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Understanding Turkey’s Political Transformation: Mechanisms, Actors, and Perceptions

Sinem Adar

Author’s notes

I would like to thank the authors of this Thematic Issue for their valuable contributions. I am also grateful to the Editorial Board of the EJTS for an efficient and collegial cooperation. The TI significantly benefited from the constructive feedback of anonymous reviewers as well as the participants of the workshop organized by the Editorial Board in June 2021 in order to discuss the first drafts of the articles. This introduction has been revised following the 2023 elections, which is not the case for the articles in this issue.

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Introduction

1This Thematic Issue (TI) explores Turkey’s gradual yet steady shift under the rule of Justice and Development Party (AKP thereafter) to autocratization. The TI has two objectives. Inspired by Sözen’s (2020: 232) call to “clarify mechanisms of autocratization and democratic collapse”, it, first and foremost, attempts to qualify the country’s political transformation, beyond its strikingly obvious characteristics such as the personalization of power and the increasingly blurred boundaries between the party and the state.

  • 1 In his enlightening survey of studies on Turkey's political regime, Sözen (2020) demonstrates that (...)

2Thus far, scholars of contemporary Turkey have extensively explored the timing of the authoritarian shift1 and certain characteristics of authoritarianism, e.g. “illiberal” (Öktem, Akkoyunlu 2016) “competitive” (Esen, Gümüşçü 2016), “populist” (Sözen 2019), “Muslim” (Yenigün 2021), and “neoliberal” (Bedirhanoğlu et al. 2020). There is an overwhelming consensus in the literature that the country’s ruling elites use the ballot box as one of the, if not the most, essential instruments for holding onto power. Scholars also agree that populist visions (Sözen 2019: 291) and polarizing discourse (Somer 2014) undergird the country's shift to a predominant party system (Sayarı 2016), and subsequently to an all-powerful executive presidential system. The opposition is systematically depicted as the enemy of the popular faction represented by the AKP and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The President’s legitimacy is heavily embedded in the claim of representing popular will (“yerli ve milli”) against the backdrop of a mindset that equates majoritarianism with democracy.

3Given that the AKP’s rule “makes one-fifth of the entire republican period and five years more than Atatürk’s term in power” (Aytürk 2021), it is almost inevitable that such a long period would impact politics and society. Still, not only the question of how much of the old is dead, but also that of what has replaced it remain unanswered given not only the pace of the change, but also the state of flux and crisis that has accompanied it. Even less clear is to what extent the new constellation of actors, institutions, and ideas is durable. Our knowledge of what the political and societal transformation of the last two decades entails, therefore, needs to be deepened.

4More recent studies on Turkey's political transformation have provided important insights about the instruments and mechanisms that have enabled democratic decline, such as "mobile emergency rule" (Arslanalp, Erkmen 2020), “patronage distribution of resources” (Esen, Gumuscu 2018), reconfiguration of power between capital and labor (Akçay 2021, Akbulut et al. 2020), “politics of domination” (Bedirhan et al. 2020) and “politics of coercion” (ibid., Yabanci 2019).

5Building on the aforementioned body of work, this Thematic Issue traces Turkey’s political transformation in state-society relations. Following Erensü and Alemdaroğlu’s (2018) seminal article on the periodization of Turkish democracy under AKP rule, the authors approach the last two decades as one of simultaneous “reform and repression” and trace the changes in state-society relations by looking at courts and constitutional politics, clientelistic practices as a cornerstone of party politics, dynamics among state and non-state religious actors, co-optation and suppression of higher education institutions, and political-economic struggles.

6In addition to qualifying Turkey’s autocratization, the Thematic Issue has a secondary but less central goal as well: Motivated by the caution of Yilmaz and Turner (2019: 693) against interpreting the political transformation of the last two decades as a definite break from the earlier periods, the Issue invites the reader to contemplate continuities and ruptures under AKP rule with previous periods. Indeed, recent studies of authoritarianism in Turkey have paid more attention to its origins and how some aspects of AKP rule go back to earlier periods. For instance, Sözen (2019: 290) argues that the gradual elimination of checks and balances in the last two decades has been possible thanks to "the interaction of the already-existing executive-centric institutional framework of Turkey's 1982 constitution." Bedirhanoğlu et al. (2020: 3) similarly underline a continuity since the 1980s in state-society relations concerning the country’s “neoliberal social transformation”.

7In a similar vein, this Thematic Issue sheds light on similarities and differences, for example, about how the AKP instrumentalized the law to suppress dissidence (see Ayşegül Kars Kaynar’s article) or how the party and its leadership have deployed religion to mold the population according to their worldviews (see Salim Çevik’s article). The contributing articles also point to significant ruptures, for instance, concerning how the law under AKP rule has become paradoxically predictable and unpredictable, expanding the scope of arbitrary and unconstitutional acts of the ruling elites against what and whom they consider rivals and enemies (e.g., Serdar Tekin’s article).

8Before detailing each article on these two aspects – qualifying Turkey's political transformation and pondering continuities and ruptures under AKP rule with the preceding periods, it should be noted that the Thematic Issue is not organized around a singular theoretical framework. Neither does it have a harmonized set of conceptual and methodological tools. This absence partially stems from Yaycıoğlu’s (2023) timely caution against rushing into attributing definite concepts to an ever-changing regime. It is also partially because contributing authors have different disciplinary backgrounds. The Thematic Issue's interdisciplinary nature provides the reader with a wide array of perspectives, with the aim to deepen our understanding of Turkey's political regime change.

Qualifying Turkey’s political transformation

  • 2 Among others, see Akça and Balta-Peker (2013), Bayulgen et al. (2018), Taş (2015).
  • 3 See Bargu (2018) and Türkyılmaz (2018) for the centrality of the failed coup attempt in 2016 for th (...)

9A first step in the AKP's power consolidation was eliminating Turkey's major veto players.2 Ayşegül Kars Kaynar traces the changing balance of power in civil-military relations through a set of reforms in the organizational structure of the Turkish Armed Forces (first in the context of the EU accession framework and later following the failed coup attempt in 2016) and the simultaneous deployment of "judicialized repression" in order to disempower rivals. Her detailed comparison of court practices during the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials with those of the 15 July attempted coup trials highlights the centrality of courts under AKP rule to intra-state conflicts. Both trials are manifestations of the co-existence of legality and illegality, consent and coercion, and persuasion and harassment. Still, Kars Kaynar notes that the 15 July trials differ from the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials insofar that i) the ruling elites used them to give legitimacy to Erdoğan and the AKP as the sole representative of the “nation’s will”,3 and ii) the legality of actions were not judged ex-post but that judges themselves were an active part of the events on the night of the coup.

10Political elites’ participation in the attempt to build a new regime is indeed striking. In a speech addressing district governors approximately six months before the coup attempt, Erdoğan asked them to “set aside law” [whenever required] and to implement their “own mental revolution [zihinsel inkılap]”, Serdar Tekin notes. After the June 2015 parliamentary elections, when the AKP, for the first time since its foundation, did not get enough votes to form a single-party government, Tekin highlights, the governors had indeed already been doing what they were later asked to do: they had unconstitutionally imposed curfews in many Kurdish cities even though “there was no officially declared emergency at the time”.

  • 4 A growing number of studies draw attention to the relationship between political regime change and (...)

11For Tekin, securitization and extensive abuse of emergency powers in the aftermath of the June 2015 elections constituted a crucial critical juncture (further accentuated between July 2016 and July 2018) for Turkey's political transformation. Despite the incremental nature of change during which the AKP effectively used and abused the law to "criminalize or decriminalize its shifting allies and foes,"4 Tekin argues that the post-2015 period witnessed the formation of a “dual state”, borrowing from Ernst Fraenkel, that applies legal rules (i.e., normative state) and simultaneously violates them as it sees fit (i.e., prerogative state). Such a state is characterized by the unpredictability in the law's application and validity.

12Toygar Sinan Baykan and Murat Somer shift the attention from the law to changing clientelistic practices under AKP rule. Based on interview data, they argue that the AKP has changed patronage relations by replacing the already weakened local notables (due to structural factors such as urbanization and the neoliberal transformation of the economy) and created what they call a “national machine politics.” According to Baykan and Somer, the AKP's ability to build direct contact with the electorate through devoted and loyal party members played an important role in eliminating veto powers and its domination – even if fragile – of the party system. Unlike the previous periods, the AKP is less dependent on local notables; instead, it has created its own "notables" that are highly dependent on the party. The authors claim that the AKP’s constituency see a direct association between the party and the state institutions and that this perception has led to "multiple dependencies" among different social groups, including businesses and civil society groups.

13In his analysis of state-religion relations under AKP rule, Salim Çevik similarly highlights an entire network of old and new actors in the religious field that the party and its leader have aspired to control. The transformation of state-religion relations in the last two decades is quantitative and qualitative, Çevik notes. Quantitatively, Islam’s expansion into social life has significantly increased. Qualitatively, the change in approaches to religion and religious actors includes three components: i) using state institutions and discourse to define and control the religious discourse and life, ii) incorporating religious communities and organizations into the party and state institutions, and iii) forming new religious organizations and communities through religious foundations controlled by Erdoğan’s own family. As a result, Diyanet has become an apparatus of the party towards consolidating power and eliminating dissent, particularly since the 2010s. At the same time, religious brotherhoods have also been heavily subjected to co-optation by the party via strategies of alliance, divide-and-rule, and punishment.

14Ayca Alemdaroğlu’s article on the higher education system also underlines patronage, co-optation, and suppression as the central mechanisms in the country's political transformation. Alemdaroğlu argues that the dual process of “democratization of access” and “autocratization of governance” in higher education has marked the AKP’s approach to the university system. The number of public (and private) universities skyrocketed in the last two decades thanks to the government policy of "one university per city", turning universities into important vehicles in patronage politics. At the same time, universities have become central mediums of suppressing dissidence and controlling civil society. “Students’ imprisonment reached unprecedented levels under AKP rule,” Alemdaroğlu strikingly notes.

15Last but not least, Ali Riza Güngen traces the origins of Turkey’s political regime change in the crisis faced by the AKP’s capital accumulation strategies and tools to maintain popular support. Building on a critical political economy approach, Güngen argues that since the early 2010s, the ruling elites have reached the limits of dependent financialization and, as a result, have found it increasingly difficult to strike a balance in addressing the demands of business groups with different strategies, scales, and sectoral concentrations. According to Güngen, the personalization of power was a response to the crisis of the AKP’s “debt-led and domestic-demand-orientated” growth model.

Continuities and Ruptures

16Yet, given the long history of political suppression, patronage, and intertwined relations between state and capital in Turkish history, to what extent does the political transformation under AKP rule constitute a complete rupture? Güngen, for instance, situates the AKP’s growth model in its first decade within the larger context of Turkey’s financial integration into the global economy in the 1980s and the 1990s. Although a new set of measures were more consistently implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, he cautiously notes that it is yet unclear whether or not the “new economic model”, defined by low interest rates and loose monetary policy favoring new and would-be exporters over internationalized capital constitutes a breaking point. In other words, for Güngen, it is yet unclear whether the capital accumulation strategies of AKP will experience a substantial change, creating the conditions for consolidating regime change and deconstitutionalization.

17Alemdaroğlu similarly sees a continuity in suppressing dissidence via universities and using universities for developmental and ideological goals. She notes that the institutional autonomy and academic freedom level during AKP rule is comparable to that of the single-party period (1923-1945) and military rule between 1980-1983. Still, the intensity and continuity of suppression and universities' centrality to maintaining loyalty to the leader have set apart the last two decades from the earlier periods.

18A similar situation can also be observed in state-religion relations. Çevik underlines the continued role of Islam in public life and political affairs through religious education and Diyanet as an institution of state control over what he calls "social Islam." While at the same time, he also sees a quantitative rupture regarding the resources allocated to Diyanet and non-state religious actors. The fusion of state and non-state religious actors towards establishing complete control (by the ruling elites) over the religious field constitutes the second important (and qualitative) breaking point.

19Baykan and Somer observe a qualitative change in the AKP’s clientelistic practices insofar as they enabled the party leadership to position members of Turkey's popular sectors as the new local and national elites whose survival depends on the party's endurance. In turn, AKP has established itself as the fragile hegemon of the party system and deepened clientelism. Baykan and Somer also observe that AKP-era policies built upon existing populist, conservative, and nationalist authoritarian ideological trends.

20Continuities are also visible in the deployment of courts in intra-state conflicts. Kars Kaynar, for instance, notes that the prosecution of military officers also occurred before the AKP's rise to power. Yet, the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, and the 15 July coup trials differ from those of the earlier periods in three dimensions. Firstly, the prosecution of military officers during AKP rule has had long-lasting, structural implications for civil-military relations. Secondly, and relatedly, court cases against military officers during AKP rule were part of a systematic harassment process. Last but not least, the AKP era trials were held in regular courts, unlike previous trials that were dealt with by special courts.

21For Tekin, such a distinction between regular and special courts is crucial in understanding what Turkey’s political regime entails. What distinguishes AKP rule from the earlier periods is the institutional cohabitation of prerogative law and normative law since 2015. That is, the same institutions can implement both prerogative and normative law, making the law unpredictable. Ruling elites arbitrarily decide when and against whom the law can be flexed. For Tekin, despite the continuity of emergency powers throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the post-2015 era is unique as it lacks a “constitutional discipline”.

In lieu of a conclusion after an historical election

22Given the total shared 50.3 percent vote of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Sinan Oğan, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two contenders in the first round of the presidential election on May 14, the desire for change within Turkish society is undeniable. However, so too is the insistence on continuity. Even though Erdoğan finished the first round 4.2 percent ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu, he could not avoid a run-off on May 28 that he won, gaining 52 percent of the votes. And although the AKP’s vote share declined in almost every city across the country, the ruling People’s Alliance gained a majority in parliament with 322 seats.

23Despite the devastating economic situation and the tragic earthquake that exposed the weaknesses of the country's institutions, the president has continued to appeal to voters living in a polarized society separated from one another by alternative realities. Partisan distribution of economic benefits, nationalist and misogynist identity politics, systematic manipulation of the election system, and continuous suppression of rivals have all together helped Erdoğan consolidate a voter coalition, and thus, remain in power for another five years.

  • 5 Also see Yabanci (2019) for the paradoxical effect of “containment and apprehension” policies targe (...)

24This outcome underlines the necessity for further research on the question of authoritarianism’s durability in Turkey. Although the contributing articles to this Thematic Issue do not directly engage with this matter, one can still make some inferences. For instance, Baykan and Somer’s claim that the AKP “avoids de facto or de jure merger with state institutions” but instead has a “privileged position between state and society”, “representing poor local constituencies in encounters with local bureaucracy as well as persuading the local society to the unpopular measures of local state institutions” suggests that authoritarianism in Turkey has not resulted in a completely bureaucratized party-state. The AKP’s domination of the party system is fragile, as evident in the decreased vote share of the party. The party has also been facing challenges from within, despite the efforts to create leader loyalty. Even in the case of extensive co-optation of religious elites, opposition to the AKP remains, as demonstrated by Çevik in the case of Furkan Vakfı. The crisis-ridden character of Turkey’s political regime, as Güngen highlights in the case of the struggles among business elites, is another reason to suspect its endurance.5

25In addition to the question of regime durability, there is also a need for in-depth analyses on how AKP rule has shaped perceptions and mindsets in the last two decades. Erdoğan has indeed failed to mold the population according to an ideological promise, as the simple majority voting against the continuation of his rule in the recent elections suggests. Yet, he has effectively co-opted, strengthened, and further cemented decades-long religious (and nationalist) networks with deep roots into society to consolidate his power over the years, as Salim Cevik demonstrates in this Thematic Issue. If the culture of loyalty is an essential case in point concerning perceptions and mindsets, so too is the lack of “constitutional discipline” that Tekin underlines. In the run-up to the elections, one manifestation of such absence was the criminalization of opposition actors as “terrorists”, “invaders”, and “collaborators of Western imperialism”. Similarly, the declining levels of intellectual autonomy and worsening academic freedom that Alemdaroğlu emphasizes is likely to have mid-to-long-term repercussions.

26Overall, understanding the mechanisms of Turkey’s political transformation under AKP rule and “the impact of autocratization on politics and society” (Sözen 2020: 232) is not only an important scholarly endeavor, but also has practical implications for the future of democracy in Turkey. This TI has taken a modest step towards qualifying authoritarianism in Turkey. In doing so, it has also indirectly addressed contemporary consistencies and changes in today’s political regime.

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Bibliography

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Notes

1 In his enlightening survey of studies on Turkey's political regime, Sözen (2020) demonstrates that earlier studies on the issue mostly engage with the question of timing. Adopting a culturalist lens to Turkish society and politics, he argues that the earlier scholarship approaches AKP era as one of democratization. This body of literature sees the AKP's rise to power as "the rule of the periphery's authentic representation" or approaching the AKP-in-power "as a downtrodden anti-authoritarian actor." (ibid. :220-22) More recent studies, on the other hand, shift the attention from democracy and democratization to authoritarianism in their attempt at "naming and studying the decline into authoritarianism." (ibid. :226) According to Sözen, they share the view with the earlier scholarship that there is a clear turning point, around Gezi demonstrations but most certainly after the snap elections in 2015, in the country’s democratic backsliding.

2 Among others, see Akça and Balta-Peker (2013), Bayulgen et al. (2018), Taş (2015).

3 See Bargu (2018) and Türkyılmaz (2018) for the centrality of the failed coup attempt in 2016 for the formation of a new type of regime in Turkey that took its legitimacy directly from those who went to the streets on the night of the coup to defend “Turkish democracy” against the coup plotters.

4 A growing number of studies draw attention to the relationship between political regime change and emergency laws. See, for instance, Arslanalp and Erkmen (2020), Whiting and Kaya (2021), Yilmaz (2020). Arslanap and Erkmen (2020: 961) define Turkey’s authoritarian turn as a “political shift from a military-dominated national security state to a new populist authoritarian regime with its own targets of repression, determined by the regime’s ideological imperative and coalitional dynamics.”

5 Also see Yabanci (2019) for the paradoxical effect of “containment and apprehension” policies targeting civil society actors in expanding civil society and diversifying civic engagement.

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References

Electronic reference

Sinem Adar, Understanding Turkey’s Political Transformation: Mechanisms, Actors, and PerceptionsEuropean Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 34 | 2022, Online since 30 June 2023, connection on 23 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejts/8122; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.8122

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About the author

Sinem Adar

German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

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