The Next Balancing Act for President Erdogan
The new presidential term offers Erdogan room for consolidation, but also the need to contain his allies.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inauguration on July 9 was a little different. Not in terms of personnel, since he has been president of Turkey for four years already, but in terms of substance. This was a reset. His inauguration brought in a new constitutional era in Turkish politics, one in which he takes the reins of a powerful executive presidency very different from what came before.
Many, of course, have pointed out that little will change. Erdogan has long confirmed himself as the colossus of Turkish contemporary politics, assuming a power that has dwarfed not just the many and varied opposition groups in the country, but even his own party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But this is the moment that his power becomes further cemented in constitutional hardware. Both he and those who follow him will be a lot harder to budge.
This presidential term is a momentous one for wider historical reasons. It will run until the republican centenary year of 2023, marking 100 years since the founding of the modern Turkish state. That a newly empowered and emboldened President Erdogan will be at the helm come the centenary is telling, as he is now confirmed as the most powerful politician in the modern history of Turkey since its omnipotent founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Despite long being an opposition figure apparently opposed to Kemalism (indeed, he was jailed by the secular establishment in 1998), the irony is that Erdogan has come to embody the ghost of Ataturk more and more as he has grown in stature. In simply iconographic terms, the vast billboards that have covered Turkish towns and cities with his image have had more than a passing resemblance to the founding father. In terms of policy, he has also become decidedly more sympathetic to Kemalist principles.
Back to the future
The benevolent paternalism or benign dictatorship that characterized the Ataturk era has been fought over by scholars ever since. While many viewed it as a period of necessary repression in pursuit of a noble Westernizing and modernizing cause, from it can still be traced the legacy of religious and ethnic fault lines that scar the country to this day. Yet Kemalism’s unyielding blend of Turkish nationalism has remained a potent force in the state, one that has increasingly interwoven with Sunni Islam as it has matured.
As Erdogan finally vanquishes the vestiges of opposition to his rule, either real or imagined, his reset presidency may well take on shades of what can be termed “Ataturkism.” While not espousing pure Kemalist doctrine, he will increasingly employ the untouchable, paternalist image so embodied by Ataturk, who is still present in the portraits and busts that grace town squares, schoolyards and living room walls across the country.
While he — and others in his party — may see his role as part of a much older inheritance, one rooted in the Islamic character of the Ottoman era, there is no escaping 20th-century history or the importance of the narrowly ethnic Turkish nationalism on which Erdogan has increasingly played in order to consolidate his power. Where once the Islamist opposition in Turkey had much in common, and much sympathy for, the Kurdish cause, today’s ruling circle has not only turned its back on the Kurdish political movement, but actively embraced Turkish nationalists.
The embrace that Erdogan has offered nationalists — most particularly the new AKP allies, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) — must be understood against the backdrop of the intra-Islamist power struggle between the AKP and the movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. Much of the first decade of the 21st century was spent with both movements working in concert to subdue and eliminate the traditional secular establishment in the judiciary, bureaucracy and military. Much of the second decade has been taken up with the power struggle that resulted from their defeat of that common enemy.
The purged state
The Gulen movement was always highly opaque, politically ambiguous and only a tentative supporter of the AKP. Yet as the political Islamist takeover of Turkish institutions gathered pace, the Gulenist demand for power increased. The failed coup — widely attributed to the movement — and the wholesale purging of institutions that followed have left Erdogan with one of the biggest question marks of his next term at the helm: What to do with what is left of the state?
The numbers are staggering. The latest round of purges brings the total to around 130,000 people removed from the civil service since the failed coup. This has also involved the closing of media outlets and educational organizations connected with the Gulen movement. There has even been a concerted effort to disrupt the network globally, requesting that states transfer control of Gulenist schools to the TURGEV (Turkish Youth and Education Service) foundation, which has close ties to the Erdogan family.
With few, if any, friends among Gulenists or secularists inside or outside Turkey, the president will use the next term to bolster not only foundations like TURGEV, but also the imam-hatip (religious school) system of educational establishments that will serve to produce a new generation loyal to his vision. He will also have to work to repair hollowed institutions of state that have seen some of the largest purges in modern history. The polarized and majoritarian nature of Turkish politics, and the vast numbers of disaffected, will make this task particularly difficult.
Erdogan has always been an adroit political mover. He has formed and folded alliances with sometimes dizzying speed as and when he has been required to do so. He has kept an unerring compass for his destination — the epicenter of power in the republic — at all times. Despite the many casualties, he has managed to retain vast support. Yet his latest alliance, that with the hard-right nationalists of the MHP, may determine the path he must tread going forward. The surprising electoral success of the MHP in June has made sure of that.
Security and introspection
President Erdogan’s alliance with the MHP plays into an older tradition in the country. A synthesis of Turkish nationalism and Sunni Islam — setting aside the usual Kemalist animosity toward the faith — was advocated by the junta that led the 1980 coup in Turkey, and elements of this thinking can also be found in the Milli Gorus movement, an Islamic community organization out of which the president’s own AKP sprung. This new alliance brings with it a much greater focus on traditional Turkish ideas of securitization.
During its first decade in power, the ruling AKP was a champion of the peace process with the Kurdish political movement, in particular the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In this, they were a distinctive departure from the usual state position on the Kurdish question. The end of the alliance with the Gulen movement, and the shift toward more traditional and militarist Turkish nationalist elements, has naturally seen a collapse of that peace process. The MHP views the Kurdish question through a purely security lens.
The more nationalist trend of current policy has also put a strain on relations with the European Union. Again, the early years of AKP rule saw some of the biggest movements toward possible accession to the bloc. The MHP, and the wider Turkish nationalist political landscape, has always been highly suspicious of the EU and its influence. This has pushed Erdogan toward a more insular, less globally integrated policy. The economic implications of such a move, however, may give the president pause.
If one analyses the career of Erdogan to date, one notes his flexibility, his ability to react to the changing environment and to move beyond dogma. His latest success has clearly emboldened the Turkish nationalist constituency, in particular the MHP. His next test may be to find a way to tame them. While there are clear overlaps between the nationalist agenda and the authoritarian, personality-driven politics of the president, their vision is not his vision. At some point, they diverge.
The next question for President Erdogan is how far to loosen the reins on the MHP and the wider Turkish nationalist vision, before finding a counterbalance to restrain them once more.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.