of politics in Turkey may be around the corner. A complete and totalitarian control over Turkish society will be the death of it.

Paradoxically, harsh economic and societal realities may also be the salvation as the Erdoğan regime may run out of steam and lack the energy to pull the trigger. Let’s just hope reality catches up with democracy before totalitarian dreams crush whatever’s left of Turkey’s political landscape.