The End of the President Erdogan’s AKP Era in Turkey? – Part I

Lambert here: AKP stands for Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi in Turkish, which translates to Justice and Freedom Party. I admit that I don’t know much about Turkey’s domestic politics — which is why we’re very glad to have this very timely post — but Erdogan’s newly built palace (images here) seems like a fine operational definition of “wretched excess”; Erdogan’s making that Ukrainian dude with the private zoo in his palace, Viktor Yanukovych, look like a mendicant monk.

By T. Sabri Öncü (, an economist based in Istanbul, Turkey.

The worst terrorist attack in the history of the Republic of Turkey took place on October 10, 2015 in Ankara. The Ankara massacre. Two suicide bombers killed 102 of the participants in a Peace and Democracy rally and hundreds were wounded.

Why did this happen?

To give some answers, let us go back to 2002.

Turkey’s ruling Sunni Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), took power in 2002. From 2002 until 2015, it had won four general elections in a row and secured enough seats in the national assembly to form a single party government in the first three.

Although the AKP won about 50% of the votes in the third of these elections that happened in 2011, it has been in decline since then. And, in the last general election that took place on June 7, 2015, it failed to secure enough seats to form the government on its own. However, the AKP is still the ruling party, at least practically, because it is the only party in the caretaker government until the coming “repeat” election on November 1. The other parties either refused to join the interim government or left it after a while.

A milestone between the 2011 and 2015 general elections was the presidential election of August 10, 2014. Despite the ongoing decline of the AKP, its leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won 51.8% of the vote in the first round to become the first elected Turkish President. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) received 38.4% whereas Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the mainly Kurdish nationalist People’s Democracy Party (HDP), received 9.8%.

However, this election was of very low turnout by Turkish standards, essentially because İhsanoğlu is a known Islamist also. When a devotedly secularist section of the CHP voters resented İhsanoğlu and boycotted the election, the participation turned out to be a measly 74%. This was the lowest turnout since the coup d’état of 1980; even lower than the 79% turnout of the 2002 election that took place after a major economic collapse in 2001.

But the main event of this presidential election was the 9.8% vote the HDP candidate Demirtaş received. The 10% national threshold imposed by the 1980 military junta has been in place since the 1983 general election and no Kurdish party had ever been able to cross that threshold until June 7, 2015.

Indeed, in the 2002 election, that is, when the AKP took power, only three parties (AKP, CHP and MHP) managed to cross the threshold. With the 2007 election, a fourth party started to appear in the national assembly because the Kurdish parties and their leftist allies managed to bypass the threshold through candidates entering the elections as independents and then reassembling a party in the national assembly. However, despite that they usually secured between 5% and 7%, this trick always led to their underrepresentation in the assembly, because a big chunk of the votes on the independents were wasted.

When Demirtaş received 9.8%, indicating a high probability of crossing the 10% threshold, the HDP entered the 2015 general election as a party rather than as a collection of independent candidates. The significance of this was that had they crossed the threshold, they would have had a much larger representation in the national assembly.

And they crossed the threshold in the June 7 general election, receiving an unexpected 13%. When the HDP got 80 representatives and pushed the AKP below 276 by 18 in a 550 member national assembly, the AKP rule was over, at least legally.

This was a defining moment in the history of the Republic of Turkey.

Coming out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Republic of Turkey inherited the Empire’s diverse identities and added a new one.

A major identity divide in the Empire had been along the religious lines: Muslim versus non-Muslim. However, there has been a conscious cleansing of the country from non-Muslims since the early 20th century and, as a result, this divide is currently about 99% to 1%, although it was more like 70% to 30% in the beginning.

The new identity the Republic added was that of the secular. So the new and more important religious divide in the country is the pious versus secular divide created by the founders of the Republic (although the origins of this goes way back). Of course, the founders were secularists, and their interest was to engineer a secular, capitalist nation-state along the lines of most advanced capitalist states of the West. Named after their charismatic leader, and the first president of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal, their ideology is called Kemalism.

Interestingly, they defined the nation of this nation-state – that is, the Turkish nation – based on religious identities. Who we call Turkish today – if by that we mean the citizens of the Republic of Turkey – are essentially the grandchildren of the (mostly Sunni) Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire, many of whom sought refuge in current-day Turkey from other parts of the Empire to avoid religious persecution. They can be from any of the many ethnicities in the former Empire as long as their grandparents were or became (preferably Sunni) Muslims.

But, the mostly Sunni Kurds (themselves a collection of many ethnicities) have never bought this definition. And, despite that Sunni Islam has been the “unofficial” religion of this “secular” Republic from the beginning, the Alevites – some of whom are Kurdish – remained, although their number decreased some as percentage.

To sum up, the most notable current identity divides include – but are not limited to – Turkish versus Kurdish, Sunni versus Alevite and pious versus secular.

Lastly, there is the military, out of which most founders of the Republic including Mustafa Kemal came. Until recently, the military had been viewed by many as guardian of the secular Republic. It took power three times: in 1960, 1971 and 1980, although there had been a number of other coup attempts also. Seen as an arch-rival, the military had been “attacked” by the AKP government as of 2010 in the courts captured by the Islamists. Many of its high ranking officers got jailed for a variety of (as recently confessed by President Erdogan, mostly made-up) reasons and the institution has been weakened. Despite this, however, whether the military is now fully under the AKP control is debatable for a variety of reasons including that there still are many Kemalists in its ranks.

Although the conflict between Turks and Kurds goes way before the start of the Republic, the most recent armed conflict started in 1984. Since then, the Turkish military and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been fighting on and off (most intensely in the early 1990s) and the total death toll is at the order of tens of thousands. In a nutshell, this is the so-called “Kurdish question” in Turkey

The PKK (founded in 1978) is an armed organization considered by many including the Turkish Government to be a terrorist organization. The HDP (founded in 2013), on the other hand, defines itself as a leftist and anti-nationalist party. Further, there are many non-Kurds in the party. However, many consider the HDP as the political wing of the PKK and whether this perception is reality or not is hotly debated in the country.

Enter President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu.

A darling of the West until about three years ago, Erdoğan and the AKP have evidently been running a programme whose objectives were not so obvious to some. That this had been the case can easily be deduced from the recent confessions of many nationally prominent figures – mostly liberal intellectuals – who had been ardent supporters of Erdoğan and the AKP until recently. Over the last year, it has seemed as though not a single day passed without one such figure coming out and claiming that he or she had been cheated by Erdoğan and/or the AKP.

The existence of the programme became obvious to all shortly after Erdoğan won the presidential election. This was because Erdoğan’s handpicked heir – former Foreign and current Prime Minister – Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly named it on August 21, 2014: the “restoration programme.” According to Davutoğlu and his aides, the term does not refer to restoring the Ottoman Empire but to repairing the republic, democracy, foreign policy and a model of the economy that had been “injured” for the past 92 years.

But, what did happen 92 years ago?

Well, the Ottoman Empire ended and the Republic of Turkey was founded.

Indeed, in 2001, a year before the AKP took power, the then academic Davutoğlu published a book, “Strategic Depth,” that set out the basics of this programme, so why these liberal intellectuals feel cheated is difficult to understand.

According to the Davutoğlu doctrine, Turkey is one of those countries which are “central powers.” Because of its Ottoman legacy, Turkey is a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Balkan, Caucasian, Caspian, Central Asian, Gulf and Black Sea country. It can exercise influence in all these regions and thus become a global strategic player. Or so said Davutoğlu in his “Strategic Depth.” And his now badly failed “zero problem policy with neighbours” was about Turkey’s capitalising on its soft power potential culminating from its historic and cultural links with all these regions, as well as its “democratic institutions” and “thriving market economy”

Given these and that Davutoğlu appeared to be objecting to the Huntingtonian theory of clash of civilisations, his doctrine had often been labelled as neo-Ottomanism. But this label was incorrect because Ottomanism was a nineteenth-century liberal political movement whose objective was to form a civic Ottoman national identity overarching ethnic, linguistic and religious identities. Any careful reading of Davutoğlu’s book could have revealed that his doctrine had nothing to do with any form of Ottomanism. Furthermore, his objection to Huntington’s theory was not to that there was a clash of civilisations. He agreed with Huntington there. Where he differed was that Islam was the better civilisation. Put differently, his doctrine was not neo-Ottomanism but pan-Islamism.

It now appears clear even to many of his unquestioning former supporters as well as Western powers such as the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) that not only Davutoğlu but also Erdoğan agreed with Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis. Except that Erdoğan also believed in superiority of the Islamic civilization. It now appears clear to them also that becoming the leader of the Muslim world and (there are even rumours that) caliph of the Sunni Muslims were two of Erdoğan’s three major fantasies.

Of course, these two fantasies have always been beyond Erdoğan’s reach, if only for the simple reason that they are based on a third fantasy that Davutoğlu invented: the unifying character of the Ottoman Empire. Ask any Arab or Balkan nation who had lived under the Ottoman rule to see how they feel about the Empire. And there are strong rivals such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and even ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS), and Syria, Iraq and Libya are in shambles, so forth. No doubt, Davutoğlu’s “zero problem policy with neighbours” eventually deformed into his current foreign policy of “honourable loneliness.”

Erdoğan’s third major fantasy was becoming the sultan of Turkey. This was a potentially realizable fantasy because, after his presidency, all he needed was to get the constitution changed to introduce a presidential system which would decorate him with executive powers. Had this happened, he could have become the effective sultan to continue the restoration process through which Turkey would become some sort of repressive Islamic state (which would be even more repressive than Turkey is currently).

For this, the AKP had to win at least 330 deputies in the national assembly.

And Erdoğan had a fear. Had the AKP failed to form a single party government, several legal cases could have been filed against him at the Supreme Council of Judges for a host of reasons with severe criminal consequences.

To avoid this, the AKP had to win at least 276 deputies in the national assembly.

Now, I can offer some answers to the first question I asked, that is, why the Ankara massacre happened. And I will do that in the next part, after the November 1 election.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. PlutoniumKun

    I’m glad to see this article – once again NC is proving better at analysing news than the mainstream media.

    I can’t claim a deep knowledge (or much at all) about Turkish politics, but I’ve one good friend from a fairly ordinary middle class Ankara family. For years, this otherwise mild mannered lady would go red with fury at even the mention of Erdogans name. For years I would hear her say that Erdogan was a secret Islamacist – something I put down to a certain amount of local passion, if not paranoia. I believed the ‘conventional view’ that while autocratic, he was really a genuine reformist. The last couple of years have proven her and people like her right. Erdogan is a very dangerous man, and we can just hope that his power is neutralised.

    In a deeper sense, I do fear for Turkey. There is a genuine possibility of the country descending into civil war – passions are that deep. As well as the ethnic and religious differences, there seems a huge gap between the generally secular urban and business classes and the much more conservative and religious rural and (in some cases) urban working class population, the latter of which is probably a small majority.

  2. JTMcPhee

    Sounds like “Neo-Ottomanism” is of the same genera as “Neo-Liberalism.”

    And given how individual motivations that, for people who actually have the skills and talents and incentives to be actual Power Players in the world, all resolve to “way more for me, and as near as possible nothing for the rest of you,” no surprise that the “neo” kleptocratic agenda is everywhere in the ascendant.

    Erdoğan’s palace, Obama’s Presidential Library and Theme Park, the well documented excesses and thieveries and frauds of the ruling class pretty much everywhere — all of a piece. And where’s the organizing principle and flag, for the 99% to form up and organize around? Our Betters are all reading out of the same implacable insatiable playbook– where’s the book for people who just seek decency, comity, and a “modest competence” for themselves and their children, who diligently and intelligently in the Hope of Change, minimize their “footprints” (so there’s more slack for the Few to consume and use up)?

  3. Michael Hudson

    When I visited Sabri Oncu (the author) for a conference in Istanbul (on Veblen) a few years ago, there was an amazing amount of construction work all over the city. Erdogan had a reputation for emulating the Saudi’s, taking 10% of the big real estate giveaway contracts.
    The importance of this election is Turkey’s role in NATO. (When I went to school 50 years ago, it also was the link brining in SEATO.) The Kurds are turning out to be the most reasonable party — as the party of oppressed minorities so often is.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      There has been a huge boom in Turkey under Erdogan, although its a moot point as to how much he can take credit for it – certainly Turkey was a major beneficiary of QE, etc. My understanding is that he and his party was a major facilitator for the construction industry, including most notoriously of all, pretty much handing over one of the last public parks in Istanbul to a shopping mall developer.

  4. John Zelnicker

    Thanks, Lambert, for posting this. Like PlutoniumKun, I have next to zero knowledge about Turkey and this is a quite accessible explainer on the current political situation in Turkey.

    And the author has me waiting impatiently (with his “To Be Continued…” teaser at the end) for the next episode where some answers will be revealed. With that election happening today, I hope he can get that post written quickly. (I assume NC will post Part II.)

    1. Sabri Oncu

      Well. Please allow me to take a deep breath and try to clam down for a while. Although I wrote the first part with the possibility of such an outcome in mind, I did not foresee this result. Very few people did. I need to get out of this psychological state to write the second part. Thanks for the nice words, though.

  5. OIFVet

    Ask any Arab or Balkan nation who had lived under the Ottoman rule to see how they feel about the Empire.

    What’s not to like about the occasional massacre and genocide, with the tender rule of the bashi bazouk in between?

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Possibly. But Erdogans political base is rural and small town regular folks – the type of people who keep their cards close to their chests. Its entirely possible that this was a classic case of voters being unwilling to admit to pollsters who they will vote for. And also a case that people may reluctantly feel they should vote for a corrupt strongman over the alternative of possible chaos. Reminds me a bit of the UK election where pollsters and commentators got it very badly wrong.

        Its interesting though that nobody seems to be alleging fraud (so far) – seems that Turkey has a pretty robust voting system.

        1. fajensen

          Election Fraud is not speculated upon by “serious people” because something like that will damage, perhaps even ruin (but, I think not), the fantasy of a secular, peaceful, democratic Turkey being the “token ethnic” within the EUSSR.

          1. Sabri Oncu

            It is happening actually. But, it is a useless speculation since such a fraud is neither observable nor verifiable. If it happened, it did not happen in the ballot box, it happened in the election software which aggregates the ballot box by ballot box results. That the results were massaged at that stage is certainly a non-zero possibility event. Yet, we will never know whether it happened or not, so speculating on this is a pointless activity.

        2. MojaveWolf

          The Kurds & HDP are very much alleging fraud. Also voter & media intimidation had already started well before the election, with voter intimidation continuing on the day of election. If not actual “fraud” that certainly counts for something. You can check out the #TurkeyMassiveVoterFraud hashtag on twitter for some of the links today. Would provide more but limited time right now.

  6. susan the other

    It is clear that politix in Turkey is chaos. God only knows what the freedom and justice freaks are looking to gain. Erdogan is on the outs with everyone; NATO, Russia, the Saudis, the USA and etc. That can only mean one thing: there is no consensus and therefore there is no government. And Erdogan is just vamping around on the stage until he wears out his fishnets and high heels.

  7. Quentin

    Erdogan has realized his divine appointment with destiny. Can anyone believe that anyone in the EU would really consider admitting Turkey into the EU. Yes Germany, Mutti is very sentimental, very much interested in Germany’s euro cents. Horrible.

    1. fajensen

      Sure they consider it:
      At least Germany – to prove that they are not “racist” like their grandparent,
      and Britain – to sabotage the EU.

  8. Synoia

    It is not clear that Erdogan and the Saudi’s are rivals for the new Caliphate.

    The Saudi’s will aim for the religious capital (Mecca) and the Turks the Legislative Capital as under the Ottomans, and the Rules will exchange family member in marriage as is common among royalty.

    Ergogan’s planace looks like it if fit for a Caliph.

    1. Sabri Oncu

      Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not rivals for the new Caliphate. They are rivals for regional hegemony. So, I was combining two things together. Given that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran are rivals of Turkey, Turkey cannot be the leader of the Muslim world. At least these three will not accept Turkey’s leadership. As for the Caliphate ISIL is the competitor. But, more importantly, Arabs will not accept a Turkish as their caliph. That was what I had in mind. But, the article is already quite long even as it is so I was economizing, I guess.

  9. Synoia

    It is not clear that Erdogan and the Saudi’s are rivals for the new Caliphate.

    The Saudi’s will aim for the religious capital (Mecca) and the Turks the Legislative Capital as under the Ottomans, and the Rules will exchange family member in marriage as is common among royalty.

    Ergogan’s palace looks like it is fit for a Caliph.

  10. EGrise

    So a boycotted election led to a voter turn out of “a measly 74%”, the lowest in decades?

    I wish we had that problem in the US.

    1. shash

      They have compulsory voting with a 22 lira fine that’s apparently not enforced (according to Wikipedia, anyway). So, this may just be related to that…

  11. Bill Smith

    Well, it appears that the of this needs some adjustment given the AKP just won the election by more than they did back in June.

    I wonder if the Kurdish party’s 10.6% will somehow get reduced down to just below 10% so they lose all their members of parliament.

  12. Turkish Observer

    When I read articles online about this recent election people keep referring to Erdogan as having “savvy” or making some sort of “gambit”.

    Perhaps you could say this, if it was in any way a fair competition. But nothing about this election was fair.

    Only days before the election, the government appointed trustees to 22 different companies that were part of a holding company that wasn’t so keen on the government. This included two television stations and two newspapers. Immediately after seizing control of them, in clear violation of the constitution of Turkey which prohibits the seizing of media regardless of whether or not it helped enable a crime, they fired all employees who had refused loyalty to the new trustees. The next editions of these newspapers did a 180 coming out in full support of AKP and the ruling party.

    The amount of media time spent on covering AKP rallies/political events was far greater in all state media than that given to the other three main parties. I believe in previous elections, and most probably this one as well, the ratio is something like 90% of all campaign airtime was given to their party.

    In addition, President Erdogan repeatedly abused his power as president. This position is one that is supposed to be unpartisan and ceremonial, but instead he has turned every public appearance into an occasion to gain support for the AKP.

    The ruling government has continued to systematically dismantle bastions of opposition: whether they be found in industrial, financial or media sectors. They have attacked academics, fomented assaults of media channels and stations by armed groups, and refused to provide adequate protection for opposition rallies and events.

    They continue to spread lies, disinformation and enflame racial hatred on pro-government media outlets. Several weeks ago, the result of this were three or four nights of militant-nationalist rallies across different areas of Turkey including Istanbul. One of the chilling calls heard by myself and others was “we don’t want war, we want genocide” while they occasionally destroyed a kurdish-looking business or stabbed/beat a kurdish-looking person to death. These were government sanctioned outbursts. If the opposition tried to rally for peace, within 30min plain clothes police officers and riot police would stop them. But rallies for genocide? Completely acceptable in Erdogan’s Turkey – you could even see some of the security forces smiling.

    What comes next will be more of the same, but I can only imagine what will happen when the economy here starts to crumble…

    I expect all or some of the following to happen in the next year politically:

    — further attacks on the HDP, perhaps pushing them below 10% and using this as an opportunity to get to the 330 seat level needed to change the constitution

    — the withering away of the militant nationalist MHP, as supporters and politicians within this party have fewer differences with the policies and positions of the AKP. Perhaps a split, with half of the members crossing the aisle to the AKP.

    — attacks on media interests/financial interests of the CHP, so that any presidential system becomes a two party one, where one party always wins (guess which). (you can expect some problems to arise with IS Bank, if they want this outcome)


    — continued fall in visitor/tourist numbers

    — further contraction of industrial production as the sanctity or property rights a revealed to be a farce

    — a complete collapse of the construction sector, if and only if the FED starts to hike rates

    — lira reaching 4 to the dollar by May


    — exodus of anyone who can get out of Turkey, a significant brain drain

    — greater conservatism within society, the imposition of more moral/social controls

    — a dramatic increase in the breadth and width of the conflict between the Turkish military and PKK. (if and only if the HDP is dismantled as a political outlet)

  13. Sabri Oncu

    It was not “we don’t want war, we want genocide”. It was “we don’t want war, we want massacre (katliam in Turkish)”.

  14. Roland

    Erdogan’s tactical genius lies in his appropriation of Turkish nationalism. Erdogan has re-united themes of democracy, religious tradition, and Turkish nationalism.

    The Kemalist state was never really “secular.” The officer cabal substituted a cult of the nation and the hero-worship of Kemal. This was done to weaken the old Ottoman-era elites, which the officer cabal displaced.

    With his attacks on the Kurds, Erdogan attracted support from authoritarian nationalists. He played the nationalist card against the old Kemalist elites, and trumped. Also, with Turkey closer and closer to the brink of war, the military elites are forced to line up with the government.

    The longer the AKP remains in office, the work of replacing judges, bureaucrats, senior military officers etc. can continue, gradually removing entrenched institutional opponents.

    Cheap energy and a weak lira don’t hurt.

    The Western bloc can’t chastise Turkey, since the Western bloc also wants a confrontation with Russia. Turkey is invaluable and irreplaceable in such a confrontation, so Erdogan gets a free pass.

    I’m no fan of Erdogan’s strategy, but his political tactics seem pretty impressive to me.

    I’m still looking for a convincing explanation of why Erddogan so abruptly away from his “zero problems” foreign policy. The “zero problems” policy didn’t fail. Rather, Erdogan did a dramatic about-face in 2012, and has put bigger and bigger bets into the Syrian pot ever since. Why did this happen?

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