There was a time when following Turkish politics was more like following a soap opera. It had too many recurring characters, too many subplots, and absolutely too much repetition. The plots unfolded in a relatively “slow” fashion and were not necessarily exciting or thrilling to outsiders. Consequently, Turkey had only a small and select audience base. Not anymore. Not President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new Turkey. Turkey has gone primetime, and not necessarily in a good way.
More recently, Turkish politics has become somewhat of a mix between a twist-rich drama and an action-packed thriller (also a horror movie, according to some), attracting the full attention of global audiences. With the referendum of the past week, Turkish politics, which would make HBO’s popular series Game of Thrones look like The Smurfs or Teletubbies, now entered a new phase: Erdoganocracy, or, rule by Erdogan. Put bluntly, Erdogan finally secured the “iron throne” he sought for more than a decade. The referendum effectively ended the “old” Turkey’s parliamentarian regime, instead establishing a presidential system where the president faces little, if any, checks and balances on his power.
However, how he achieved his final victory, and the political environment over which he will rule as the “one man” for the foreseeable future, suggests that Erdogan’s grip on power will be increasingly shaky. In order to “win,” Erdogan pushed his hand too hard, contributing to the long-term structural challenges Turkey faced way before his time. Good or bad, Erdogan broke the “old” Turkey to build a new one in his image. The problem is that he probably broke it a little too much. Rebuilding a stable and strong “new” Turkey out of the broken, or even shattered, pieces will prove to be an overwhelming task, even for a skillful Machiavellian like Erdogan. His final victory will haunt him and his regime in the long run. Ironically, his own victory may eventually defeat Erdogan.
In the long run, Erdogan will face at least five core challenges. None of these emerged overnight, all were exacerbated by Erdogan’s drive for establishing his absolute presidency, and none are going away anytime soon. These challenges will render Erdoganocracy increasingly fragile, most likely forcing him to adapt further authoritarian and repressive (or suppressive) measures and policies. However, force and repression alone cannot solve these problems, but in fact will make them worse. Unless Erdogan directly addresses these challenges — not to “destroy” but to “solve” — he will be ruling over a potentially unstable political kingdom.
A Pyrrhic Victory in a Divided Turkey
Erdogan won the referendum, but three dynamics will haunt him. First, the result was a close call: 51.4 percent for Erdogan’s “Yes” to 48.6 percent for “No.” This is a win, but it is so close that it will effectively diminish the punch of Erdogan’s favorite term, “national will” (milli irade). An alternative scenario where Erdogan ends up with, say, 58 percent (as he did in a constitutional referendum in 2010), would have been infinitely more favorable for him.
Note that the very nature of the referendum is also categorically different from an election, where Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) can claim up to 50 percent of the votes. In a parliamentary election, voters vote among multiple options. In Turkey’s “unipolar” landscape, where AKP’s closest competitor can only claim 25 percent of the electorate, Erdogan can more easily claim that his 50 percent overwhelmingly represents the preferences of Turkish citizens, at least, better than the alternatives. In the referendum, the choice was more direct: 48.6 percent of the voters rejected Erdoganocracy. That he was able to win only with a small margin will sting him down the road.
It will sting because of a second, and more important, dynamic: The referendum was no fair fight. Erdogan might or might not have literally cheated on the referendum day, but he most certainly was not playing fair during the months leading to that point. Erdogan controls the state-run TV channels and has already subdued the entire mainstream (and opposition) media. While supporters of the “No” option barely found an opportunity to make their case, media coverage and support for “Yes” was overwhelming. Furthermore, “No” was directly or indirectly criminalized by numerous AKP affiliates, which most certainly is a daunting prospect in present-day Turkey. The state of emergency that was declared last July’s failed coup attempt is still in play. The math is simple: If Erdogan could get only 51.4 percent with the might of the state and mainstream media behind him, he would have done worse in a fair fight. Under fair circumstances with a free press and in the absence of emergency powers, the referendum would have probably yielded “No.”
Third, a number of fraud claims tainted the referendum results. Most notably, Turkey’s Electoral Board, on the day of the referendum, decided to accept unstamped ballots, which is not unprecedented, but it is most certainly a controversial practice. The main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) took formal issue with the relevant fraud claims, but its appeal was denied. For an overwhelming majority of the “No” camp, Erdogan rigged the referendum. They are fully convinced of the fraud and will not change their minds anytime soon.
So, why do these dynamics matter? First, they speak to the divided nature of Turkish politics. Such divisions exist in all polities. But in Turkey, political and identity-oriented divisions (for example, religious beliefs) are all crystallizing around one word: Erdogan. The emerging political warfare is all about one question: Are you with (or for) Erdogan, or are you against him? The referendum, for lack of better words, consumed the middle ground. Second, and more importantly, that the results were this close (despite unbalanced media coverage and thinly veiled criminalization of the “No” option), when combined with fraud claims, will keep anti-Erdogan flames alive within Turkey’s opposition, now also encouraged by the close call. In the post-referendum Turkey, “anti-Erdoganism” will be built on a sense of victimhood and injustice.
Erdogan will most likely attempt to more directly repress or even criminalize the opposition, which will only fuel anti-Erdoganism. One likely outcome is a repetition of the Gezi Park protests of 2013, where millions took it to the streets to, effectively, protest Erdogan. The main difference in today’s Turkey is that such an outcome will likely be much bloodier than original Gezi protests. And, if such a day comes, Turkey will be dancing with the risk of either civil war between Erdogan supporters and opponents (who have been traditionally divided over secular-conservative lines), or another coup attempt, which — different from last July — may be supported, if implicitly, by some segments of the anti-Erdogan camp.
A Broken Military
Erdogan’s new Turkey faces multiple security challenges ranging from its operations in Syria to its struggle with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). However, the military is broken in the aftermath of the purges that followed the failed coup attempt of last July.
What is less recognized is that it was Erdogan himself who, if inadvertently, paved the way for the coup attempt. Allied with the so-called Gulenists at the time and supported by Turkey’s liberal intellectuals, Erdogan put all his weight behind big trials such as Ergenekon and Balyoz, which gutted the secular core of the Turkish military between 2008 and 2011 and pacified those secularists who remained. The trials claimed that cabals within the Turkish military were making plans for a top-down (within chain of command) coup to oust Erdogan, who famously stated that he considered himself a “prosecutor” of the cases. Based partially on fabricated evidence and backed by Erdogan, these trials literally broke the military’s coherence and chain of command. As I argued in 2013 and warned in 2015, the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials eventually set the stage for a coup that would be launched outside chain of command.
Why did Erdogan ally with Gulenists — the very same people he calls terrorists today? At the time, the main threat to Erdogan’s rule was the Turkish military, then known for its zeal for intervening in politics and an enmity towards non-secular leaders. The Gulenists preach their own version of conservative Islam and shared with Erdogan a common enemy, so they collaborated to pacify the secularist threat before them.
After the coup attempt last year, Erdogan initiated numerous measures to reconstruct the military. However, he faces a dilemma: How can he make sure that the military remains operationally effective while being, at the same time, unquestionably loyal to him? There are no quick fixes and much uncertainty remains about Turkish military’s future. Another coup attempt seems unlikely, especially after the extensive purges, but not impossible — especially if it comes from outside chain-of-command. If anti-Erdogan protests trigger mass civilian casualties or major civil strife between his followers and opponents, it would be difficult for Erdogan to assure himself that the military officers will stay on his side.
The AKP’s “Human Resources” Trap
Less known to foreign spectators is the AKP’s human resources problem, which will hurt Erdogan’s rule in the long run. One main reason the AKP allied with Gulenists in the first place was their complementary capabilities. Having invested in the education sector, and thanks to their recruitment strategy (which focuses on “converting” talented youngsters in financial need from early on), Gulenists had many trained and talented followers they wanted to place within the state. The AKP, as a young political party, lacked such talent. Such a partnership then allowed the AKP to gradually oust the seculars — who dominated Turkey’s judiciary, bureaucracy, and military — from state institutions.
Eventually, the alliance fell apart in 2013, as Gulenists turned against Erdogan. The war between the two culminated in the coup attempt, which allowed Erdogan to purge most known Gulenists and opponents of all other ideological stripes from the state institutions and beyond.
Having relied on Gulenists as a substitute for secularists in the bureaucracy, this presents Erdogan with a human resource challenge. Erdogan and the AKP’s best bet in the short term is rewarding loyalty, not necessarily merit. The long term impact of this strategy will be dire: increased corruption and nepotism, decaying institutional effectiveness, and a flailing economy. Erdogan will likely blame all of this on Turkey’s opposition, but populist rhetoric has its limits, usually defined in terms of what everyday people experience in their own lives.
There will be a short term impact, too. Within the AKP, Erdogan will increasingly favor his die-hard loyalists. It is unlikely that the resulting resentment against unadulterated patronage within AKP ranks, as some commentators argue, will lead to the implosion of the party. More likely is a future where the AKP, marginalizing whatever is left of its own talent, will cannibalize what made it a big success story in the first place: institutional coherence and discipline. Put simply, one cannot have the cake and eat it too. As sociologist Max Weber recognized a century ago, “charismatic authority” and “bureaucratic authority” cannot easily co-exist. Erdogan’s rise as the “one man,” not only in Turkey but also within his own party, will also mean that AKP will start to decay as an organization.
The Looming “Refugee Crisis”
Everyday life in Turkey is changing for people from all walks of life, because of a simple fact: Turkey, a country of about 75 million, currently hosts almost 3 million Syrian refugees. If one is to compare scale, this is like the United States accepting 12.7 million refugees who do not speak English in just a few short years. One can only imagine what kind of a “shock” such change can create in the lives of Turkish citizens.
In a way that makes perfect sense in the Turkish context, but probably not to foreign spectators, Turkey’s looming domestic refugee crisis is barely receiving any real analytical coverage or reflection. By “moralizing” the Syrian refugee issue, Erdogan has successfully silenced any concerns or criticism. If you criticize Erdogan for any policy or long-term planning — or, more precisely, lack thereof — about the place of Syrian refugees in Turkey, you will find yourself being accused of racism (the dormant Arabophobia among some secular and ultra-nationalist segments of the society helps Erdogan make his case), or mere immorality (as in, not being humanitarian enough, especially about co-religious Syrians). This strategy helps jettison any reasonable discussion over the issue, but is just a quick fix that does not address the real challenges involved.
Over the long run, the domestic refugee crisis will prove extremely problematic for Erdogan in two ways. First, as early reports of xenophobia suggest, not all Turkish citizens are happy about the millions of barely-documented refugees parachuting into their everyday lives. It is likely that the trend will continue, creating significant resentment against, and conflicts with, the Syrian refugees. Erdogan will have to respond in some capacity, though it is not clear how far and how long his strategy of moralizing the issue can help him contain dissent. What people of Turkey, not only anti-Erdoganists, but also those who support him right or wrong, are realizing is that the million foreigners injected to their lives are re-shaping the Turkish social and economic landscape. Erdogan will find himself increasingly challenged by this trend and will be hard-pressed to choose between populism (on which he feeds) and realpolitik of social-economic facts on the ground.
Second, there is a good chance that Erdogan will eventually grant Turkish citizenship to many Syrian refugees. The strategic logic is simple: Assuming that the new citizens will prefer to vote for Erdogan, a million or so fresh votes can solve any “close margins” that he may be worried about in the future. This is an enticing option, though it runs the risk of alienating some of his followers, not to mention some ultra-nationalists who conditionally support Erdogan. There are millions who support Erdogan, but there are also millions who vote for him because they believe he takes good care of them, especially in the economic sphere. Millions of new citizens, which means a smaller slice from the same pie at the individual level, may easily infuriate the second group.
Stuck between Ultra-Nationalists and the PKK
Erdogan has always been a pragmatist. He allied with Gulenists to pacify secularists, and then initiated the so-called “peace process” with the PKK partially to consolidate his power. When the peace process failed in 2015 (partially thanks to a strategically brilliant attack by ISIL) and Erdogan suffered an electoral loss in June 2015 elections, he then turned to ultra-nationalists to boost his popular support. The problem is that he cannot claim support from ultra-nationalists and re-initiate peace talks with the PKK. Of course, one may wonder: Why would he need the peace talks when he has the support of ultra-nationalists?
The answer has a lot to do with the Syrian civil war. The ISIL crisis has been both a mortal threat and an unprecedented boon for the PKK. Its affiliate in Syria, also known as People’s Protection Units (YPG), has succeeded in establishing itself not only as a global media sensation for stepping forward as the most reliable and effective fighting force against ISIL, but also as a close U.S. ally. These Kurdish militants are focused on Syria, where the culmination point will be the liberation of Raqqa — most likely with YPG fighters at the tip of the spear. Once the YPG wraps up its operations in Syria — presumably within the next three to six months — it will likely turn its attention (not to mention hardware and experienced fighters) to Turkey. This is a slow-motion train-wreck in the making. Erdogan is most certainly aware of it and is desperately trying to get the United States to abandon its Kurdish partners in Syria before things reach the point of no return.
This forces Erdogan into a choice. His first option is to side with ultra-nationalists and confront the PKK with full force, to include in Syria, which will prove very difficult with a broken army and air force. His second option is to restart negotiations with PKK, which will lead to a backlash not only from ultra-nationalists, but also some AKP supporters. No matter how he chooses, there will be a cost for Erdogan, not to mention the risk of political instability, possibly reaching far beyond the Kurdish-majority southeast.
That these challenges do exist does not mean Erdogan will crumble under pressure. His pragmatism knows no bounds: He would make Sun Tzu smile, and fill Machiavelli with jealousy. However, the house of cards he has built is a very fragile one. Erdogan’s final victory, in this sense, may eventually defeat him. So, what happens to Turkey if that day comes? Nothing is for certain but one fact: With the referendum, Erdogan finally broke the “old” Turkey, and it is never coming back.
Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. 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.