Erdoğan and the Pillars of His Power – Gökhan Bacık – FREE TURKISH PRESS

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Free Turkish Press interviewed Prof Gökhan Bacık, a prominent expert on conservative movements in Turkey, about the components of the current power structure that bears Erdoğan’s signature, and what to expect from now on.

Bacik is Professor of Political Science at Palacky University in the Czech Republic. He is the author of Islam and Muslim Resistance to Modernity in Turkey (2020), Hybrid Sovereignty in the Arab Middle East: The Cases of Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan (2008), and “Contemporary Rationalist Islam in Turkey: The Religious Opposition to Sunni Revivals,” as well as numerous articles. His scholarship centers around contemporary politics of Islam and the Middle East.

FTP: As the Republic of Turkey prepares for the celebration of its 100th anniversary, how do you describe the current power structure under Erdoğan, in Ankara?

Bacik: The power configuration of Erdoğan works on two parallel planes: personalization and deinstitutionalization. Though we can speak about the institutions “surviving” formally, they constantly become less influential, and all decisions are made by Erdoğan and his close allies, mostly in informal ways. 

How has this process taken place?

There are various elements that help us to understand it. Erdoğan has ruled Turkey for about two decades. This has offered him a lot of time and opportunities to transform, dominate and personalize the bureaucracy. If the traditional Turkish bureaucracy was built on a “Kemalist core,” following the principles set by the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, today we have an “Erdoğanist bureaucracy.” 

The botched coup in July 2016 has handed over a carte blanche to Erdoğan in order to achieve this. Emboldened, he accelerated the transformation of the state apparatus. One should keep in mind, in this context, that the dramatic turning point triggered by the attempted coup was the dismissal of 125,000 public servants, including more than 5,000 judges, paving the way to a massive transformation, re-organizing critical state components, such as the judiciary and the army. 

These were the stepping stones for the referendum, several months later, in 2017, with Turkey adopting what could be dubbed an “alla Turca presidential system” —a decree regime. The referendum resulted in the peculiar insertion of a Russian-style strong presidency into the parliamentary system. It immediately weakened the traditional power constellations and diminished the role of the Turkish Parliament and its ministries.

So, the series of dramatic events, starting with Gezi protests and the so-called “17-25 December events”—which had to do with two massive graft probes involving the names of the Erdoğan family and his ministers—snowballed into a deepening crisis. Then, in the aftermath of the attempted coup, with the lengthy implementation of a state of emergency, all this steadily served to consolidate a new power structure, with Erdoğan as a focal point?

When we look at the power configuration of Erdoğan’s personalized regime, there are various pillars. The first one is his close friends and allies. No matter whether they occupy official positions or critical positions, the actors in this group play key roles in the administration. 

Hakan Fidan, who chaired the Turkish National Intelligence for 13 years, is a typical example of an “Erdoğanist elite.” Another is Hulusi Akar, who was the Chief of Staff during the failed 15 July 2015 coup attempt and emerged from the putsch as a pro-Erdoğan officer. Erdoğan later appointed him Minister of Defence, where he remained until 2023. 

The inner circle also consists of “informal members”: family members, relatives, and friends. For example, Bilal Erdoğan, Erdoğan’s son, dominates several state branches, like the Turkish Airlines (THY). Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, who served as the Minister of Finance, is still influential through informal connections. Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, is the head of Turkey’s famous drone-maker, Bayraktar Holding.

However, the “personalisation of government” has required a continuous purge even of the people within the inner circle. Some were later dismissed or purged. 

This practice engages an authoritarian principle: Appoint only those you trust, but never trust them forever. Therefore, Erdoğan’s power configuration contains the purging or reshuffling of people in his inner circle, too. For example, after he won the 2023 presidential elections, Erdoğan, appointed Hakan Fidan as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Though this is a position of prestige, his appointment to it was also a well-planned decision to “isolate” him  — Fidan, who had dominated Turkish Intelligence for 13 years is now in a highly visible ministry. 

Similarly, Erdoğan replaced Süleyman Soylu, the former Minister of Home Affairs, who was one of the most influential actors in Turkish politics since 2015. After the 2023 elections, Hulusi Akar was also replaced. 

All such changes demonstrate how Erdoğan has purged the power configuration that had made his survival possible after the failed 15 July 2016 coup. Nobody seems indispensable for Erdoğan.

There is also another element: construction of units that are independent of the traditional departments of the state. Is this correct? 

Yes. Erdoğan has created a number of commissions that work with him in his Presidential Palace. They are not extensions of ministries. For example, along with the Ministry of Health, there is also an official Health Commission at the Presidential Palace. 

As Erdoğan has a full mandate to influence the final decisions in the presidential system, it is never clear whether the commissions or ministries affect him in any decisions. The key point about Erdoğan’s political configuration is that the significance of a person’s position, or of a person, is not his official status but his relationship with Erdoğan.

A radiant example of this is Ahmed Hamdi Çamlı, Erdoğan’s driver, who later became a parliamentarian. That rule applies also to critical state units. The logic of formatting an authoritarian regime  means that Erdoğan must rule through personal and informal connections and relations. He is loyal to this logic.

But insertion of parallel  structures may very well mean weakening of the traditional ones?

True. A major instance of this is in that the traditional autonomy of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, once a respected institution worldwide, has seen a dramatic decline, as actors such as the Turkish intelligence body, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), emerged as the new shareholders in foreign policy making. 

We have seen, due to the deepening economic crisis and hiking inflation, a growing social segment falling into poverty. Yet, given the latest election victory, Erdoğan seems to have mobilized the power structures in his favor. Do you agree?

The public institutions that serve as the agents of Erdoğan’s political survival have emerged as decisively influential ones. This was made to happen by Erdoğan’s policy of securing the political loyalty of the lower classes with social assistance. That strategy transformed the Ministry of Family and Social Services into a giant body within the system. According to the official statistical institute, TUIK, more than 15 million Turkish citizens received state social assistance in 2021. 

That applies to the Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs), which plays a vital role in providing religious legitimacy to Erdoğan’s policies, from the economy to foreign policy.

You have mentioned the Russian model as a source inspiration in the Turkish transformation. How do you see the role of Turkish business circles? Has an influential portion of Turkish oligarchs emerged?

Like in Russia, Turkish authoritarianism survives though a complex web of economic relations, having produced its own oligarchs. These businessmen and their companies are the standard winners of state tenders.

Five big companies –-named by the public as ‘beşli çete,’ (the gang of five)– virtually dominate the state tenders. Practically, these Turkish oligarchs are Erdoğan’s key means of transforming and ruling various fields, such as the media. Erdoğan dominates and controls the media through such companies. As expected, those companies enjoy a de facto judicial and accounting immunity.

What about the secular segments? Does Erdoğan pursue a hostile, or discriminative policy to it?

Not really. Look, I see two counter-dynamics that Erdoğan considers as part of protecting his image at home and abroad. First, the international perceptions, because Turkey is in a continuous state of economic crisis. Second, the domestic reality: Roughly half of the population is represented by the opposition parties. Keep in mind that the opposition candidate got 48 percent of the votes in the 2023 Presidential Elections.

This means brinkmanship. Erdoğan pursues a cautious strategy of employing seculars, mostly as a balancing, but more importantly as a legitimacy-building, strategy. 

A most recent case is the appointment of Hafize Gaye Erkan, a secular banker with American experience. The Financial Times cited Enver Erkan, a chief economist of a Turkish broker company, commenting on the appointment: ‘the message received, and the expectations formed so far, point to a strong signal of policy transition’ in Turkey. Although such comments may be naïve, given the experience of 22 years of Erdogan’s rule, they nonetheless justify the authoritarian regime: Erdoğan’s strategy works effectively.

This strategy also applies to journalists and intellectuals. For example, Metin Feyzioğlu, a Kemalist lawyer and former head of the Union of the Turkish Bar Associations, first appeared as the prospective secular leader of the opposition against Erdoğan. He was even seen as the future leader of the main-opposition, the Kemalist CHP. However, later, Feyzioğlu has shifted position from Erdoğan opposition to Erdoğan supporter. 

The President in exchange rewarded Feyzioğlu by appointing him as Turkey’s ambassador to Northern Cyprus—a critical post in shaping Turkish foreign policy. 

Another political figure in this sense is Ilnur Çevik, a veteran secular journalist. He was appointed in 2016 as the chief advisor to Erdoğan, and as a member of the Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Council. Founder and a former Editor of Turkish Daily News, he has turned pro-Erdoğan and worked in pro-regime media outlets for years. 

Some figures in Turkey’s academia and the literary sector also support Erdoğan. They are Atilla Yayla, a social scientist known for his works on liberalism. Alev Alatlı, Western-educated philosopher and author, are only some of those pro-Erdoğan secular thinkers who produce consent and legitimacy for the regime through their writings.

What about the role of organized crime structures? 

Well, historically, the Turkish state has retained an interactivity patterns with the mafia. It would not be an exaggeration to imagine Turkey’s Ministry for Internal Affairs as the public institute that manages this relationship. State relations with the mafia in Turkey is a natural result of authoritarianism and corruption. However, it should be remembered that this is also part of the Ottoman legacy. 

There is a comparatively tolerant public view of the mafia, in a sense, that Turkey has an established public understanding that somewhat legitimises the mafia, even to the point of seeing it as a requirement in Turkey’s fight against various enemies. Behind such public opinion is the historical fact that Turkey has used various mafia elements, as well as paramilitary groups in, for example, the fight against the PKK.

There is a remarkable resurgence of the mafia in Turkey in the recent period. Ironically, Erdoğan’s alliance with the ultra-right nationalist party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) seems to have facilitated this. 

As no party is able to secure the required number of votes to form a parliamentary majority, this has forced Erdoğan to make an alliance with the MHP, a party known to have close ties with the nationalist mafia groups. It is thanks to the MHP that Erdoğan was elected, and kept its majority in Parliament.

However, this transformed the MHP into a party with veto power. As part of that, the MHP-linked mafia groups’ influence has risen visibly. Several publicly known mafia leaders who have connections with the  MHP were recently released from prison by the courts. Alaattin Çakıcı, a leading figure of the Turkish mafia, who was photographed with Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, walking arm in arm is an example.

What about the paramilitary groups, which were debated especially in the election campaign?

This is a more critical subject. The government is supporting the creation of various paramilitary groups, the most important being SADAT, founded by Adnan Tanriverdi, a retired general and former advisor of Erdogan. In 2018, Meral Akşener, the leader of the İyi Parti (Good Party), claimed that SADAT provides military training to its members in various Central Anatolian provinces like Tokat and Konya. In June 2021, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), laid a motion of a parliamentary inquiry on SADAT, claiming that SADAT trains people in the production of bombs, and in guerrilla warfare. A former SADAT member was arrested in Paris for organising an attack to the Kurdish Centre. 

According to Prof Hamit Bozarslan, the leading expert on the relationship of the state and the mafia in Turkey, the regime has transformed itself into a cartel state, along with informal paramilitary groups like SADAT, and others. 

Suat Çubukçu, who analysed SADAT in Small War Journals, writes that ‘SADAT, a private security and consulting company, is the most notorious armed group that functions as a paramilitary force for Erdoğan,’ and has reportedly trained about 3,000 foreign fighters and other militants operating in Syria and Libya. And it has received a grant from the Turkish government to do this’.

Turkey has used various informal paramilitary groups before in the fight against the PKK. The most notorious of them was the Turkish Hezbollah, which played the key role in the assassinations of leading Kurdish figures in Southeastern Turkey in the early 1990s. The Turkish Hezbollah is a radical Islamist party, that has no connection with the Lebanese Hezbollah. 

The Turkish Hezbollah, recognized as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government in the late 1990s, has now become Erdoğan’s ally. 

Three figures in the leadership of the Turkish Hezbollah —now renamed ‘HÜDA-PAR’— were elected to Parliament in the recent 2023 elections on Erdoğan’s AKP tickets. The rapprochement between Erdoğan and Hezbollah is particularly informative on which policies Erdoğan is likely to pursue vis-à-vis the Kurdish question.

What do all of these factors you have mentioned mean for the Republic of Turkey in 2023, preparing for its 100th anniversary?

What the two decades long rule of Erdoğan symbolises today is an erosion of the modern state. The most visible signs of this are the crises in institutions. A personalistic rule replaces institutional autonomy. However, despite authoritarianism and complex economic problems, Erdoğan won the 2023 elections. Unless there is a surprise, like his allies, such as the MHP, abandon him, or unless there is an apocalyptic economic crisis, Erdoğan is likely to pursue and conclude the consolidation of his personalistic rule. 

So it is very likely that we shall be discussing the birth of a “presidential monarchy” in Turkey, like that of Azerbaijan. It would be another naïve to believe that the power elites which Erdoğan’s rule has generated would be willing to abandon their political and economic privileges.

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