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Sinan Ciddi on the Current State of Turkish Democracy: Summary and Assessment

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Last Thursday March 19 Sinan Ciddi of the Georgetown Institute of Turkish Studies spoke at Boston University on “Elections and the Struggle for Political Legitimacy.”  His focus was the current state of Turkish democracy, namely how and why current President Erdogan has come to dominate all aspects of the Turkish government and the likely course of Turkish politics in the near future.   Ciddi offered some thought-provoking and timely insights into the current trajectory of AKP rule and the possible outcome of the June 7th general elections.

Erdogan’s rise to power was until recently enthusiastically supported by Western governments and, despite his increasing authoritarianism, Ciddi reminded us that a large plurality of Turks still enthusiastically support Erdogan and his party.  During the last ten years the AKP has transformed the economy and infrastructure of Turkey.  Lower class and rural Turks in particular have seen a significant, positive change in their income and access to necessary services.  Those Turks whose lives have been significantly bettered under Erdogan’s leadership are extremely loyal to his party and him personally and care little about the more abstract political issues at stake.

Ciddi characterizes President Erdogan’s efforts to convert the Turkish government into a Presidential system as “regime change.”  The change is already de facto, but it is important that it has not yet been legally established.  In other words,  though Erdogan operates as if he already the official head of the Turkish government, the office of the Presidency still retains only limited official abilities to influence legislative functions.  During the early years of AKP rule, the party and its leadership were hailed as denizens of [relatively] liberal, democratic change and shining examples of how Islam and democracy could co-exist.  Now Erdogan is daily, and not undeservedly, characterized as an aspiring dictator by the international media.

Erdogan’s seeming transformation from a committed democrat to a committed autocrat has been distressing and puzzling to many of his former Western allies, but Ciddi believes that Erdogan’s current trajectory was in many ways set before he even ascended to the office of Prime Minister.  Ciddi identifies Erdogan’s Islamist background as a significant influence in his current political vision and the instigator of his authoritarianism.  For Turkish Islamists, Kemalism and its program of modernization and Westernization serve as their political foil, and Erdogan’s current political agenda is still significantly motivated by opposition to everything the “old” Turkey represents.  Ciddi points out that though Erdogan insisted that he had accepted the secular, democratic nature of the Turkish state, he provided no proof of his reformation besides his declared conversion.  Ciddi asserts that Erdogan never reformed his beliefs and deep down still maintained a commitment to the illiberal Islamist political vision.  Ironically Erdogan is attempting to eradicate the monolithic ideologically of Kemalism, only to replace it with his own monolithic vision for a “new” Turkey.

Erdgoan’s actions are not pure motivated by political ideology however.  Ciddi believes that there are two other significant factors driving Erdogan: a desire for revenge and the need to escape criminal inquiries.  Turkey’s Islamist movements were subject to decades of political oppression and marginalization.  Erdogan’s mentor, who was also the first Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, was forced out in a virtual coup and the AKP party itself narrowly avoided being shut down by the constitutional court.  After the constitutional court case against the AKP, Erdogan set about systematically crushing or usurping the power of all the institutions that previously targeted the AKP or its predecessors, in particular the military, the judiciary and the presidency.  But Erdogan may have some even more unsavory rational for curtailing the independence of Turkey’s political institutions.  The corruption charges that were brought to light a little over two years ago were never full investigated.  While Ciddi refuses to say definitely that Erdogan, his son and his closest ministers were involved in graft, he rightfully insists that the allegations need to be fully investigated.  However, it is very clear that the investigation will never see the light of day so long as Erdogan maintains his grip on power.

Ciddi concluded his talk with general observations and predictions about political future of Turkey.  Turkish society is currently extremely polarized politically. largely thanks to Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi protests and his subsequent consolidation of power.  Though the opposition parties remain divided, unpopular and ineffective, Erdogan has been unable to crush the grassroots opposition.  The individualistic, disorganized nature of the popular opposition actually works in its favor.  Erdogan can and will continue to arrest individuals who dare to speak out against him but the lack of organization and leadership means that he will never be able to silence even a fraction of his citizen critics.  In this line, Ciddi expects that there will be social and political turbulence in Turkey for the foreseeable future.  The Gezi protests made clear that Erdogan does not know how to manage popular protest movements, and indeed they are a new phenomenon in Turkey.  Previous opposition movements were institutionally based, organized through unions and fringe political parties, and Turkish politicians have no political playbook for dealing with disorganized popular movements.  Turkey has not seen such social unrest since 1978.  At this point, “anything can happen.”

I am in general agreement with the majority of Ciddi’s analysis, with my major point of contention being the origins of Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions.  I have argued elsewhere that it is the illiberal nature of Turkish political institutions, not his Islamist roots, that set the stage for Erdogan’s consolidation of power.  Ciddi’s introduction of the idea that revenge was a motive in Erdogan’s campaigns to crush the power of the military and judiciary is an interesting one.  I don’t rule out revenge as a factor, in all probability it did play a role.  However, I still believe that the major motivating factor behind the efforts to subvert the power of the military and judiciary, not to mention Erdogan’s coveting of the presidency, was simply to consolidate and retain power.

There were several interesting points brought up during the Q&A after Ciddi’s talk.  Prescient of yesterday’s very public intra-AKP spat, Ciddi asserts that there are very real fractures within the leadership of the AKP and that the rank and file of the party are increasingly unhappy.  He attributes some of this frustration to the fact that since become president, Erdogan has closed himself off to all but his most inner circle of advisers. During his years as Prime Minister, Erdogan had a very open and even collaborative relationship with his advisers and other party members according to Ciddi.  He characterized party divisions and infighting as natural given Erdogan’s de-facto one-man rule.  Such a political system is inherently a house of cards and all those within the system are aware of its weakness.  Ciddi also posited that Davutoglu may not be the simply Erdogan puppet many are making him out to be and he may assert his independence after the upcoming election.

Regarding the most talked about component of the election, the Kurdish vote, Ciddi urges caution.  He reminded us that the HDP and its leadership have their own ideological agenda centered around Kurdish nationalism and autonomy. and predicted that even if the HDP breaks the 10% threshold and is able to seat its candidates in parliament, they may very well be induced into forming an alliance with the AKP in return for greater Kurdish regional autonomy.  Ciddi added that this would ultimately be a misguided political gamble as he believes that Erdogan in the end is not truly committed to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights and political autonomy.

I agree with Ciddi’s assessment of Erdogan’s position on this issue but would posit that the HDP leadership, and even most ordinary Kurds, are well aware that Erdogan is largely disingenuous in his efforts toward Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation.  It is like the Turkey-EU assention situation, Turkey knows that the EU will never actually allow it to join them but is unwilling to fully pull out of the assention process.  In both situations the spurned party is willing to let talks go on as there is no desire to upset the status quo and risk returning to the bad old days.  The HDP will indeed bring their own agenda if their candidates are seated in parliament, but unlike Ciddi I don’t believe they would acquiesce to being the AKP’s puppets. To become a partner in the AKP’s illiberal policy agenda would be to support policies that are likely to be disproportionally used against Kurds.  If the Kurdish party earns more than 10% of the vote, and this is still a big if, it will be a significant net positive for Turkish democracy.

Ciddi believes that the AKP will still enjoy a majority in parliament after the June 7th elections, though they will not have enough seats to pass the constitutional changes needed to create a presidential system.  As he himself confessed, Ciddi is not a fan of the AKP but he also could not envision any other current Turkish political party actually governing.  The CHP is notorious among Turks for being corrupt and inefficient and the MHP is more than happy to remain a minority opposition voice. The takeaway from Ciddi’s talk: the AKP is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Turks will sit by idly as Turkey is transformed into a one-party state.

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