How Will Erdoğan Rule Turkey Now?
Jared Rubin and Murat Iyigun
July 26, 2016 (updated from July 18)
In the wake of the failed coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayip Erdoğan, Western media outlets were quick to ask “What next?” The overwhelming consensus was that Erdoğan would tighten his grip on power, purging from government any form of opposition. These fears proved true. Within days, Erdoğan’s forces arrested or suspended over 60,000 people in the army, judiciary, and civil service, suspended 15,000 employees of the education ministry, suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, closed and seized the properties over 2,300 institutions, and declared a three month state of emergency. It is clear that the already-autocratic Erdoğan regime is willing to go to great lengths to consolidate its power. Still, even if Erdoğan does successfully consolidate power, what will Turkish politics look like in the coup’s longer-term aftermath? Is there a path to stability? If there is, which factions will play a role in Turkish governance?
These questions can be answered by digging into Turkish political history. As in any other state, Turkish leaders have had two levers to propagate their rule: coercion and legitimacy. That is, they could make people follow them by the barrel of a gun (coercion), or they could make people believe they are the rightful rulers (legitimacy). What determines which of these levers Turkish rulers use, and why might their decisions change over time? The same could be asked across societies: how a Turkish president legitimizes rule is clearly very different from how a Saudi king or the U.S. president derives legitimacy. But why? The answer lies in Turkey’s culture and history; in any society, what “works” to legitimize political rule depends on that society’s religious, cultural, economic, and political past. Hence, a quick review of the history of Turkish political rule is necessary to understand the options available to Erdoğan.
The relevant history begins with the Ottomans, who ruled over Turkey (and southeastern Europe, most of the Middle East, and North Africa) for over six centuries until their demise following World War I. Throughout most of their history, the “Ottoman blueprint” relied on military coercion and religious legitimacy to propagate their rule. The Ottomans were the world’s leading Islamic power for centuries – they dealt the death blow to the rival Christian Byzantine Empire in 1453, and later claimed the position of the Sunni caliphate after their 1517 defeat of the Egyptian Mamluk Empire gave them control over Mecca, Medina, and many other important religious sites. They Ottomans employed their powerful military – which rivaled, if not surpassed, the leading militaries of Europe for centuries – to collect taxes and provide law and order. Ottoman sultans gained military strength by bargaining with the Turcoman military elite, who supported the sultan’s expansionist efforts in return for land in the newly conquered territories.
The second, essential piece of the “Ottoman blueprint” was their overt use of Islam to legitimize their rule. Although the Ottomans could not claim a bloodline to Muhammad – indeed, they were not even Arab – they coated all of their largest achievements in religious rhetoric. For instance, following the conquest of Constantinople, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (the Conqueror) claimed “These tribulations are for God’s sake. The sword of Islam is in our hands. If we had not chosen to endure these tribulations, we would not be worthy to be called gazis (holy warrior). We would be ashamed to stand in God’s presence on the Day of Resurrection.” Acts such as attending Friday mosque, punishing those who broke the Ramadan fast, closing taverns and brothels, building madrasas and mosques, and sending yearly gifts of gold to Mecca and Medina were common. Fatwas were acquired from leading religious scholars before controversial actions were taken. Local imams prayed for the sultan during the Friday prayers, reminding all onlookers who was in charge.
The “Ottoman blueprint” served the sultanate well for centuries. Through at least the 17th century, the Ottomans were on par with the European rivals economically and militarily. It was only in the 19th century that the Ottomans were clearly in a position of economic inferiority to industrializing Europe. This was a painful pill to swallow. The ideal of “Turkish superiority”, based on a combination of military conquest, religious authority, and economic success, was a potent force keeping a far-flung, pluralistic empire together. It was only after the Ottomans were clearly the “sick man of Europe” did the realization set in – far too late – that the Turks were no longer in a position to challenge their European rivals.
The final death knell to the Ottoman Empire occurred in the wake of World War I, following a century of failed reform and periodic revolts. Following the demise of the Empire, Kemal Atatürk founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. His vision of the republic manifested a fundamental structural break from the “Ottoman blueprint”. No longer would religious legitimacy play a role in Turkish governance. Secular channels of legitimacy substituted for the traditional religious ones. Yet, secular legitimacy derived from the workings of Western constitutional democracy, and, in an environment in which none of that existed and had to be constructed top down, Atatürk leveraged the military to support his rule. The one-party era of the Turkish Republic, spanning between 1923 and 1950, is one in which the Turkish ruling class relied on the military’s coercive role. But it also capitalized on the fact that Atatürk and Ismet ínönü, the first two presidents of the country, were the first and second in command during the Turkish War of Independence from the Allied Forces in the aftermath of WWI.
The period between the transition to a multi-party, constitutional democracy in 1950 and the ascension of Erdogan’s AKP to power in 2002 is one in which the government derived its legitimacy from Turkish constitutional democracy and through the ballot box. The checks and balances came from the Turkish military, which Atatürk mandated to safeguard the secular tenets of the republic and “fine tune” democracy when the top brass deemed that Turkish governments were hinting at channels of religious legitimacy. The four successful Turkish military coups ought to be interpreted in this light. So long as Turkish leaders derived legitimacy from Ataturk’s ideal of secular governance, and so long as the military leaders ensured by the barrel of the gun that this ideal would reign supreme, the “Ottoman blueprint” was unavailable to Turkish leaders as a means to propagating their rule.
When Erdoğan came to power in 2002 as a popularly elected Islamist, he was a byproduct of this transitional political system. The question was the extent to which he would shepherd Turkey’s full transition to a more conventional Western constitutional democracy in which channels of legitimacy are, for the most part, secular. AKP rule through 2010 exemplifies a period in which optimists and neutral observers saw “reformist” policies that guided Turkey toward such a familiar path. This was in spite of the fact that political and military bureaucracies were systematically and comprehensively staffed by AKP faithful and adherents of Fethullah Gülen. (The latter being the Islamic cleric exiled in Pennsylvania and whom Erdoğan accuses of being behind the failed coup.)
Especially since 2010, however, Erdoğan’s continued references to religious dictates and increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic maneuvers revealed an interpretation of secular legitimacy defined in its narrowest possible sense. Even before the failed coup, Erdoğan had been pushing the Turkish government much closer to the “Ottoman blueprint” of religious legitimacy and military coercion as the two central pillar of rule. In the coup’s aftermath, Erdoğan has already begun to double down on re-imposing the Ottoman blueprint. The failure of the coup provided him leverage to tighten his grip on the military by purging any forces seemingly in opposition to him. With the secular ‘check’ of the military long gone, there is no reason to expect Erdoğan will do anything but move towards a more Islamist agenda. This will buy him legitimacy with large swaths of the population and permit him to rule with an increasingly iron fist, if he chooses to do so. This is the 21st century version of the Ottoman blueprint.
But is the Ottoman blueprint sustainable in the 21st century? Even if Erdoğan maintains some semblance of secular legitimacy alongside the underlying religious foundations? On the one hand, ruling using the Ottoman blueprint may be unfathomable to Western observers. Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. It is a globally integrated and cosmopolitan society with the twenty-second largest economy in the world. Until recently, the largest question surrounding Turkey’s geo-political future was whether it would be admitted to the European Union. Yet, the shadow and temptations of the Ottoman historical legacy loom large, with Turks’ centuries-long affinity with and acceptance of religious political legitimacy. The Ottoman option has laid dormant for nearly a century due to the force of Ataturk’s personality and ideology, along with overwhelming military support for secular governance. But just because the option was dormant did not mean it was absent. The primary obstacle for any Turkish leader hoping to employ the Ottoman blueprint was securing the blessing of the military. Erdoğan’s systematic staffing of key military posts with loyalists has removed this final check. There is now little to stop him from implementing the Ottoman blueprint.
Unfortunately, neo-Ottoman rule does not bode well for the Turkish economy or the rights of its citizens– especially for those unfriendly to the regime. Erdoğan’s political enemies – real and perceived – will likely see real challenges to their personal liberties, property rights, and other basic freedoms over the coming years. Nevertheless, the Ottoman blueprint is sustainable, at least in terms of securing power for the AKP. It is a blueprint with deep historical roots in Turkey, and it is the most likely path that President Erdoğan will take to consolidate his power in the future.