The making of a Sultan: the rise of Erdogan

The rise of Turkey’s Erdogan to absolute power is a classic example of the crisis democracies face today

March 20, 2017 12:04 am | Updated 12:36 am IST

Turkey’s political system will undergo drastic changes if its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, manages to get the support of a majority of the electorate for his constitutional amendment plans in the April 16 referendum.


The proposal, already approved by Turkish Parliament — which is dominated by his AK Party — seeks to turn the country’s parliamentary model into an executive presidency. The President, in this case Mr. Erdogan, would be the head of the government, the state and the ruling party. He will have the powers to appoint cabinet ministers and senior officials without Parliament’s nod. The post of the Prime Minister, currently the most powerful government position in theory, will be abolished. He could also appoint more than half the members of the nation’s highest judicial body, dissolve the national assembly and impose a state of emergency. The amendments will also guarantee two five-year terms for the President. Provided the changes come into force with the 2019 presidential election, Mr. Erdogan could rule Turkey until 2029, with powers perhaps no leader in the post-Sultanate Turkey has enjoyed so far, other than Kemal Ataturk.

Consolidating power

The rise of Mr. Erdogan, to power and then absolute power, with popular support, is a textbook case for the crisis electoral democracies face in the 21st century. His AK Party is a relatively new phenomenon in Turkey’s tumultuous politics that has historically been dominated by the military and traditional political parties. The party, which presented itself as a conservative, political force with a liberal economic outlook, promised stability and development to a people getting increasingly disillusioned with the establishment. After a year of its founding, the AKP came to power with a resounding majority in the 2002 parliamentary election. In 2003, after overcoming a legal hurdle, Mr. Erdogan became Prime Minister, and since then has not let his grip on Turkey loosen.


Mr. Erdogan is fundamentally an Islamist who often invokes Turkey’s Islamist past and despises its modern secular values. Initially, he chose to go slow, focussing on pro-market reforms that have accelerated Turkey’s economic growth and also in creating a new middle class who became loyal supporters of the AK Party in urban centres. The party also established a strong connect with the rural masses through its Islamist rhetoric. In a country where secularism was enforced by the military and political elite, the AKP’s positions broke with the establishment. The tension between the old Kemalist order, the guardian of Turkish secularism, and the neo-Islamism of the AK Party has always been in the air during Mr. Erdogan’s reign. But unlike most dictators, he didn’t go for an immediate radical overhaul of the system. Instead, he worked largely from within his constitutional limits, though often trying to expand those limits. He did not abandon the original goal of changing the Turkish polity, but was ready to wait, often influencing the political narrative through gradual interventions. Successive election victories solidified the party’s position in Turkey’s politics, which allowed him to purge the powerful military of his critics. In 2014, he awarded himself the country’s presidency as he finished three terms as an AK Party deputy in Parliament, an internal limit set by the party which Mr. Erdogan himself had long publicly championed. And now the game to make him the executive president is entering the finals.

A fading moderation

His mask of moderation was off after the initial years in office. Mr. Erdogan started publicly supporting the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood type after the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and had even altered his foreign policy to align Turkey in what he and many Brotherhood thinkers expected would be a new Islamist order in West Asia, and which never came. At home, his administration became increasingly repressive and his ambitions for more powers were hardly a secret.

Mr. Erdogan and his supporters had started the debate on changing the Constitution in 2011, as they knew the rulebook remained the biggest obstacle in their plans to build a new Turkey. But still Mr. Edrogan wanted an excuse to launch an all-out war against Turkish democracy. The failed coup of 2016 offered him just that. He grabbed the opportunity and drove a “me-versus-them” narrative, unleashing a purge not seen in Turkey’s recent history. Since then, over 1,30,000 government officials, including security personnel and judges, have been arrested, suspended or dismissed on charges that they were part of the coup bid. Most media houses have been brought under the government’s direct or indirect control. Over 100 journalists are in prison. The military is demoralised and the opposition has disintegrated. It is in this context that Turkish citizens are voting in the April referendum.

Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, once warned of Mr. Erdogan’s plans for executive presidency as a recipe “for a Sultanate without a throne”. The irony is that even Mr. Bahceli is now supporting the constitutional amendments to create that Sultanate — which will not only undermine the Turkish democracy but also set an example for the many other rising exclusivist nationalists elsewhere on how to topple the system from within.


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