Erdoğan’s gain but the AKP’s loss?
On June 24, Turkey had its first elections after the 2017 referendum, which had changed the political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Turkish citizens voted for both their new president and members of parliament. The elections brought another victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, allowing him to further tighten his grip on power. Not only did he secure himself another term, after already being in power for 16 years, his new position granted him even more powers than his previous posts, as prime minister (2002-2014) and president (2014-2018).
Thus, Erdoğan is clearly a winner of the 2018 elections. But what about his Justice and Development Party (AKP)? As election results showed, Erdoğan’s votes (52 percent) are significantly higher than the AKP’s (42 percent), and without Erdoğan, the party’s votes would probably be even lower. Since presidential and parliamentary elections were held simultaneously this time, they allowed gauging of how much parties in Turkey could stand on their own. The AKP turns out to be quite dependent on its leader Erdoğan. While many AKP supporters view Erdoğan’s role as a clear contribution to their cause, his omnipotence also creates a vulnerability and weakens the AKP’s chance to last longer than its leader.
A charismatic leader is clearly important at earlier stages of movement formation. It allows the mobilization of masses and adding new supporters to the group. But once a movement finds the opportunity to become institutionalized, such as in the form of a party, then the expectation is that the institution takes a life of its own and eventually becomes independent of its founders.
Yet, 17 years after its foundation, the AKP seems too vulnerable to stand on its own, without Erdoğan. Other founding figures of the party have long left and no new party elites exist other than the leader. The party also seems to lack cohesion at the grassroots level as members are connected to their party through individual links to their leader, without strong ties among each other.
If staying in power is the main goal of AKP members, dependence on Erdoğan is not a problem. But if they wish for their original goals—such as promoting a Muslim democracy or globalist Islam—to survive their leader, then they face a problem.
How generalizable is this problem in Turkey? Is leader-dependency a broader feature of Turkish politics?
While there are some institutions and parties in Turkey who are deeper rooted than their current leaders, such as the CHP, overall there is a widely shared belief among Turkish citizens that they need a strong leader. According to the World Values Survey (Wave 6), about 50 percent of the Turkish population go as far as to agree “having a strong leader who does not need to bother with parliament and elections” is “good” (17.2 percent find it “very good,” 32.6 percent “fairly good”). In fact, that Turkey needs a strong leader was the AKP’s slogan in the 2018 elections. Yet, students of politics may feel different about “strong” leaders.
Political studies highlight that advanced political systems need stronger institutions rather than stronger leaders. According to Weber, a founding figure of political sociology, authority based on charismatic leadership is less advanced than authority based on institutions and laws. In developed political systems, authority relies on a rational, continuous, and impartial legal system strong enough to survive any leader. The nation’s fate is secured by the rule of law and it is only marginally affected by the charisma of its leaders.
Thus, Turkey’s election results present both good and bad news for AKP supporters or for Turkish citizens for that matter. Voters may find a “strong” leader comes in handy during times of crisis. But living in crisis mode over extended periods of time is becoming too costly for Turkish society. Normalization requires restoration of trust in Turkish institutions and bureaucracy, rather than depending on the agency of political leaders.