Erdoğan’s Permanent Revolution

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Project Director, Nations in Transit

On August 10, as expected, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president of Turkey. Since the election, discussion in the country has focused on what will change when Erdoğan enters the presidential palace on August 28. How will he rule with the relatively limited powers of the presidency in Turkey’s parliamentary system? Who will he seek to install as prime minister in order to retain his influence? How will he prepare for the June 2015 parliamentary elections, when his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will have the chance to secure a bigger majority that could allow it to reform the constitution and establish a de jure presidential system?

Erdoğan’s election as president is not about change, however. It is about continuity. As he moves to the new position, his desire and capacity for consolidating power remain as strong as ever. Erdoğan’s influence does not stem from the legal authority of his office. It comes from his indefatigable campaigning and constant haranguing in speeches that appear on every newscast, every day. It comes from his careful distribution of tens of billions of dollars in procurement contracts to conglomerates that also own most of the country’s media. It comes from his relentless willingness to threaten, sue, and humiliate those who challenge him, whether they are former allies or old enemies.

Erdoğan’s presidential campaign was a rerun of all the greatest hits from his 12 years as prime minister. He insulted religious and ethnic minorities to court Turkish nationalist and pious Sunni voters. He compared Israel to Hitler, over and over again. He used one of his last campaign rallies to tell a female journalist that she was “shameless” and should “know her place.” The servile media dutifully repeated his talking points; several progovernment journalists joined Erdoğan onstage in his final rally before the vote.

The main opposition stuck to its own pattern of incompetence and internal division. After months of dithering, the secular-nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and religious-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) managed to agree on a joint candidate, but only by choosing a conservative religious nonpolitician whom voters had never heard of. Part of the awkward MHP-CHP agreement seemed to be that they would barely campaign for their candidate. Predictably, a challenger with no political experience or party backing failed to inspire the opposition or attract center-right Erdoğan voters.

At 51.8 percent of the vote, Erdoğan’s take was almost certainly lower than he had hoped, and lower than the 55–57 percent that multiple pollsters had predicted in the week before the election. But there is no reason to think that Erdoğan will be deterred by a relatively weak mandate, having already brushed off polls that show 48 percent of the country to be dissatisfied with his influence. In Erdoğan’s populist rhetoric, the “nation” means all those who support him; those who do not are by definition “foreigners among us,” to use the phrase of his chief adviser.

Turkish and international observers have compared Erdoğan to Russian president Vladimir Putin, but the closer analogy is former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Putin is restoring an empire. Chávez was and Erdoğan is a populist revolutionary dismantling a corrupt oligarchy: in Turkey’s case, the “White Turk” Kemalists who ran the country’s economy and politics for decades with the military’s backing. As for any true revolutionary, the ends always justify the means. Destroying the old oligarchy has justified building a new one; “justice” for the victims of past military coups has justified injustice in the rigged trials of Kemalists and military officers. Revolutionary leaders require permanent revolutions, and the pattern is now repeating itself as Erdoğan purges the police and judiciary of his ally-turned-foe the Gülen movement. The cycle of creating and destroying enemies will continue as long as Erdoğan is in power.

Before the Gezi Park protests of May 2013, the discussion in Turkey was focused on whether Erdoğan could strike a grand bargain with Kurdish parties to reform the constitution, exchanging Kurdish autonomy for a strengthened presidency that he could then occupy in 2014 to sidestep AKP term limits. The protests ensured that such a bargain could never pass before the presidential election. As it turns out, however, Erdoğan hasn’t needed to change the constitution to turn Turkey into a de facto presidential system. Perhaps the AKP will be able to win enough votes in the 2015 parliamentary elections to carry out the reforms on its own. Perhaps Erdoğan will try again to cut a deal with the Kurdish movement. No matter. As progovernment media have been saying for weeks, with Erdoğan on his way to the palace, the New Turkey is already presidential.

Photo Credit: Government of Chile

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