What is going to happen to Turkey now?
The elections of Nov. 1 put a definitive end to the question some were asking lately, and perhaps a bit wishfully: Is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the beginning of the end? No, said the ballots. AKP rule is here to stay. At least for four more years, and probably until 2023, the centennial of the republic, if not even beyond.
Yet speaking of “AKP rule” is perhaps not exactly accurate. One should rather say, “Erdoğan rule.” For it is really one single person, President Tayyip Erdoğan, who masters Turkey now and who is only likely to put his mark even more definitively on the country in the years ahead. Other actors in the AKP have legitimacy as long as they prove to be loyal and respectful to Erdoğan. If they openly disagree with him, they somehow find themselves out of the game.
The elections of Nov. 1 will only deepen this cult of personality, for the victory is seen in the AKP as yet another manifestation of the political genius of the great leader. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will keep his seat as the official leader of the party. But it is hard to expect him to open a whole new political path that is independent of, let alone contrary to, the vision of Erdoğan.
In fact, the very seat of the prime ministry could disappear, or at least become much less important, if President Erdoğan realizes his golden dream: A whole new constitution with a “presidential system.” As we have seen from the drafts shared by AKP legalists so far, this will probably be the strongest presidency in the democratic world, where an all-powerful president will have total control over the executive, and have a very strong grip on the legislative and the judiciary as well. If this presidency comes to life, it will be an example of “unification of powers” that Atatürk defended and realized in his time – instead of the principle of “separation of powers” that has been known as the basis of liberal democracy since Montesquieu.
To these already immense powers of the would-be president, one should add the control of all Turkish universities, which are all under the thumb of the bizarre “Higher Education Board” (YÖK), which is already tied to the president. (When this board was under the control of secular Kemalists, the AKP was in favor of abolishing it. Once they got it, they liked it. More recently they even gave it the power to take over universities that “act as sources of anti-state activities”.) Add to this the ever-growing control of the Turkish media by the powers that be, and you will get a political scene which would be defined by most liberal analysts as “authoritarian.”
But it is futile to try to criticize the new ruling elite – the president and his men – for authoritarianism. Since the president and his party are elected in free elections, they would say, they cannot be authoritarian, and those who say so are only “insulting” the president. They seem incapable or unwilling to understand that how you come to power and how you behave in power are two different matters. And even if some of them admit authoritarianism, they would say that this is what “the nation” wants – the nation being their own electorate.
So to the question in the headline: “What is going to happen to Turkey now?” My answer is that Turkey will go through an interesting experiment of elected authoritarianism, or “illiberal democracy,” perhaps the most interesting case in the early 21st century. I am not terribly optimistic about its outcomes. But I will only be glad if I prove to be unnecessarily pessimistic.