Friday, 13 February 2009

The Politics of Personality: Erdogan's Irascible Authoritarianism

Published in Articles

By Gareth Jenkins (vol. 2, no. 3 of the Turkey Analyst) 

In recent months, the policies of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have become increasingly shaped by the personality of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Freed from perceived constraints, Erdogan now often appears to be driven by his emotions rather than considered deliberation. Even if his confrontational style has boosted his domestic public popularity, any short-term personal political gains are likely to be more than offset by the long-term damage to Turkey’s economy and its relations with Europe and the US.

BACKGROUND: Political parties in Turkey have traditionally been dominated by powerful leaders who preside over a highly centralized decision-making process and are personally responsible not only for the formulation of policy but also for the appointment of party officials and the choice of candidates for elections. Yet, even by Turkish standards, Erdogan’s current domination of the AKP is exceptional.

Erdogan has long been renowned for his authoritarian, confrontational style of leadership. In fact, in a country where the majority of voters still admire political machismo, Erdogan’s brusque, often bullying, rhetoric remains one of the reasons for his enduring electoral popularity. However, contrary to the image projected by his supporters, until relatively recently Erdogan was often wary of risking a public confrontation with what he perceived as a powerful adversary.

During the AKP’s first term in office from 2002 to 2007, Erdogan frequently backed away from controversial measures which he feared would provoke a reaction from the Turkish military; most notably, in 2004, he shelved a package of educational reforms designed to enhance the status of Islamic schools in the face of opposition from the ostentatiously secularist Turkish military.

When the AKP was formally established in August 2001, its founding statutes limited the party leader’s authority and included a large measure of decentralization. In February 2003, Erdogan quietly pushed through a series of amendments which effectively concentrated all the decision-making processes in his own hands. Yet greater power also increased Erdogan’s isolation from the rest of the party. He came to rely almost exclusively on a coterie of trusted advisors who were more notable for their personal loyalty than their acumen. Nevertheless, during his first term as prime minister, Erdogan was careful to avoid antagonizing either Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül or Parliamentary Speaker Bülent Arinc; both of whom had strong followings in the party.

Gül, Erdogan and Arinc

The situation changed dramatically following the AKP’s victory in the general election of July 2007, which had been triggered by the Turkish military’s attempt to prevent Gül from being appointed to the presidency. The AKP was returned to power with 46.6 percent of the vote, up from 34.3 percent in the previous election in November 2002. The result was thus not only a humiliating rebuff to the military but, temporarily at least, neutralized its political influence. In the run-up to the election, Erdogan had vetted the AKP candidate lists to remove any deputies who had challenged his authority during the party’s first term in power. Arinc had already declared he would not seek a post in the new government. Gül’s appointment to the presidency in August 2007 effectively removed him from the political arena. The result was to leave Erdogan unchallenged and seemingly unchallengeable at the head of both the AKP and the country.

Initially, Erdogan’s new preeminence was primarily characterized by inertia. Ministers were even more reluctant than before to act on their own initiative. This left Erdogan cocooned within an inner court of trusted advisors and rarely communicating – much less consulting – with other members of the party. Yet neither did Erdogan or his advisors appear to have a detailed policy agenda for the AKP’s second term. The one exception was a plan to promulgate a new constitution, which included provisions to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities. But even this was abruptly discarded in January 2008 when Erdogan seized on a proposal from the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to lift the headscarf ban through a joint initiative to amend the existing constitution.

During his first term as prime minister, a team of bureaucrats had been employed to try to smooth Erdogan’s rough edges and transform him into a polished statesman. The attempt had enjoyed only limited success. Particularly through January and February 2008, Erdogan’s public pronouncements became increasingly outspoken; especially with regard to the role of Islam in public life.

However, the state prosecutor’s March 2008 application to the Constitutional Court to ban the AKP for allegedly attempting to undermine secularism forced Erdogan onto the defensive. On July 30, 2008, the court narrowly voted to censure the AKP for having become a focal point of anti-secular activities, but allowing it to remain open. Initially, the verdict appeared to leave Erdogan relieved but chastened. Through late summer and early fall 2008, he neither introduced any major policy initiatives nor issued any controversial public statements.

But Erdogan’s restraint proved relatively short-lived. Indeed, through late 2008 and early 2009, Erdogan became not only more outspoken but increasingly aggressive; mixing threats and insults in an unprecedented barrage of attacks against everyone from advocates of Kurdish cultural rights to the IMF, the EU, the oppositional media, Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

IMPLICATIONS: On November 2, 2008, during a visit to the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Anatolia, Erdogan bluntly declared that all Kurds who were not happy in Turkey should leave the country. Erdogan’s speech was greeted with shock, not least because his words appeared to echo the “Love it or leave it” slogan of the ultranationalist MHP. Equally bewildering was that Erdogan had repeatedly set winning Diyarbakir as one of the AKP’s primary goals in the March 29, 2009, local elections; and could justifiably claim that, during its first term in power, the AKP had passed more concessions to Kurdish cultural and language rights than any other government in Turkish history.

As political analysts scrambled to make sense of the apparent shift in AKP policy, conspiracy theorists claimed that Erdogan’s speech was proof of a pact with the military brass, under which the AKP would embrace Turkish nationalism in return for the military refraining from pressing for the party’s closure. In fact, Erdogan appears simply to have lost his temper at the Kurds’ refusal to be satisfied with the rights already granted them by the AKP.

Yet such outbursts became more frequent in the months that followed. There is little doubt that Erdogan’s notoriously short temper was further strained by his anxiety for another resounding victory in the March local elections. It was also electoral rather than economic considerations that led to the collapse of negotiations with the IMF on January 26, 2009. An agreement with the IMF was generally regarded inside and outside the country as being vital to reassuring the international financial community and alleviating the impending economic downturn. In fact, Turkish government officials had reached an agreement with the IMF; only for Erdogan to refuse to endorse it. Erdogan subsequently lambasted the IMF for introducing what he described as a succession of last minute, additional demands. This was not true. The real stumbling block was the IMF’s insistence on curbs on government spending in the run-up to the March local elections. In recent months, unprecedented quantities of state aid – mostly coal and basic foodstuffs – have been distributed to poor families. Erdogan has publicly insisted that the state is merely fulfilling its duty to assist poorer members of the community. Yet official figures clearly show that a disproportionate amount of the aid is being distributed to areas in which the AKP is hoping to make gains in the elections.

Some of Erdogan’s recent outbursts raise questions which go beyond political self-interest or personal irascibility. During a visit to Brussels on January 19, 2009, Erdogan threatened the EU that Turkey would block the proposed Nabucco pipeline project unless member states displayed a greater willingness to accelerate Turkey’s own accession process; only to withdraw the threat the following day.

After Israel launched its military offensive against Gaza on December 27, 2008, Erdogan not only fiercely denounced Israel but criticized both the PLO for its alleged conciliatory attitude towards the Israelis and the West for refusing to negotiate with Hamas. On January 29, 2009, he stormed out of a panel discussion at the WEF Summit in Davos after the moderator cut short his tirade against Israeli President Shimon Peres; before accusing the WEF of bias and swearing never to return to Davos.

Erdogan arrived back in Turkey to a hero’s welcome and proudly described himself as representing the world’s “humanitarian conscience”.  Yet on February 4, 2009, Erdogan welcomed Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha to Ankara, even though Taha has been accused of close links with the militias responsible for the atrocities in Darfur. Closer to home, Erdogan has also repeatedly refused to hold talks with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) until it condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization.

CONCLUSIONS: Erdogan’s apparent willingness to sacrifice economic stability for short-term political gain appears to be deliberate brinkmanship. However, the prime minister does not always appear to be aware of the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in some of his actions and statements.

There is no doubt that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s penchant for confrontation plays well with a large proportion of the Turkish electorate. However, his public support for Hamas and Sudan is unlikely to strengthen Turkey’s already strained relations with the U.S. or the EU. Nor will his persistent abrasiveness soften the resistance in the EU to Turkish membership of an organization which can only function through consensus and conciliation.

Perhaps more alarming than Erdogan’s inability to comprehend the contradictions and inconsistencies of his words and deeds is the frequency with which they occur. This suggests either that no one in his inner circle of trusted advisors has the courage to point them out – or that, if they do, Erdogan simply ignores them. But without anyone to restrain him, Turkey’s future will remain highly vulnerable to Erdogan’s personality.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Gareth Jenkins is a British journalist and analyst, based in Turkey since 1989

Read 8846 times

Visit also





Joint Center Publications

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right", The New York Times, April 8, 2019

Analysis Halil Karaveli "The Myth of Erdogan's Power"Foreign Policy, August 29, 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell, A Road to Understanding in Syria? The U.S. and TurkeyThe American Interest, June 2018

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "Erdogan Wins Reelection"Foreign Affairs, June 25, 2018

Article Halil Karaveli "Will the Kurdish Question Secure Erdogan's Re-election?", Turkey Analyst, June 18, 2018

Research Article Svante E. Cornell "Erbakan, Kisakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey", Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell "The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?"The American Interest, February 1, 2018

Op-ed Svante E. Cornell "Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamic Poet", Breaking Defense, January 2, 2018

Research Article Halil Karaveli "Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy"Cairo Review of Global Affairs, January 2, 2018


The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


Sign up for upcoming events, latest news and articles from the CACI Analyst