A year after a contested referendum in Turkey granted the office of the presidency increased power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected president on Sunday by a thin margin. His political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), will also head the governing coalition in Parliament, along with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent turned off a huge chunk of Turkish voters, but not enough to defeat the president and his supporters. Moreover, Erdogan used methods that went beyond persuasion to win: After a coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan began cracking down on his political opponents, sending them to jail and purging them from government and media. This was the atmosphere under which the election was held.
I recently spoke by phone with Jenny White, the author of several books on Turkey, and a professor at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what Erdogan is likely to do with his increased power, the differences between how Turks and Americans view the government, and what Erdogan has in common with previous Turkish leaders.
Isaac Chotiner: Intimidation aside, how confident are you—and the opposition—about the vote itself being reflected in the tallies we see?
Jenny White: The Turkish opposition is not at all confident judging from the comments that I’ve heard. I think that they think something fishy happened. They’re particularly suspicious of the rise in the numbers for the MHP, the ultra-nationalist party, because that was completely unexpected by everybody. And there’s no way to explain that, especially because the MHP just split, and a whole bunch of their people left. So how was it that they get more votes than before?
Why would you give more votes to the MHP, if you were Erdogan?
Because they’re the ones that clump together with the AKP for the parliamentary vote. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. Erdogan got more than 50 percent so he won the presidency on the first round. But in Parliament, the AKP did not get the majority. The only reason they have a majority is because they’re clumping their votes together with the MHP.
Do you think what just happened yesterday is kind of a hinge moment in the future of Turkey? Or do you feel like that hinge moment happened at some other earlier time, and this is just the next step in it playing out?
I don’t have any doubt at all that this is a hinge moment. Erdogan has been governing by decree since the coup attempt. Before that he was governing by decree without having any legal basis for it, just by simply taking the reins of power into his hands in various ways. This is why we say that the rule of law has pretty much disappeared in Turkey, because it doesn’t really matter anymore what’s on the books. Erdogan has just been doing it. What has changed is that it’s legal now, and the entire structure of the government will change so that you no longer have the prime minister. We have maybe up to three hand-picked vice presidents. The Parliament has lost half of its teeth, and the remaining teeth are kind of loose. So the entire system will have legally changed in such a way that there’s really no going back. It would take some huge new restructuring to change it back to the way it was.
I don’t want to oversimplify what you’ve been writing and saying, but you’ve been writing for a while that Erdogan is more of a typical strongman than an Islamist radical strongman, regardless of his personal religious beliefs.
A lot of secular people in Turkey have been worrying that at some point if Erdogan gains more and more power, there will be a flip, and the policies will be much more religiously themed. Is that something that you’re worried about, or is it just him continuing to be an autocrat?
I think the answer is complicated because Islam does play a very important role. Turkey, even under Ataturk, had a very conservative and pious majority. So in a way they have now come to political maturity and taken the reins of power. And in each case, the premise has been the same in Turkey in that it’s a majoritarian form of government: Whoever wins the election gets to decide everything. It’s a zero-sum game election there. You get to do the social engineering, whether you’re banning alcohol or you’re banning the headscarf. It’s the same kind of social engineering. You get to impose your values. You get to populate the institutions with your people to make sure that you can do all of these things. There’s never been any understanding by any Turkish government that they are there to represent everybody, including the Kurds, people who are different in any way, and people who didn’t vote for them. They could just get with the program and be loyal and obedient citizens.
So in that sense, he’s a strongman, the kind of strongman that the Turkish system produces over and over again and that the population responds to, I think for cultural reasons more than Islamic reasons, because there is the kind of worship of the patriarchal father figure. I mean, the state used to be called, by ordinary people, used to be called the Father State, Devlet Baba.
That’s now gone out of usage, but the imagery of the state as the one who takes care of you, the officials of the state are the people who take care of you. I remember years ago there was a case where a woman who was very poor, and she didn’t have enough to feed her children, tried to give her child to the governor. There was this sense of the state is the father-like entity who is supposed to protect you and take care of you.
And it used to be that the state was separate from the government. The state was the military. And then the government was elected each time and then was always a little bit suspect, because to get elected they would pander to religion, and they would be too close to the part of a population that was “uncivilized.” And then they would be either taken from power or somehow disciplined by the state, which would be the military in this case. So these things were always separate until the AKP dismantled the state and made it part of its own portfolio. So the elected government is now everything. It’s no longer disciplined by a state that has its own agenda.
And the idea is not only that the state and the government are the father figures looking out for you and protecting you, but that the citizen’s [role] is to be the obedient loyal child, right? Citizenship doesn’t give you any special rights. In the U.S., you have people going into the post office and saying, “I pay your salary. You should be treating me better.” That would never happen in Turkey because citizenship is not defined as the citizen somehow paying the salary of the government, that the government works for you. You are there to live and die for the government. That’s the sort of thing that little children chanted in the schoolyard for a long time.
How does this fit into what you were starting to say about Islam?
What has changed now is that the chanting in the schoolyard has an openly Islamic component to it. So Islam has been wound into this system in such a way as to buttress the relationship between the individual and the government and state. It’s an additional bond that also requires you to be loyal because the state represents you as a religious person as well, giving you rights that had not been given to you by the previous administration. [This] is quite different from Islamism, which is making policy—both internal and external policy—through an explicitly Islamic lens, and it usually involves some kind of Islamic theology or ideology. There is no Islamic theology or ideology in Turkey. It’s completely pragmatic: Whatever is needed at the moment, they’ll make it up.
It seems like the flip side of Erdogan’s win is that, despite massive, massive repression and purges and biased media coverage and people being thrown in jail and perhaps stuffing ballot boxes and things like that, the opposition still got nearly half the country, and in a fair election I assume would have gotten more. And that says that the country is still extremely divided and is unwilling to kind of bow down to Erdogan in large ways.
Yeah. I think so. It fits with what I was saying before because the opposition, for instance, are also looking for a strong leader. And it’s the one thing they haven’t had until Muharrem Ince [the main opposition candidate]. So to have someone come out there who actually had charisma and looked like a strong leader is something that really attracted people, someone who could protect them, someone who could help them get the economy back on track.
The one thing that all Turks fear no matter what side they’re on is chaos. And the chaos can come from the economy. It could come from terror, and for a large part of the population, coalitions. You know, Turkey has had a really bad experience with coalitions and that has created chaos. So just the idea of a coalition I think would scare many people towards voting for Erdogan, who at least would be a powerful figure on his own.