BACKGROUND: It has become common to attribute the recent revival in Turkey of the tradition of authoritarianism – which has in fact dominated the state for most of the time since it was founded – solely to the personal ambitions and to the presumed character defects of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Presently, all of the problems that haunt Turkey emanate from the personality and goals of Erdoğan,” says Murat Belge, a Turkish liberal intellectual who was once a supporter of Erdoğan. Kadri Gürsel, a well-known Turkish journalist, argues that it is Erdoğan’s power hunger that is the obstacle to a political solution of the Kurdish issue: “Let alone a political solution, not even a secretly or openly negotiated cease-fire with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is possible when someone’s priority is a “presidential system.” For how could a cease-fire with PKK be explained to the nationalist and conservative voters who will have to be courted in a coming referendum to amend the constitution?”
Liberals used to think that the generals were the root cause of authoritarianism in Turkey. In fact, Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, like before him the tutelage of the military, fits into a larger historical pattern. While leaders change, and while differences of personalities set different epochs of Turkish politics outwardly apart from each other, the continuity of Turkish state tradition remains unbroken.
Respect for the freedom of expression was never part of this tradition. Erdoğan was sentenced to prison for “inciting people to hatred” for reciting a nationalist-conservative poem in 1998. At the time, the American consul general in Istanbul visited Erdoğan to express solidarity with him, defending freedom of expression. This prompted a familiar, strong Turkish reaction: Then deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit – who had represented a social democratic hope earlier in his career – accused the American envoy of violating the rules of diplomacy, stating that “this is not acceptable. This is an act that amounts to going against the state, the justice of the state and the independence of the judiciary. The consul has a duty to respect the laws and rules of the state where he or she is a guest. This is very inappropriate behavior.”
Two decades later, Ecevit’s words were echoed in Erdoğan’s reaction to the presence of foreign diplomats at the trial of the editor in chief of the daily Cumhuriyet and one of its reporters: “what is your business at the trial? There is a diplomatic etiquette. You can do as you wish within the consulate, but outside of it you need permission for what you do,” Erdoğan said. Ecevit and Erdoğan may have been very different in political and personal outlook, but “going against the state” was just as unacceptable for both of them.
The outsize personality of Erdoğan obscures the systemic dynamics that sustain, but also limit, his exercise of power. Erdoğan’s “absolutism” is at least partly a chimera. Etyen Mahçupyan, an AKP intellectual who for a short while served as chief advisor to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, argues that “Turkey is not what it appears to be when it is looked upon from the outside, and especially not when it is read with an exclusive focus on Erdoğan; it is not a place where the government holds all the reins.”
Mahçupyan maintains that the AKP’s hold on state power is much weaker than one might presume: He observes that the dominant ideology of the state bureaucracy is nationalism, not in any way Islamism, and that it is subsequently the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), not the AKP that enjoys the backing of the state bureaucracy. However correct that may be, Turkish nationalism and Islamism have long since been intertwined, and the MHP has on crucial occasions come to the AKP’s rescue. Yet what matters is precisely that the AKP is not powerful enough on its own, even though it has a solid parliamentary majority behind it. Put another way, the AKP is strong in society but weak in the state. Mahçupyan points to how the AKP has had to rely on others to survive: “When you come to power, you see that besides you, there are three major forces in the country: the PKK, the military and the Gülenists. If you antagonize all three at the same time, you will not survive. You must reach an entente with one of them. Thus, there is a period together with the Gülenists, and the solution process [with the PKK]. And then, as the fight with the Gülenists and the war against the PKK followed, there is a period when there is a forced entente with the military.”
The continuity of the Turkish state tradition is on obvious display today in the southeast of the country, where the army is being deployed to root out the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since last year, several Kurdish cities have been destroyed, forcing several hundred thousand people to flee, and hundreds of civilians are estimated to have been killed by the security forces. Indeed, the destruction of the Kurdish cities is on a scale not seen since the 1930s, when Atatürk ordered the army and the air force to attack the eastern provinces of Ağrı and Dersim in 1931 and 1937-1938, respectively.
IMPLICATIONS: Erdoğan’s critics claim that the war against the Kurdish rebels was restarted in 2015 because the Kurdish movement refused to lend support to the executive presidency that Erdoğan covets, and because the success of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the general election in June 2015 deprived the AKP of its majority in parliament. They maintain that Erdoğan decided to break off the peace process and restart the war in order to secure his power. The logic is simple enough: attacking the PKK would pay off in electoral terms, winning over Turkish nationalists to the AKP. Indeed, the desired outcome did materialize as the AKP regained its electoral majority in the repeat election in November 2015. However, explaining the restart of the Kurdish war solely with Erdoğan’s personal power ambitions amounts to reductionism. Crucially, while these do play an important role – as they would do for any politician – they interplay with “raison d’état”.
In fact, Erdoğan’s push for an executive presidency corresponds to the “logic” of Turkish state power. The idea itself has a long pedigree: Successive leaders of the Turkish right has favored it since the 1970s, from Alparslan Türkeş to Turgut Özal to Süleyman Demirel. The executive presidency holds a natural appeal to the Turkish right – to which the AKP belongs – which is authoritarian by tradition and inclined to favor the rule of a “strong man” that would embody a strong state that is endowed with the mission to preserve the “integrity of the nation.” From the 1960s onward, the conservative right in Turkey called for restricting political freedoms and liberties in order to check the rising left, which was seen as a “threat” to the nation. Subsequently, the Kurdish challenge became the focus of constitutional “engineering”. An executive presidency would circumscribe those forces that could potentially come to exercise too much influence in a parliamentary system. The present Turkish constitution, which was drafted by the military junta in 1982, sought to solve this “problem” by circumscribing parliamentarianism with a ten percent threshold, something that has no international equivalent – to make sure that Kurdish parties (primarily) were prevented from entering the parliament.
The electoral success of the pro-Kurdish HDP in the general election in June 2015 was a major blow not only to Erdoğan’s personal ambitions. Above all, it was a potentially lethal blow to the founding political paradigm of the Turkish political system, because it threatened to upend the order that had prevailed since 1982. With over eighty deputies in the parliament, the Kurdish party was in a position to yield decisive influence over the formation of a coalition government, and its strong representation raised the specter that it could in time even become a coalition partner. Meanwhile, the PKK was in the process of wresting control over the southeast of the country from the state.
The Turkish state and Erdoğan had pursued talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan between 2013 and 2015, in the vain hope that they might lead to the retreat of the PKK from Turkey, maybe even to its disbanding. Instead, the PKK used the “peace process” to fortify its military and political positions in the Kurdish areas; the region was slipping out of state control, and the military was repeatedly asking for permission to move against the PKK. In August 2014, the chief of the general staff, Necdet Özel, reminded that the “the integrity of the nation” is the “red line” of the military, and that it would “act accordingly” if it were to be crossed. Erdoğan could no longer afford to continue the talks. He stood to lose more than the votes of Turkish nationalist voters. In March 2015, he declared that an agreement that had been reached between government representatives and Öcalan on a “roadmap” for continued negotiations that would eventually yield local autonomy for the Kurdish region, and which had been presented at the Dolmabahçe palace in Istanbul on February 28, 2015, was void.
The opposition feared that Erdoğan had a grand bargain with the Kurds in mind: the Kurds would get self-rule, and Erdoğan would in return get his executive presidency, with the HDP supporting the constitutional amendment. Then, in March 2015, after Erdoğan started to distance himself from the “Dolmabahçe deal,” HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş publicly stated that “we are not going to make you executive president.”
Indeed, what Erdoğan calls a “Turkish-style presidency” would in fact shore up the founding political paradigm that is threatened by the rise of the Kurds. As the ten percent threshold to parliament is no longer an effective gate-keeper, replacing parliamentarianism with presidential rule has arguably become a matter of state urgency.
CONCLUSIONS: It is not only Erdoğan’s personal ambitions and raison d’état that coincide to reinforce Turkish authoritarianism. The war that boosts authoritarian rule is supported by the opposition as well. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), rails against the government, not because Kurdish cities are laid to rubble, but because it waited too long with allowing the military to take action. Ultimately, authoritarianism in Turkey is sustained because no major political force, representing the Turks, challenges the dominant mentality that holds that the survival of the state requires that ethnic and cultural diversity is checked.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, where he heads the Turkey Initiative and is Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
Image attribution: news.yahoo.com, accessed on April 5, 2016