Erdogan’s Art of Political Warfare
What Sun Tzu teaches us about Turkey's power politics.
Only a couple of weeks ago, spectators of Turkish politics — almost unanimously — were convinced that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice Development Party (AKP) were about to face yet another electoral defeat. In June, the AKP failed to achieve a majority in a general election for the first time since 2002. Its share of the vote dropped to little more than 40 percent, all the way from close to 50 percent from the elections of 2011. The June elections showed that Erdogan, long thought to be invincible by many, could actually bleed. Now that Erdogan was wounded, it would not take much to knock him out. Or so they thought.
Then came the elections of November 1. Much to the disbelief of the opposition as well as global media, the AKP captured almost 50 percent of the votes and an overwhelming majority in the parliament. In fact, the AKP’s performance on November 1 was a bigger show of strength than in the 2011 elections, where the party received an almost identical share of the votes. In 2011, Erdogan was heralded as a champion of democracy by many. In today’s Turkey, Erdogan’s democratic promise is no longer a selling point, his former alliances have turned sour (to put it mildly), the Kurdish peace process is dead, and the country is more divided than it has ever been. Regardless, Erdogan punched his way to another decisive political victory. Erdogan has yet to achieve the kind of presidency he seeks, but, considering that the AKP has a clear-cut mandate for the next four years, he now has ample time to figure it out.
How can we explain Erdogan’s latest victory? The members of the opposition usually prefer to either put the blame on the AKP’s electorate (suggesting that whoever votes for this party needs to be ignorant, backward, or corruptible) or explain Erdogan’s success by demonizing him (for example, suggesting that Erdogan succeeds because he is a ruthless evil-doer). While blame games are common in politics, they hardly make for sound analysis.
Making sense of Erdogan’s resilience requires the recognition of two facts. First, Turkish politics has always been a rough game. The Turkish political discourse may revolve around claims to higher moral ground, but the practice of Turkish politics has been all about Realpolitik. This is hardly surprising, especially given Turkey’s tumultuous political history, scarred by the long shadow of the armed forces as well as countless episodes of political repression practiced by whoever controlled the state at the time.
The second fact is related to Erdogan: Good or bad, he has proven himself to be a master of Turkish power politics. He plays the game better than anyone else. His clashes with numerous political actors, including the Turkish military (once thought to be omnipotent), clearly show that he accepts Turkish politics for what it is — a slippery landscape where success is a function a ruthlessly pragmatic strategy and failure can potentially lead to one’s total ruin.
It follows that making sense of Erdogan’s latest victory requires analyzing his strategy in the context of a rough and slippery political terrain, where the nature of political competition starts to resemble war. There are few, if any, names better than the ancient Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tzu to turn to for such analysis. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has long inspired strategic thinking not only in the study of politics but also in the business world and can potentially help us better examine how Erdogan has been able to recover from the defeat he was dealt in June. War is inherently political and in Turkey, politics often resembles war. Erdogan’s art of political warfare, in this context, can be illuminated by a number of maxims from Sun Tzu.
“War is a matter of vital importance… the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.” (Book I, #1)
At this stage, we should understand the consequences of political failure for Erdogan. Throughout his long career, Erdogan has made quite a number of enemies, ranging from his one-time ally, the Gulen movement, to the angry seculars whose popular slogans include “yargilanacaksiniz” (meaning “you will be put on trial!”). Erdogan understands that if he loses his political might, his enemies will come after him, with dire consequences for himself and those around him. This dynamic prompts him to adopt increasingly aggressive and risky measures, and explains why he is striving to consolidate his authority through a presidential system.
“What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy” (Book III, #4)
Attacking his opponents’ strategy has been a key element of Erdogan’s own strategic thinking. This element has revealed itself especially with respect to how he dealt with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), both of which had emerged victorious from the June elections. The MHP’s strategy in the aftermath of June elections involved merely continuing its anti-HDP posture and unrelenting opposition to the Kurdish peace process, and refusing to strike alliances with any other party. One can only surmise that MHP leader Devlet Bahceli expected to attract nationalist voters from the AKP and even the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The HDP, the biggest winner of the June elections, emerged in a wave of euphoria and optimism. While the party was able to attract a considerable amount of secular Turkish voters through its left-leaning discourse, it owed much of its success to its ability to convince the Kurdish voters who used to vote for the AKP that the HDP better represented their interests. Arguably, the AKP’s reluctance to assist the defense of city of Kobane in Syria during the months-long siege under attack from the Islamic State motivated some conservative Kurdish voters to opt for the HDP. The five months following the June elections were marked by clashes between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), as the peace process crumbled in a cycle of violence. The HDP was caught in between and, according to many spectators, failed to sufficiently distance itself from the PKK by framing the conflict through the lens of an anti-Erdogan discourse.
For Erdogan, attacking the MHP’s strategy proved to be the easier task. By adopting an increasingly nationalist tone, Erdogan outflanked Devlet Bahceli’s overly-stoic (or, according to some, passive) posture and outdid Turkey’s nationalist party in its own game. He attacked Kuridish militants relentlessly, taking the wind out of the MHP’s sails. The HDP, in turn, was a much bigger challenge. Both parties were competing primarily over the Kurdish voters. As the HDP increasingly emphasized the “Erdogan element” in its discourse, underplaying the role of the PKK in the cycle of violence, Erdogan and the AKP consistently focused on the “stability” dimension, implying that a strong AKP could bring the instability to an end. In the end, the AKP’s strategy paid off and hundreds of thousands of Kurdish voters switched from the HDP to the AKP. Many of these were likely AKP supporters in prior elections and it is worth noting that Kurds are among the most religiously conservative citizens of Turkey. The HDP’s strategy was based on the assumption that since AKP’s position during the Kobane crisis pushed some Kurdish voters to the HDP, keeping them would require only a modicum of anti-AKP/Erdogan rhetoric. The AKP, in turn, bet on the idea that a campaign built around an anti-AKP/Erdogan discourse would crumble if the target audience was “reminded” that the cost of economic and political stability, in case the AKP fails to achieve majority, might be just too high. The AKP’s gamble paid off.
“Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.” (Book X; #26)
Erdogan appears to have digested Sun Tzu’s dictum about understanding the enemy as well as the terrain and weather, at least more so than his opponents. Take, for example, the dynamics surrounding the polling companies prior to the elections. Almost all polling companies predicted the AKP to score, at best, 42 to 43 percent. Numerous journalists and public intellectuals associated with the opposition, similarly, claimed that the AKP should be “happy” if it could receive more than 40 percent. The HDP’s popular co-chair Selahattin Demirtas declared that the AKP was on its way down and would soon regret its decision to press for the run-up elections.
The opposition categorically refused to engage even the possibility of an AKP breakthrough. Most famously, the only polling company that came close to predicting actual election results (A&G, with its 47.2 percent prediction) was publicly ostracized by the members of the opposition and accused of misinforming the public in exchange for favors from the AKP. Whenever an AKP lieutenant signaled confidence in AKP’s performance in the upcoming elections, the opposition reacted by either accusing the AKP of trying to manipulate public opinion or by making fun of Erdogan and the AKP, implying that both were really desperate. In the end, Erdogan had the last laugh. Right or wrong, he understood his primary target audience and pulled the right set of strings to make sure they flocked to his fold. His opponents, by contrast, were living in a bubble of make-believe, ignoring another relevant dictum from Sun Tzu: “if ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you certain in every battle to be in peril” (Book III, #33).
Exploring Erdogan’s art of political war can be extended in numerous ways. However, three notes of caution need to be spelled out. First, any application of Sun Tzu’s teachings to present-day Turkish politics will have its limitations. The Art of War was written some 2500 years ago. It was primarily about war and is narrated from the perspective of a general addressing the ruler of a state. Sun Tzu’s dictums are reference points that can stimulate analysis, not as universal principles of politics.
Second, although Erdogan has emerged victorious one more time, he is not necessarily destined to do so in the future. In fact, he came very close to total defeat in the aftermath of the June elections, facing a dwindling popular base for the AKP and a rising HDP. The opposition parties had a shot at the time to decisively limit Erdogan’s overarching dominance in Turkish politics, but they failed to do so for two primary reasons. The first has to do with the distribution of political power and collective action problems: As I wrote before the elections, the AKP remained the unipole in Turkish politics even after the June elections and the opposition parties faced numerous obstacles to creating an effective balancing coalition. The second reason why the opposition parties missed the train to prevent Erdogan from recovering, however, has to do with “choice.” The opposition parties could have chosen strategies to arrest the AKP’s recovery but did not. Especially the MHP and HDP failed to develop effective strategies that would have at least allowed them to keep what they had achieved in the June elections. Furthermore, all opposition parties, yet again, underestimated Erdogan’s uncanny ability for strategic flexibility as well as mastery of Realpolitik. The opposition parties still appear incapable of coming to terms with their strategic failures and content with playing a never-ending blame-game where each actor claims that it bears no responsibility for the current state of affairs.
The third note of caution, in turn, involves the element of Realpolitik in Erdogan’s strategic thinking. It is true that Turkey’s political landscape was already an arena for rough power politics well before the time of Erdogan. Erdogan’s ruthless pursuit of Realpolitik most certainly helped him score another victory, but it also pushing the country further toward an unsustainable state of mind, where both the politicians and the society has started to think of politics in terms of war. While Erdogan may not be the person who introduced ruthless power politics into the Turkish political landscape, he has been not only its uncontested champion (so far), but also its chief driver. Unless Erdogan parts with what has kept him in power for so long, that is, his mastery of the art of political warfare, Turkey’s political landscape will become more and more of a battlefield. Considering the ever-increasing political and ethnic tensions of the past year, the last thing Turkey needs at the moment is further polarization and intolerance.
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.
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