Symphony of Destruction: How the AKP Is Undermining Turkey’s Institutions
All the critics are wrong. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party, Turkey has never been better. In fact, it continues to improve! The economy is thriving, and is projected to become one of the top 10 in the world by 2023, which is not only the centennial of the Republic of Turkey but also an election year. Don’t listen to the doomsayers: Almost all households in Turkey (and their doormen) have a car of their own. The economy is so good that people can’t find enough cars to buy. While Western countries from France to Germany, from the United States to the United Kingdom, are struggling with shortages, Turkey passed the pandemic test with flying colors — in fact, it set a model of success for the rest of the world. A “world leader” himself, Erdoğan’s strong and ethical leadership has garnered admiration in the eyes of the oppressed, and drawn jealousy and fear from the oppressors. Things are not good — they are great, all thanks to Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (popularly known by its Turkish acronym, AKP).
Tune into the (AKP-controlled) mainstream media in Turkey, and you will immediately be exposed to these narratives. “Narrative” is the operative word here. In reality, as almost all Turkey-watchers would agree, Erdoğan and the AKP are at a crossroads seemingly not of their own choosing, and most certainly not of their liking. The AKP can no longer deliver as it did in the past and is increasingly proving itself to be borderline incompetent across a range of activities, from providing basic public goods to handling the refugee crisis and managing a modern economy.
This is not the first time that the AKP has hit a rough patch. In the past, it could make it through troubled times with audacity, determination, and intimidation. But this formula isn’t working today, not least because it is unclear if Erdoğan knows where he wants to go. For example, he may wait until 2023 for general elections, when they are currently scheduled. Alternatively, he may press the button for early elections tomorrow. No one really knows, which is nothing new. What is new is that the AKP is acting as if it doesn’t know either.
How did we get here? Where do we go from here? The answer to the first question entails a paradox. In order to rise to the top and make sure it stayed there, the AKP “hollowed out” Turkey’s institutions, from the bureaucracy and the judiciary to the central bank and the national media. The AKP has succeeded in cementing its hegemonic status in Turkish politics, but at the cost of undermining the very same institutions through which it is supposed to govern. The result is an institutional decay that is gradually but surely transforming the Turkish political landscape.
The second question is much harder to answer. In order to reverse — or at least slow down — its decline, the AKP is increasingly focusing on creating an alternative reality of some sort for its core constituents. It is thereby, and rather ironically, institutionalizing the existing polarization and societal tensions in the country. The result is a “clash of realities” that is bound to tear apart the very fabric of Turkish society. Whether Turkey can pull out of this spiral is an open question. If it cannot, darker days are ahead.
This Time It’s Different
“New directions in Turkish politics” is a catchphrase probably as old as the first English-language commentary ever published on modern Turkey. What is special now? The AKP has long relied on three key mechanisms to sustain its position as a “unipole” in Turkish politics, and these mechanisms no longer seem to be working. This dysfunction emboldens the opposition while weakening the AKP.
The first part of the AKP’s strategy is the provision of public goods, enough to keep most of the public content, if not ecstatic. Most notably, the AKP went to great lengths to provide social welfare benefits to middle- and low-income families, while also revitalizing the healthcare system. This dynamic, usually lost in conventional debates over “culture wars,” “identity politics,” and “secularists versus Islamists,” has long played an important role in allowing the AKP to cement its relationship with its core constituents.
However, due to a declining economy and poor governance (which are closely related), the AKP has become incapable of providing these benefits. More importantly, its failings in governance have now become too visible to either ignore or deny. First and foremost, Turkey is bedeviled by economic problems, with no apparent recovery on the horizon. The Turkish lira has lost almost half of its value in the span of three years. While the economy is still growing, rising prices are affecting middle- and low-income households significantly. “Escaping” (migrating) to Europe has become a dream for countless youth, who see no real future for themselves in Turkey.
The COVID-19 pandemic also hit the country hard, and the AKP failed to provide the kinds of subsidies and funds that many Western governments provided to their citizens for relief. Furthermore, the AKP even faltered in an area where it was supposed to be strongest: healthcare. Turkey’s healthcare system is one of its core strengths, and probably one of the ruling party’s biggest accomplishments. When it came to vaccinations for COVID-19, however, the government put all its eggs in one basket: China’s Sinovac vaccine. The promised vaccine did not show up in sufficient numbers, leading to a crisis. Facing criticism, the minister of health declared in May that 100 million Sinovac vaccines were on their way. However, the government then abruptly turned to BioNTech in June and rapidly vaccinated a substantial proportion of the population. Still, the botched Sinovac episode cost Turkey some critical months, and what happened remains a mystery.
This summer’s wildfires in the forests along the Aegean coast offer yet another example of failure. The public learned that Turkey lacked sufficient working firefighting aircraft. It turned out that the government had chosen to allow its existing aircraft to rot in their hangars while outsourcing the relevant services to private purveyors, whose assistance was neither satisfactory nor timely. This obvious failure created a public outcry. The AKP responded as it always does, announcing that its management of the disaster was nothing but superb, and that those who criticized the government were in fact harboring malign and shady intentions.
Perhaps the single biggest problem facing the AKP in terms of domestic support is the refugee crisis. Estimates differ, but most concur that Turkey now hosts somewhere between four and seven million refugees, primarily from Syria. This influx has created many societal tensions in the country. The government’s refugee policy also lacks institutional transparency and attracts considerable criticism from the party’s own base, making it one area where, arguably, the AKP’s infallibility narrative has very limited mileage — even for the party’s staunchest proponents.
The second leg of the AKP’s strategy of domination involves Erdoğan himself. His antics may appear repulsive to his domestic and foreign critics, but that is largely irrelevant. Like it or not, Erdoğan holds a special appeal for his followers. This special “bond” has allowed Erdoğan to signal strength, willpower, and determination in times of crises. A master orator, his discourses and behavior have spoken directly to the hearts and minds of his core supporters.
However, especially in the last couple of years, he looks less like the Erdoğan of the past. Some have argued that his health and mental capacity are rapidly declining. Such rumors have long been in circulation and cannot yet be verified — but still, something about him is off. Recently, he has taken some measures that appear rather odd, particularly if his intent is to launch a charm offensive. For example, the president has developed a habit of throwing bags of Turkish tea on unsuspecting crowds at random occasions. The criticism peaked when he was seen doing so from his bus during his summer visit to the fire-hit Aegean region. It isn’t clear why he distributes tea in this way, and obviously no-one on his team has had the courage to tell him that even some of his core supporters are not very enthusiastic about the practice.
Furthermore, Erdoğan has also engaged in certain public stunts that do not necessarily speak to his strengths (to say the least). For instance, he recently went on live television, singing with a choir of youngsters. On paper, such actions might show that he is still in touch with the country’s youth. In practice, however, a televised concert showing Erdoğan singing lethargically in front of a less-than-enthusiastic crowd only signals how far he and his team have strayed from their core constituents.
The third part of the AKP’s strategy involves efforts to keep the opposition divided. The logic is straightforward: The AKP can still claim the single largest voter bloc. As long as the opposition does not unite, the AKP can preserve its status as a unipole. However, the old tricks do not work as well anymore, especially after recent public policy failures and with Erdoğan’s image as a declining leader. Most notably, in the municipal elections of 2019 the AKP lost its quarter-century-long hold on Turkey’s two major cities, Istanbul and Ankara. In a parallel universe where the AKP could actually engage in self-critique, these electoral losses might have served as a wake-up call. Instead, the AKP responded by challenging the Istanbul elections, claiming that the opposition had somehow cheated. The elections were repeated, and the AKP suffered a crushing and humiliating defeat at the hands of Ekrem Imamoglu, now the mayor of Istanbul.
What happened in Istanbul did not stay in Istanbul. Their victories in the municipal elections only encouraged the main opposition parties to cooperate even further. In addition, more and more political and social actors are now speaking out against the AKP despite their full knowledge that the government can target them for retribution. The result is a snowball effect: Allegations of corruption and nepotism are skyrocketing, and each act of defiance encourages the next.
The AKP still tries to silence its critics through various measures, but in doing so it delves deeper and deeper into a confusing narrative. The AKP presents itself as the best thing to happen to humanity since sliced bread. Turkey’s problems follow not from the AKP’s failings, but from its stunning victories. More precisely, foreign powers are attacking Turkey (so the story goes) simply because the government has done such a marvelous job at making Turkey great again, triggering jealousy and fear in the Western world. For Turkey to survive this attack, the AKP is the country’s only hope, and if someone fails to see this irrefutable fact, they must be pawns of foreign interlopers. These narratives are still influential among the AKP’s core supporters. However, for the opposition, they are merely sweet nothings that the party whispers into the ear of a weakening electoral base.
Increasingly, the AKP acts as if it has given up the idea of fixing real problems and instead hopes to create an alternate universe for its core constituents. For example, the AKP appears as if it is battling the criticism that points out the existence of economic troubles in Turkey instead of addressing the economic troubles themselves. In this scenario, the main problem becomes not the economy per se, but those who blame the government for the state of the economy. Recently, for example, the government accused a number of supermarket chains of artificially inflating prices and then slammed them with fines totaling $300 million. This act speaks volumes about how the government is — or rather, isn’t — dealing with the economic problems of the country. According to the government, there is no problem to speak of — and if there were, the party that has ruled for two decades would be the last actor responsible for them.
Of course, none of this is particularly new. What is new, however, is that the AKP now looks as if it has made managing the perceptions of its core constituents a key — perhaps even the key — priority. This signals the utmost desperation. As reality proves too difficult to deal with, the AKP opts instead to create an alternate reality of its own.
Overall, Turkish politics is undergoing yet another “great transformation.” However, the transformation itself is not akin to an earthquake — that is, a massive, instant, and discrete event that changes the landscape in a single stroke. Instead, it is more like the melting of the ice caps, triggered by a series of long-term trends and occurring gradually. In the case of Turkey circa 2021, the main underlying cause is institutional decay.
Victory Is Defeating the AKP
The present situation is in fact the story of a paradox inherent within the AKP’s strategy of domination. From its early years, the AKP believed that the existing personnel in the country’s leading institutions did not share the party’s “vision” of government. Hence, in order to rise to the top and stay there as long as possible, the AKP hollowed out Turkey’s institutions. It did a stunning job, increasingly displaying a preference for loyalty over merit and filling the country’s institutions with those whose abilities were overshadowed by their devotion to the party — to put it mildly.
In addition, Turkey’s new and controversial presidential system linked the country’s entire political system to one human being, with two important consequences. First, when Erdoğan sneezes, the entire country catches a cold. In other words, tying all important decisions to the president leaves the country at the mercy of one individual. Plus, having surrounded himself with “yes men,” Erdoğan is unlikely to hear even constructive criticism from his minions — a dynamic that only perpetuates the cycle.
Second, the “personalized” nature of Erdoğan’s rule has turned out to be contagious within the AKP ranks. Countless corruption allegations and the AKP’s barely hidden penchant for nepotism paint an interesting, if not necessarily surprising, picture: So-called patronage networks have taken over most institutions, ranging from various bureaucracies to the national Wushu federation. Of course, this observation does not implicate everyone affiliated with the AKP. Still, the AKP’s patronage networks have become too visible and salient for anyone to claim that they don’t exist in the first place.
The AKP is being defeated by its own victory. Over the last two decades, the party has proven itself to be a master at breaking existing institutions and norms. However, when it comes to building (or rebuilding) institutions — which is not to be mistaken for building roads and bridges — the AKP has failed, partially due its overwhelming success at breaking the very institutions it aimed to control in the first place. Paradoxically, as the AKP reaches the peak of its institutional control, it also weakens as a political actor. Perhaps the AKP broke Turkey’s institutions a little too much.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The dominant inclination within Turkey’s opposition is rather optimistic: that the AKP is going away. This sentiment, however, leaves out two key dynamics. First, the AKP is not merely a collection of politicians operating in a societal vacuum. It is also a political movement that can still claim the unyielding support of tens of millions of Turkish citizens. The AKP is well aware of this support and is banking on it to prolong its reign. In fact, the AKP’s strategic communications machine has long invested in constructing an alternate reality for its constituents, wherein the AKP under Erdoğan is Turkey’s only hope in the face of threats emanating from foreign powers. Given this scenario, the party and Erdoğan must be defended at all costs.
Second, it would be a mistake to underestimate the AKP. The AKP is not “out” yet — it is not even down for the count. Instead, the party circa 2021 is like an aging professional boxer whose past bad habits are finally catching up with him. The party looks tired, confused, disoriented, and angry, which makes it easier for political rivals to land blow after blow. Still, the AKP has long proven itself to be a rather flexible and nimble political actor, with a certain talent for thinking (and acting) outside the box. That Turkey’s institutions have been gutted may weaken the AKP in conventional politics, but the situation also makes it possible for the AKP to react in unexpected and unconventional ways.
A most important dynamic to watch for will be the clash of realities. Pro-AKP segments of society and the anti-AKP opposition are looking at the same country, but they see two different Turkeys. To the AKP’s critics, Turkey is in freefall in almost all relevant domains, and the AKP — now almost a synonym for corruption, nepotism, and incompetence — is responsible for all of Turkey’s ailments. The AKP’s staunchest supporters, though, maintain that Turkey has never been better, stronger, and more democratic, and even questioning this can be seen as direct evidence of treachery. When AKP leaders speak, the party’s core constituents hear Mehter, or the traditional songs of the Ottoman military band, signaling that Turkey’s glorious past is now finally meeting its glorious future. Listening to the same speeches, the AKP’s discontents hear only a symphony of destruction. These two realities may co-exist for a while but, paradoxically, as long as they do even a modicum of societal and political reconciliation will be out of reach — with or without the AKP.
Turkish politics have always been complicated. It may be difficult to offer detailed predictions about Turkey’s future, but one thing is certain. The weaker the AKP gets in domestic politics and the more visible its governance failures become, the more it will push its Manichean narrative of the opposition as an ungrateful and potentially seditious group that does not belong with the nation. This will further ossify the existing clash of realities. Unless Turkish politicians and citizens — regardless of their political convictions — address this slow-burning problem, it is bound to create significant political and social tensions down the road.
As for those watching Turkey from afar, this may be the best time to wake up and smell the coffee. Just like Turkish coffee itself, the coming transformation may be sour. We may all need to update our existing assumptions about how Turkish politics really work to embrace the coming transformation and better understand it.
Burak Kadercan is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. 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.