How strong/weak is President Erdogan?

It seems that one year after the failed coup President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s positions is very strong and he dominates the political scene. Does he have any real political weakness or what it could be? Read few comments.

Turkey’s President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: https://www.tccb.gov.tr

Michael WuthrichAssistant Professor, Political Science, University of Kansas

It is true that Erdogan has consolidated all of the formal divisions of power in the Turkish political system under his authority. In this sense, he couldn’t be any stronger than he is right now. But, for both the pessimist and optimist camp, it is impossibly hard to gauge what forces might bring about his removal from the pinnacle of power. As Timur Kuran’s works have shown us, civic or revolutionary backlash is hard to predict because, especially in authoritarian contexts, people hide their preferences in public. We already know from various elections, that Erdogan’s support, though it is real and vibrant, only encapsulates about half of the public. But, we don’t have to even focus on the opposition to Erdogan, which—the Justice March aside—has consistently shown us, and Erdogan, its fragmentation and weaknesses. If we depend on opposition parties or civil opposition alone, the prospects of a change in leadership are slim as Erdogan has always found a way to work around and divide these groups. But, in a society that has established democratic and multiparty elections since 1950, the costs of Erdogan’s maneuver to acquire the power he currently holds over all political institutions has created a lot of uncertain “wild cards,” so to speak. The trust that it takes to bend all the democratic institutions into authoritarian ones creates the potential for resentment among erstwhile ideological allies who have embedded potential to create problems. This is part of the reason why Erdogan seems increasingly paranoid. The cost of the political power that he has gathered to himself has translated to the loss of ties to almost all the of co-founders of his political movement. His demeaning manipulation of the judiciary and its legal processes and the inability of capable judges and prosecutors to do the real work for which they were trained, his depletion of Turkish bureaucracy and, very significantly, the military, has only ensured that Turkey will run less effectively, and that the line of command (and blame) in this ineffective governance leads only to him. The Orwellian resort to Gulen as an excuse for every problem or failure of the government and for every incarceration of a critical voice has been greatly reduced by excessive use.

None of this means that Erdogan is necessarily in danger of losing his hard fought position of power. When Ataturk used authoritative means to consolidate his leadership of the young Republic, he also had to turn most of his co-founders into enemies and confronted subversive opposition within the political apparatus, and he remained on top. There are two important differences, however. Ataturk had fairly unyielding loyalty from the military as an institution. He was a national hero who came from their ranks and operated from their cultural worldview. That is not the case for Erdogan. Although he has effectively removed any vestiges of the pro-Gulen elements in the military, along with the faction of the military that were identified as being pro-West—i.e. generally supportive of the US, the EU, and NATO—but to do this, he had to make an alliance with the ultra-secular nationalist elements in the military, who tend to have Eurasian—i.e. Russia, Central Asia, and China—sympathies. This alliance has to be seen as very tentative, and an important question is whether or not Erdogan will be able to recruit the “right kind” of new officers and create a new institutional culture in the military in time to offset the danger of the current shaky alliance. The second important difference is that Turkey in 2017 is not the Turkey of the 1920s. As a leader trying to hold on to authoritarian power, Erdogan not only has to balance the potential dangers within political institutions and political allies who might revolt, he is far more beholden to a population of citizens who believe that they have a right to participate in determining who leads them, and who have been brought up in a legacy of democratic traditions. He has a far greater obligation to manufacture popular support and macro-manage the output of a myriad of media news outlets than the national founder did. In this sense, we can say that, while we cannot be certain about any of Erdogan’s potential political weaknesses, Erdogan is aware of all of these potential threats, and this uncertainty itself is what undoubtedly keeps him awake at night and drive the aggressive behavior we are seeing from him in current days.

Howard Eissenstat, Associate Professor, St. Lawrence University, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Erdogan continues to dominate the political scene.  He is a very savvy politician and is extremely charismatic.  There are many Turkish citizens who would literally lay down their lives for him.  The purge has only intensified his bond with this group.

That said, despite the expansion of powers he won in the April Referendum, and the remarkable expansion of control he has gained over state institutions through the purge, Erdogan remains vulnerable.  The breakdown of institutions and narrowing of public discourse increases the dangers of a coup or civil unrest sparked by desperation.  Moreover, half the country remains opposed to him.  He can force their silence through force, but in doing so he only undermines his own democratic credentials.  For a man who believes himself to be a democrat this is important.  And even many in his own Justice and Development Party (AKP), though they might accept him as an authoritarian populist, will not accept him as a dictator.

Özgür ÜnlühisarcikliAnkara Office Director, German Marshall Fund of the United States

I think the main challenge for President Erdoğan has always been and still is the polarization in the country. Ironically polarization makes it easier for President Erdoğan to consolidate his power base, but it also makes the country less governable.

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