Once heralded as a beacon of stability and democratic promise in a region where both have been short in supply, Turkey is now making the headlines as a land of uncertainty and pessimism. Make no mistake: Turkey has never been perfect with respect to its record on democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights, but until very recently it offered something it cannot easily offer now: hope.
Just check latest online news and commentaries about Turkey in the global media and you will see a pattern of doom and gloom scenarios. The domestic political discourse is even worse.
That the country is becoming more polarized across political and ethnic lines is not news anymore. What is more troubling is that different segments of the society now have their own version of “reality” and are utterly uninterested in hearing what others have to say. Sustaining these contradictory realities no longer requires logic or facts. If you challenge the validity of a group’s version of “what is really happening in Turkey,” then you must be with “them,” an instant enemy to be demonized, or at best a fool. Turkey is losing its mind.
What exactly is driving Turkey “crazy?” And what will be the long-term implications of such collective madness? The answer to the first question has to do with the uncomfortable cocktail of unipolarity in the political sphere and the “cult of moral righteousness.” The former creates an imbalance in domestic politics and the latter, while helping politicians energize their own followers, makes it impossible for members of different political groups to talk to each other productively.
The resulting collective political madness, unless both politicians and common folks reclaim their sanity, will have dire consequences and may eventually push Turkey into a “political winter” that will be marked by either outright authoritarianism or civil strife. Under both circumstances, the likelihood of military intervention is considerably amplified.
Without Balance: Unipolarity in Turkish Politics
Turkey’s political landscape, if we are to borrow concepts from international relations theory, can be best defined in terms of unipolarity. The single pole is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose political might cannot be checked or balanced by their critics or opponents, who in turn remain essentially divided. The AKP came to power in 2002, but unipolarity in Turkish politics became possible only in 2011. In addition to scoring a stunning electoral victory for the party (which received 50 percent of the votes), the AKP also completed the pacification of the Turkish Armed Forces, which itself exerted tremendous influence in politics since 1960.
As of 2011, the AKP and Erdogan enjoyed popular support from one out of two voters and faced a divided opposition. Consciously or inadvertently, the AKP further entangled itself in a “majoritarian trap” by implicitly defining its own support base — the so-called “50-per cent” — as its only audience. This did not mean, however, the AKP was alienating everyone else at the same time. The AKP seemed genuinely interested in pushing forward what was called the “solution process,” the peace negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
For a while, it seemed like unipolarity would lead to stability, but two dynamics were also at work. First, the AKP could not be balanced short of an opposition-wide concerted effort. This prompted Erdogan to solidify his gains and reach for full-blown hegemony, where the AKP would be strong enough to totally dominate the political system so that competition would be deemed unfeasible. The relevant efforts as well as an increasingly patronizing rhetoric then placed considerable stress on the opposition parties and the “other” 50 percent they represented, especially the “seculars” (or, Kemalists).
The second dynamic was the unwillingness — not only inability — of the “mini-poles” to coordinate a collective response that would balance the AKP. There is no way to sugarcoat it: the opposition parties seemed content with clinging on to their core audiences and solidifying them through unrelenting and uncompromising rhetoric. The result was a paradox of some sorts. The opposition could not balance against Erdogan, but he could not fully dominate the system. Conversely, Erdogan could not silence (or pacify) the opposition, and the opposition could not coordinate a common response to Erdogan.
Then, the wheels came off. The AKP overplayed its hand and triggered a backlash from its opponents, which revealed itself in full force with the Gezi Park Protests of summer 2013. At the time, the AKP’s critiques tended to frame the protests as the beginning of a “Turkish Spring” that would lead to further democratization. A minority, including yours truly, argued otherwise: the protests of summer 2013 were merely the symptom of the bigger disease, the imbalance in Turkish politics. Concerned with losing its political might, and perhaps tempted by the dream of political hegemony, the AKP played the majoritarian card even harder, ossifying the divide between its core constituents and especially the seculars. The opposition remained divided and, in the end, ineffective.
This year has witnessed two developments that further contributed to the aforementioned imbalance. First, the solution process failed. This meant that the relations between the AKP and pro-Kurdish left-leaning People’s Democratic Party (HDP) could no longer even be defined as lukewarm. In fact, especially after the HDP proved successful in attracting a small yet decisive number of Kurdish voters that used to vote for the AKP in the June elections, these two parties have become mortal enemies. The HDP now accuses the AKP for being an empty vessel whose sole purpose is to build a tyranny for Erdogan, while the latter implicitly and explicitly accuses the HDP for aiding and abetting the PKK.
The HDP’s increasingly anti-AKP/Erdogan stance, however, does not mean that the opposition as a whole is gaining ground. To the contrary, the HDP and the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) are at odds with each other over the so-called Kurdish question, with Republican People’s Party (CHP) divided over the question of where to stand.
The second relevant development involves the elections of June: for the first time since it came to power in 2002, the AKP is in decline. That its share of the votes has been reduced to little more than 40 percent initially created euphoria among the opposition, triggering a sense of optimism that was comparable to the early days of the Gezi Park protests of 2013. The imbalance remained, however. The AKP lost some of its shine, but it is still the singular pole facing a divided opposition.
The AKP responded to these developments by playing the nationalistic card, which requires, in the Turkish context, taking a firm and aggressive stance against the PKK and its sympathizers. This is hardly surprising, especially to students of international politics: when great powers are in decline, they tend to become even more aggressive and risk-acceptant to keep what they have and recover what they lost. The AKP’s increasingly nationalistic tone, in this context, is placing additional stress on the ethnic relations in the country, which have been deteriorating especially in the past year.
Note that other parties are not pulling their punches. The MHP has been extremely inflexible about its anti-HDP posture, blaming the HDP for being nothing more than the political arm of the PKK. The HDP’s leaders, especially in the wake of their electoral victory, have been rather vocal about their sympathy for the Kurdish militants. The CHP, with its 25 percent share of the votes and relatively mainstream discourse, remains perennially confused, unable to exert decisive influence in the political outcomes. The opposition parties complain about Erdogan and the AKP round the clock, yet they are individually unwilling to make compromises that would make a “balancing coalition” possible.
So, what is the net result of this imbalance? The AKP keeps playing one divisive card or another in order to arrest its decline (or achieve hegemony) and the opposition parties can do (or, are willing to do) little to counter such strategy. One can even argue that the opposition parties’ responses to the AKP’s strategy further deepen the political — usually defined in terms of secular-conservative lines — and ethnic tensions. Together, Turkey’s political parties are playing a game of chicken. If they keep at it, the country will start cracking along political and ethnic lines, but no single party seems to be interested in swerving.
The notion that interaction of self-interested actors can lead to suboptimal outcomes at the group level is not a new insight. Such dynamics, one can argue, are the very stuff of politics. But, the Turkish domestic politics suffers from another problem that exacerbates the effects of unipolarity: the cult of moral righteousness, which rules out any meaningful debate among the political parties, especially at a time when they need it most.
The Cult of Moral Righteousness
The political discourse in Turkey is shaped by each group’s claims about its unquestionable moral superiority vis-à-vis others. It is true that politics everywhere is debated on the basis of morality, each party claiming the higher ground. In Turkish political discourse, however, this tendency is taken to extremes. Different political groups will frame the same action as moral and immoral to their own audiences and, more importantly, such projections are hardly challenged by in-group members. Individual groups have long stopped caring about other groups’ perception of morality. Refusing to commit to any criteria for what counts as moral, different political groups start from the action (or preference) and then define morality ex post facto to justify one’s own preferences and to demonize those of the others.
The notion of moral righteousness has become a tool for in-group mobilization, and a very flexible one. Each group claims the moral higher ground at all times, accusing the others as immoral sell-outs or fools. Under such circumstances, the cult of moral righteousness acts both as an insurmountable barrier dividing the groups and an “echo chamber” that is driving the in-group members, and perhaps even politicians, politically insane.
This cult of moral righteousness has two interrelated impacts that collectively drive a political landscape already suffering from unipolarity-fueled imbalance to the edge of collective madness. First and foremost, it traps the members of each group inside their own “reality.” Affiliates of a group tell themselves, and are told by their fellow in-group members, that by definition they are the good guys and anyone else who is not with them are either evil or morally corrupt, and most certainly not worth negotiating with. The distribution of political power divides the Turkish society; the cult of moral righteousness traps them inside their respective groups and makes communication almost impossible. Politicians on all sides, at least in theory, can try and transcend this vicious cycle. However, they are either too busy whipping up divisive rhetoric to solidify their own support base and strengthen their hand at the negotiating table, or are already victims of the collective political madness that is taking over the country. Regardless, their aggressive and relentless discourse is burying the calmer voices and pushing the country closer to a point of no return.
Second, the unshakeable belief in one’s own moral righteousness also helps justify any action ranging from embezzlement to defamation, or from destruction of property to murder, of course, as long as such actions are taken in the name of the “cause.” When the victims belong to “another” group, they are denied any sense of victimhood and portrayed as either “acceptable” collateral damage or deserving enemies. Such tendency reflects an increasingly cruel and insensitive discourse in domestic politics: political leaders and their followers, by building on their self-proclaimed righteousness, can now easily justify even violent acts without blinking. Each group accuses the others of immorality and aggression while “whitewashing” its own deeds instantly and effortlessly, leaving no room for tolerance and reconciliation.
Overall, the cult of moral righteousness deprives the Turkish political discourse of any sense of meaningful debate (and even reason) and leaves it with “noise.” Members of each group do their best to out-shout their opponents, which then traps both politicians and their supporters inside “ideological echo chambers” where in-group members keep hearing and making arguments only in one direction, while also pretending that they are engaging in political discussion. Inside their echo chambers, politicians and “activists” portray the “other” groups as morally corrupt, incompetent, and even subhuman, constantly reminding each other how great they and their “camp” really are. This landscape not only does make for unproductive dialogue, but also fuels a cycle of antagonism where offending and insulting “others” have replaced exchange of ideas and reconciliation.
In sum, the imbalance in the distribution of political power and the cult of moral righteousness are driving Turkish political discourse insane. The result is a slow-motion intractable political crisis.
So, what can come out of this collective madness? A “Turkish winter,” which, if it comes, will make today’s poisonous political atmosphere look good by comparison. Such political winter can result in two possible scenarios. In the first, the AKP manages to arrest its decline and push forward for hegemony, which would mean an outright authoritarian regime.
The second scenario entails failure for both the AKP and the opposition parties, the former failing to achieve hegemony and the latter proving incapable of balancing the AKP. Such a landscape will most likely resemble a perfect storm that brings together two dark episodes in Turkish political history: the political polarization of 1970s (this time no longer between left-wing and right-wing groups, but between the seculars and conservatives) and the ethnic tensions of 1990s (this time no longer limited to PKK-state clashes in the southeast, but spread across the entire country).
In both scenarios, the risk of a military intervention will be amplified, though more so in the second one. It is true that the armed forces’ ability to interfere in politics was crippled with the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. If the Turkish winter comes, however, the country will start running the risk of a coup again. If political instability paves the way for actual civil strife (political and/or ethnic), the military will yet again become a pivotal actor in politics. While the aforementioned trials made sure that a military intervention “from the top” (that is, from the General Staff) becomes near-impossible, they do not rule out coup attempts from mid-level officers, who may act as more agile actors who can operate and organize in secrecy, especially in a political landscape marked by civil strife and chaos.
As spectators of Turkish politics, we are currently watching an end-to-end pileup in slow motion. Turkey’s political actors are collectively driving the country to the edge of instability or worse and they are simply too busy shouting at each other to grasp the consequences of their actions. Its politicians and society need to “wake up” from their collective insanity. If they cannot, the Turkish winter is coming.
Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state-formation and production of military power, and empires. His scholarly work has appeared in numerous outlets including International Security. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.