Erdoğan’s egocracy and the Turkish nation

(Université Lumière Lyon 2 - UFR Anthropologie, Sociologie et Science politique )


Palazzo degli Uffici Finanziari, ing. Eugenio Marelli, 1932-1935. Quatre statues de Dante Parini

Faşizme karşı omuz omuza is a slogan that could be translated as “standing together against fascism”. It has become one of the rallying cries of the various protests against the Turkish authorities over recent years. Though highly diverse, these protest movements have all chanted similar slogans—be it the Gezi Park protest banners (“Do not give in to fascism”), or, of course, pro-Kurd demonstrations denouncing the war, repression, and disappearances (“Fascists will be stifled by the mothers’ anger”). In both Turkey and France, the term “fascism” is endowed with powerful political meaning and is often used by protagonists in the political sphere, notably in recent denunciations of Erdoğan’s power. Yet Erdoğan continues to present himself as the last rampart of the popular will against kemalists, those fomenting putsches, and foreign forces all plotting against the country. In the wake of the attempted coup in 2016, Hakimiyet milletindir (“Sovereignty belongs to the nation”) could be seen daubed on the walls of cities all over Turkey, even as an unprecedented purge was placing the final mechanisms of state power in Erdoğan’s hands—and in so doing filling the prisons with tens of thousands of activists, journalists, academics, bureaucrats, or common citizens, some of whom are still waiting to learn for what reasons they have been detained. Despite the increasingly obvious gap between discourse and reality, the authorities continue to draw on this phraseology of an absolute defense of democracy and the popular will—the same authorities who are often said by external observes to be sliding headlong towards autocracy. It was in the name of respecting democracy and the constitutional order that an election was cancelled in Istanbul this year [March 2019], and that governors were appointed to many Kurdish towns which had expressed choices counter to those of the authorities. How are we to explain this paradox?

One hypothesis that could be put forward, though without developing it further here, is that a semantic divide is opening up between part of the country and the real, a phenomenon encouraged by the authorities which are permanently building their own reality. This hypothesis, for that matter, partakes in a larger discussion about political post-modernity which transcends the case of Turkey (see the debates about the idea of post-truth), and is applied to other governments said to be “illiberal”, “autocratic”, or “populist”. The governing authorities are viewed as building up a parallel fantastical reality, when, for example, the outcome of a local election was conflated with the survival of the country (beka) during the latest municipal elections in Istanbul, or even more recently when the press and citizens were forbidden from using the terms “war” or “invasion” to describe what the official media present as a “peace operation” being conducted east of the Euphrates in Syria. These semantic divides between citizens who no longer live in a shared reality would appear to be reinforced by the extreme polarization of Turkish political life and the disintegration of its social fabric. These debates about re-building perceptions of reality, though not limited to the case of Turkey, stretch back to before the AKP (Party of Justice and Development) came to power in Turkey. That is why we later go on to envisage returning to the origins of Turkish state-building. More generally, and independently of these contradictions within the dominant political discourse, we endeavor to characterize power in Turkey today, bringing out its specificities as well as similarities with other authorities around the world.

This text does not seek to offer any exhaustive or “academic” analysis of these questions. Rather, it seeks to supply the reader with various points of interpretation by combining the perspectives of two attentive observers of Turkish politics and society: the journalist Ruşen Çakır, and the historian and political scientist Hamit Bozarslan, who kindly spoke to us between August and October 2019. Ruşen Çakır has been monitoring changes in Turkish society for several decades, paying particular attention as of a very early stage to the mechanisms underpinning the political emergence of the AKP. In 2015, when official journalism was being increasingly subjected to political influence and self-censorship, he set up, an online information platform that he has run ever since on a daily basis, with the purpose of embodying a different form of journalism that is free and independent. Hamit Bozarslan, for his part, is a historian and political scientist, a director of research at the EHESS, and the author of many reference books about Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. In addition to being an astute specialist of contemporary Turkey, he takes a more general interest in evolutions in the Middle East and the emergence of anti-democracies and populist movements around the world.

Interview with Ruşen Çakır (Medyascope, Istanbul)

Timour Abel – Ruşen Çakır, in 2015 you founded, an independent information platform which you have run ever since. For years now you have been following from the inside the changes affecting Turkish society and its regime: how would you describe the system that Erdoğan has put in place?

Ruşen Çakır – We need to start by getting rid of the interpretation often put forward in the West that links Erdoğan’s populism with Islam. The debate about the compatibility between Islam and democracy goes back a very long way, and Western opinion has often responded by presupposing the two to be incompatible. Yet Turkey, particularly during the early years of AKP rule, provided a model showing that the two could go together. Nowadays, with Erdoğan’s attempts to build an authoritarian regime, many have returned to this old debate, saying that the Turkish model turned out to be a lie, and that Islamism and Islam are incompatible with democracy.

To my mind, such an approach is inaccurate, for when talking about Hungary, the United States, or Russia, nobody refers to Catholicism, Protestantism, or the Orthodox church—in these cases they choose to speak of Hungarian or Russian “populism”. But from what I see, wherever these right-wing populisms are in power, from Russia to Brazil, they mobilize and exploit cultural references and traditions as they see fit. Hence there is nothing surprising in Turkish populism drawing on Islam. The differences between Erdoğan’s populism and that of Bolsonaro, Trump, or Putin derive mainly from the differences between these countries. But once you look more closely, you notice that they all issue from the same vein. Hence the need to disentangle this political question from debate about Islam to resituate it in debate about Turkey. It is even less pertinent to bring the subject back to Islam once we bear in mind that the Tunisian Ennahda movement and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, for example, both borne aloft by the Arab Spring, have built up very different relationships with democracy. The same is true for Erdoğan. You could even say that between the early years when Erdoğan and the AKP were in power and nowadays, they have related to democracy in very different ways. These changes are in no way dependent on Islam but arise from the general context: it is in these terms that they need analyzing. This, to my mind, is the first point: it is a mistake to analyze Erdoğan’s system as an “Islamist” populism.

It is true that Erdoğan issued from the Islamist movement, and it is equally true that the AKP grew out of the Millî Görüş [National Vision] Islamic movement. But that does not make it any more reasonable to analyze this phenomenon in religious terms or in relation to the question of Islamism. Rather, we are confronted with Erdoğanism, in the same way as “Putinism” and “Orbánism” are used to describe populism in other countries.

Indeed, when a friend and I wrote our first book about Erdoğan1, a few years after the AKP was founded, some observers were tempted to describe this phenomenon as Erdoğanism, whereas at the time it was in fact a collective movement with collegial leadership based around Abdullah Gül, Abdüllatif Şener, Bülent Arınç, and Tayyip Erdoğan. It was not right at that stage to speak of Erdoğanism: he was the leader, but there was genuine power sharing, with each retaining their freedom of speech and autonomy in the light of their political influence. Erdoğan built up his personal power by gradually sidelining all the leaders able to exert their own influence and have their specific political identity. He put an end to the system of power sharing to move to a form of top-down power distribution. And he is the one who now does the distributing.

Under the old system where each leader in the AKP had a share of power, in which the rights of each were preserved, there was a need for regulations in the form of a certain level of internal party democracy. Each had rights corresponding to their capacities. This right to speak and share power was recognized at all ranks, even mayors and other elected representatives could lay claim to it by saying: “I won X votes”, or “I managed to do such-and-such”. Erdoğan gradually unpicked all that, particularly after the Gezi Park protests [May 2013], the revelations about corruption affairs [December 2013], and the attempted coup [July 2016], which all represented real challenges. He has thus gradually accumulated power in his own hands and done so very pragmatically. For example, he might dismiss you, but will replace you with someone from your immediate circle. Then, a year later, he will dismiss that person in turn. Or, for example, you might be entitled to extensive political space, but since he recruits your friend in your stead, who does not deserve the position, he will grant him less political space. All of that gradually comes together to establish a system in which power is not shared but distributed in authoritarian fashion.

In fact, the foundations of authoritarianism in Turkey developed in parallel to this shift within the AKP from a collegial leadership to a leadership centered on a single person. Prior to that, there were institutions—the judiciary, the legislative, the cabinet, etc.—each of which was important: people knew who the ministers were, there was a prime minister … Nowadays, there is no longer any prime minister, nobody knows what the ministers’ are called, no one knows why parliament exists or what it does, and so on and so forth. So power is concentrated in Erdoğan’s hands who uses it as he sees fit. To give one simple example: in August 2014, Abdullah Gül’s term as president of the Republic came to an end and Erdoğan was elected in his stead. It was planned that, normally, after the transfer of power, the AKP would hold a Congress during which Abdullah Gül would stand and be elected as head of the party. But Tayyip Erdoğan convened the AKP congress two days before the transfer of power, and got Davutoğlu elected—for according to the terms of the constitution Gül could not stand since he was officially still president of the republic. And Davutoğlu accepted: in his speech he thanked everyone (down to the teaboy) but did not make a single mention of Abdullah Gül, who had been the first to recruit him as an adviser.

Timour Abel – A point you have often made on Medyascope is that Erdoğan is no longer able to do politics positively, that he is no longer capable of responding to a crisis other than by provoking another crisis.

Ruşen Çakır – The relationship here is like that of the chicken and the egg. It is because there is a crisis that he concentrates all the power between his hands, then it is because he monopolizes all the power that he is no longer capable of producing policies. The two phenomena feed off each other, the only way he can respond to crises is to monopolize power more and more closely between his hands and within a small circle of intimates. But it is precisely because he does that that he is unable to solve crises and unable to develop solutions to prevent or solve them. He is trapped in a vicious circle.

Timour Abel – It is often said that in totalitarian regimes, alongside institutions emptied of their substance, one finds parallel and largely informal organizations. In Europe, these matters are also raised when discussing illiberal regimes, including for example Victor Orbán’s Hungary where various radical groups are tolerated. To what extent may one say the same thing about the situation in Turkey?

Ruşen Çakır – Yes, you hear many rumors of that type in Turkey too, but to my mind they are not worth taking very seriously. Erdoğan has rather built his de facto hegemony on all the institutions, including the judiciary. In the past, the constitutional court in Turkey or the army had a certain degree of power and were capable of defying the government. During the early years when the AKP was in power, there were continual problems with the army and the constitutional court. Over time, sometimes with the support of the Gulenists [the supporters of Fethullah Gülen], he has placed the military and judiciary under his control or else made them inoperative. Equally, the media were until recently a genuine power in Turkey: nowadays Erdoğan has his hand on them. What is interesting, however, is that he no longer manages to generate consent via the media he controls, because they have been completely emptied out. “Rather than being against me, is better that they be for me, even if this means being empty and inconsistent”. It is the exact same logic that Erdoğan and his circle are trying to apply to elite schools and universities: they take hold of them, place incompetent managers to run them, causing the quality of establishments opposed to them to plummet. Instead of driving up the level of other establishments, they thus trigger a levelling down. It is the method they apply to any person or institution they perceive as a potential rival or threat. They did not come up the whole thing overnight. Professor Şerif Mardin2 spoke of the salami technique3, slice by slice, step-by-step. At each step people say: “there’s no point exaggerating”, then, after a while, you realize, for example, that there are no schools left.

At each stage Erdoğan has needed people alongside him: he could not have done anything alone. But after each stage he has largely dispensed with those who were his allies. At the very beginning he had the support of the European Union, of various liberal groups in Turkey: today, they are no longer visible. Journalists who used to be close to Erdoğan at the time have all gone into exile. Then there were the Gulenists: their fate is now irrevocably sealed. At one stage there was a rapprochement with the Kurds, but it is clear what the situation is today. Now it is with the MHP [the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party], but there is no telling where that will lead tomorrow. What is important is to see how pragmatic Erdoğan is, how he completely switches policy and allies depending on the circumstances and situation. He thereby emphasizes democracy at one stage, then nationalism the next, et cetera. Let us take one very striking example. One of the main slogans of the peace process was: “let the mothers cease crying”. Hence the mothers of soldiers and the mothers of others. Since the alliance with the MHP, the slogan is, basically: “we will make your mothers cry”. Of course, they do not put it like that, but in practice we have gone from the one to the other. His approach to the Kurdish question is pitiless. One of the main problems about the Kurdish question in Turkey is that it was ignored and denied. Erdoğan relied extensively on this during the peace process, saying: “we are going to turn our back on the politics of denial”. But for some time now he has been saying: “there is no Kurdish question, we have solved it”. He, in turn, is in denial.

Timour Abel  In this context, are those in power still advocating an ideology?

Ruşen Çakır – When it comes to symbolism, they have used conservative Islam at times, nationalism at others, and recently mainly nationalism and the cause of the state. The question of survival (beka) has also been brought to the fore.

Timour Abel  Where do things stand with the justice system?

Ruşen Çakır – Erdoğan and his associates have gradually placed it under their control. The first stage was an operation conducted with the Gulenists during the [2010 constitutional] referendum. They altered the composition of the High Council for Judges and Prosecutors and put it to referendum. This was when Fethullah Gülen launched his call to awaken the dead to get them to vote in favor of the referendum. This alliance with the Gulenists gave the latter very considerable influence, which has since been undone, particularly after the attempted coup of July 15, 2016: many judges and prosecutors have been purged. To make up for this void, they then called on their own base, hence many AKP activists have been rapidly promoted to be prosecutors or judges. Nowadays, to a very large extent, the government exerts direct control over the justice system. It should theoretically be independent; they even added the principle of an independent and impartial judiciary to the constitution. But it is neither independent nor impartial. However, one may detect a degree of softening in certain decisions taken by the constitutional court, which may be explained by the noticeable change in atmosphere since the latest local elections. They may have felt that the political weather was turning.

Timour Abel  May one speak of European and Western responsibility for the authoritarian changes in power, and if so, in what might it consist?

Ruşen Çakır – Yes, certainly. Western leaders have put up with everything, they have merely denounced these changes each time, to the point that they no longer have any effect on the changes taking place. Three years ago, people could ask: what might the European Union say about this or that? Nobody asks that question now. The EU has very great responsibility here, or rather irresponsibility. It has not been up to the job, and, especially, it has left Turkish civil society and all the supporters of democracy on their own. On this topic, the question of refugees needs to be taken very seriously, of course. As the Europeans were counting on Turkey to staunch the flow of refugees, they were largely amenable to Turkish blackmailing, to which they submitted. They put up with a whole series of things to avoid assuming responsibility for the “scourge of refugees”. At certain critical moments, Erdoğan has behaved very belligerently towards the EU, particularly towards the Netherlands. Most of the time it produced no effect, there was no response from them. And eventually, here, they left the people to their fate.

Timour Abel  Are then any other institutions which resist Erdoğan in Turkey?

Ruşen Çakır – No.

Timour Abel None ?

Ruşen Çakır – No. There are a few opponents and opposition parties, or things within society, but no. We come back to the formula I often use: Erdoğan lost a long time ago, but nobody is winning. It is because nobody manages to win that Erdoğan remains in place. As for the rest, he is no longer capable as a politician of setting the agenda or defining debates. No institution resists him but, as we saw at the latest elections, Erdoğan is no longer capable of saving himself. What did people say when he cancelled the elections in Istanbul?4 “He must have a plan”. In fact, he was faced with an even greater fiasco since the gap between the votes cast only widened. All that showed that he did not in fact have any plan. We thus have power lent to Erdoğan by the opposition, without Erdoğan truly having it. But since the opposition is afraid of him, he can carry on by force. When you look at populist movements, you realize that their force often comes from the power lent to them by their adversaries. And now, his opponents are still asking whether Erdoğan is going to appoint a governor to run Istanbul; they keep on believing in the myth of his invincibility. This, to my mind, is one of the recurrent phenomena in countries where there are authoritarian leaders.

Timour Abel  Who currently runs Turkey?

Ruşen Çakır – Erdoğan.

Timour Abel  Is there no other protagonist?

Ruşen Çakır – Perhaps there is, but they do not have much power. The defense ministry has a degree of power, as does MIT [Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, the Turkish intelligence agency]. Other than that, I do not think anyone has the slightest power.

Timour Abel  That, in fact, is how he runs Turkey? By leaving institutions virtually unchanged but emptying them of their substance?


Ruşen Çakır – Around the world we are going through a period where strongmen have the wind in their sails (Putin, Bolsorano, etc.). We are witnessing the fall of Erdoğan. The others are not there yet. I think it was Daron Acemoğlu who noted that with the June 23 elections, the Turkish example showed the whole world that populism can be beaten at the ballot box5. Turkey may be an emblematic case to that extent. Perhaps populist leaders are not declining elsewhere, but it is the case in Turkey. The reasons lie mainly in the economic crisis. As a rule, people tend to think that it is inevitable and that once in power they cannot be removed. This vision is shared both inside and outside the country— in the West, for example, Turkey is now seen solely as Erdoğan’s country. And then they discover that an unknown figure like Imamoğlu can come from nowhere and win. Societies are thus still dynamic, and right-wing populism is not inevitable.

Timour Abel  To conclude, is Turkey different from China? Could an institutional dictatorship ever be set up?

Ruşen Çakır – No, they could not establish a dictatorship. Erdoğan cannot do it, and nobody could do it in his stead. Even if there were a military coup, it could not lastingly affect this equilibrium, or rather this societal dynamic.


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Interview with Hamit Bozarslan (EHESS)

Timour Abel – Hamit Bozarslan, you perhaps have a more historical view of these matters, and perhaps a more regional one too. To your mind, can the notion of “fascism” in the broad meaning of the term be used to describe certain characteristics of the Turkish state, both today and in the past?

Hamit Bozarslan – There are an enormous number of debates among specialists, and not only specialists of Turkey—the great Turkish historian, Fikret Adanır6, for example, has contributed to a work about fascism outside Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. One may indeed imagine that during the interwar period there were also fascism in countries outside Europe, including Turkey. Except that Turkey did not, as it were, have the means to become a totalitarian state. Many specialists are rather skeptical about using the term “fascism” for the post-1945 period. However, people such as Michaël Fœssel think we may today speak of a fascist or fascizing trend. We may also speak with Umberto Eco about an Ur-Fascismus (an original and also eternal fascism)7. I believe that is where the debate lies. It existed in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly on the left: May one speak of disguised fascism? Personally, I have doubts about using the notion “fascism” for the post-1945 period. No doubt we should think in other terms. For contemporary Turkey, we also use the term “anti- democracy”, an anti-democracy which may be considered as a virile, radical, national alternative to liberal democracy. I think that we should not immediately try to exit conceptual confusion. It has its advantages, so let us leave the debate open.

Timour Abel  May one draw a parallel with other examples, such as Victor Orbán’s Hungary or Putin’s Russia?

Hamit Bozarslan – I do not think so. In Victor Orbán’s Hungary and Poland under the PIS [the ruling Law and Justice Party], there is a similar nation-worship, this idea of an eternal nation embodied by its leader. What is lacking, on the other hand, is the idea that the nation has a historic mission which consists in dominating the world. Equally, the future of the nation is not considered as a time for preparing a revenge on past. And that is something that is very clearly present in Turkey, but also in Putin’s Russia: the future is really thought of in terms of accomplishing a historical mission to take revenge on History.

Timour Abel  And do you think this revenge on History may be explained by the fact that the societies have been humiliated by certain historical processes, such as the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire or, more recently, the Turkish EU accession negotiations?

Hamit Bozarslan – Yes, in both cases, for Russia and for Turkey—but one could also include Iran—there is a feeling of humiliation, together with very keen nostalgia for empire, a nostalgia felt only by the nation in question. That creates enormous levels of frustration and the desire to obtain by violence what could not be obtained by love. That is why I would say that while the antidemocratic phenomenon was widespread in the 2010s, we need to single out Turkey, Russia, and Iran.

Timour Abel  Would you say that Erdoğan’s authoritarianism is a new phenomenon? Or that it has new specificities in comparison to a basic underlying tendency in Turkish political life?

Hamit Bozarslan – I think that the term “authoritarianism” has lost its validity. The analyses we could put forward would be more in terms of “egocracy”, a notion already deployed by Claude Lefort8, or else of a bloody “state cartel”. The system is embodied by one man but composed of a fairly heteroclite ultranationalist coalition of protagonists active mainly in the domain of coercion and war.

Timour Abel – Let us return if we may to your book Histoire de la Turquie contemporaine9. I was particularly struck by your conclusion: it was 2004 and you were speaking of Turkey being at a crossroads, and of a climate that was largely conducive to positive change. The feeling was widespread at the time. But you also noted, and it was dramatically premonitory, that since 1904, each time Turkey found itself at a crossroads, it opted for the worst scenario, for massive repression, radicalism, and so on. How do you explain that we ended up where we are today once again?

Hamit Bozarslan – How are we to explain it? Once again, let us leave the matter open, but I think that for as long as Turkey does not face up to its history, does not push its history forward, does not criticize its history, we will not be able to escape this vicious circle. This history is firstly that of the Armenian genocide, that Turkey has tried to overcome each time by proposing the ideal of an organic society, that is to say one that is totally homogenous (one language, one empire, one leader, one country, etc.). And it is also a sort of social Darwinist reflex, tending spontaneously to consider other nations as warring species—and what is more, in a manner that is sacralized by unionism or kemalism, or, increasingly today, by Islam. Religion is used as an explanation and justification for social Darwinism. I believe that this period, this dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and genocide of the Armenians, are a paroxysmal point. Second, we need to reappraise the imperial period itself, since the idea that the Turkish nation has a historic mission which consists in dominating the world dates back to that time. This false image of the history of the Ottoman Empire needs to be totally reconstructed. And this history needs to be viewed from a critical perspective, something which is absolutely impossible today.

In addition to this relationship to history, there is another point related to the fact that this feeling of humiliation may be very easily interiorized by the majority Turco-Sunni part of the population. This was already very clear at the time of the Tanzimats. One of the tragedies of the Tanzimats is that the idea of equality was never accepted by the Muslim community—especially the Turco-Islamic community, but also the Muslim community generally. This made it more or less impossible to truly renounce superiority: the superiority of one belief over another, of one nation over another, of one denomination over another, of masculinity over femininity, etc. And that engendered countless interrelated consequences. There is virtually a kind of continuum between masculine domination and national domination, the state is sacred just like masculinity.

Timour Abel  So it could exceed Turkey as a country, and include, for instance, what happens in the Middle East, Islamist movements, etc.?

Hamit Bozarslan – Potentially yes, because the Turkish “historical mission”—as is very clear in Erdoğan’s speeches—has two facets: dominating the world, but also acting as the armed branch for Islam. Becoming a sort of sacrificial actor for Islam, but, in exchange, demanding recognition of its superiority. The initial elements of this doctrine may be discerned as of the 1850s and 1860s.

Timour Abel  In your book you also show how, in building itself, the Turkish state has repeatedly needed to designate some groups within society as “friends” and others as “enemies,” in a process of permanent re-labelling. May this construction of inner enemies—Armenians, Kurds, Alevis, or Syrians depending on the period—be interpreted in terms of cultural racism? And how are we to put an end to that?

Hamit Bozarslan – That brings us back to the question of culture, which has always been raised. I think that for many specialists, culture is a reservoir in which one may find arguments justifying both a highly belligerent stance and, potentially, a consensual, harmonious stance. It is nevertheless clear that the purpose of each period of war, violence, and coercion is to destroy culture itself. There is a sort of simplification through action, and it is not specific to Turkey. It is also the case, for example, of ideologies. Take the extremely refined Marxism of Marx: as soon as you move to Leninism there is an oversimplification. The same is true in the case of Islamism: on the one hand you have extremely refined Islamic thinkers, and on the other, when you move to armed jihadist Islamism, there is an oversimplification—of Islamism, of Islam, and of all the ulemas have produced over the past 1400 years. The doctrinal basis of Al Qaeda or of Islamic State is no more than a dozen or so verses. It was very clearly the same phenomenon in Nazi Germany: Victor Klemperer saw how the German language was brutalized, oversimplified, transformed and metamorphosed even into an instrument of war10. That is why I would say that once you raise the question of culture, you have to see the destructive effects of certain state discourses and their practices of war, violence, and brutality. To survive, culture has to be plural, conflictual, living, with the capacity to produce a critical perspective on society. Once you destroy all that, you destroy culture.

Timour Abel – You sometimes speak of our period as a historical moment when societies are unravelling, when states are being correspondingly weakened, due to globalization, accelerated migrations, networks, and the Mafia too. In these circumstances, how are we to think of prospects for the left and the democratic movement both in Turkey and throughout the world? As well as, in the case of Turkey, prospects for the Kurdish movement?

Hamit Bozarslan – I think that for the Kurds, the question takes on slightly different terms, because Kurdish society has nevertheless remained extremely dynamic and creative. But if you take Turkish society today, you have the impression that not much happens, particularly in relation to the war. You are confronted with a society which has been taken doubly or triply hostage. Already in political terms, it is now forbidden to think in terms of conflict. Legally, in terms of alliances, in truly concrete terms, everything happens as in a game of chess: either you are my friend, in which case you support the war, or you are the enemy. One may also draw a parallel with Russia, for example, during the Ukrainian conflict: either you were the state’s friend, or its opponent—and an opponent may be killed.

Timour Abel  Do you subscribe to the idea that the accelerating drift in power may be explained by the fact that Erdoğan and the current Turkish government are very fragile politically?

Hamit Bozarslan – Definitely. Having said that, I think that it is not solely a matter of fragility, because you also have the destruction of reason, including the reason or rationality of state, which is necessary for the regime’s survival. And that is why Erdoğanism should no longer be described as an authoritarian regime. Take the Pinochet regime for example: that was an authoritarian regime—sliding at times into random repression to augment the leeway available to the executive—and at the same time it was a regime which had control and balance mechanisms. Many authoritarian regimes have such internal mechanisms. Many try to avoid mobilizing their population because authoritarianism cannot put up with or run the risk of an overly mobilized society. In the case of Turkey, on the other hand, there are no longer internal control and balance mechanisms: the country, the regime has become a drunken vessel which can only survive through internal or external crises. It has become a way of managing society. It was already the case in the 1990s—in 2001 I published an article in Esprit titled “La crise comme instrument politique en Turquie” [Crisis as a political instrument in Turkey]11. Since 2013, that is absolutely the case: the regime can no longer survive without engendering crises. But with each crisis it is radicalized in return, thus producing a radicalization effect. Each moment of radicalization then requires a moment of rebalancing, which does not lead on to pragmatism because a new phase of over-radicalization is needed. And, of course, there is no knowing how far such a regime may go. Which is not the case in Russia, for example, which has a far better controlled crisis system.

Timour Abel – This destruction of reason is similar to observations by Hannah Arendt about totalitarian regimes, regimes in perpetual movement that are ultimately destructive of the state itself.

Hamit Bozarslan – From this point of view, that is what Erdoğanism has in common with totalitarian regimes—with the difference that Erdoğanism is incapable of managing society down to its smallest cell, as they used to say in the 1920s and 1930s.

Timour Abel  And if it is incapable of managing society down to its smallest cell, are there institutions which resist it, in the state apparatus for example?

Hamit Bozarslan – No, absolutely not. Diplomacy has been hollowed out, the justice system has been hollowed out. The army is a black box: no doubt opposition does exist within the army, but there is no visible resistance from those with power. No, the institutions have been destroyed—and that is another point Erdoğanism has in common with totalitarianism. Hitler detested the state, totalitarianism detests the state: it loves power but detests state, because the state means institutionality. And institutionality is frightening for a totalitarian regime because the latter is grounded in the principle that the nation is organically embodied by the leader, and that there is a bodily link between him and the nation. From such a viewpoint, institutions can only threaten or undermine this bodily link.

Unfold notes and references
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Ruşen Çakır, Fehmi Çalmuk, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Bir Dönüşüm Öyküsü, İstanbul, Metis, 2001.

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Şerif Mardin is an eminent Turkish sociologist and historian who has produced many works that have profoundly marked research in the social sciences about Turkey, particularly about the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turks movement. He also worked at a very early stage on how politics interlocked with religion, analyzing from this perspective religious brotherhoods (particularly the Nurcus), and the emergence of Islamic political movements in contemporary Turkey.

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Mardin discusses the salami technique in an interview with Rusen Cakir, published in the Vatan newspaper. See: Ruşen Çakır, “AKP: Neydiler Ne oldular?”, Vatan, Sept. 30, 2003.

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In the municipal elections of March 31, 2019, the opposition notably won control of the cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, and Antalya, in a major political setback for the AKP and for President Erdoğan who had been personally involved in the campaign. He then requested that the Istanbul vote be annulled. Fresh elections were held on June 23, 2019. This resulted in an even heavier defeat for the AKP, and the opposition led by Ekrem İmamoğlu further widened the gap, winning nearly a million votes more than the AKP candidate, Binali Yıldırım.

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Daron Acemoğlu, James A. Robinson, “Istanbul Shows How Democracy Is Won,” Project Syndicate, June 25, 2019 [online]. 

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See especially: Fikret Adanir, “Kemalist Authoritarianism and Fascist Trends in Turkey during the Inter-War Period”, in Stein Ugelvik Larsen (ed.), Fascism Outside Europe. The European Impulse against Domestic in the Diffusion of Global Fascism, Boulder, Social Science Monographs, 2001.

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Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”, New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995 [online].

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Claude Lefort, Un homme en trop. Réflexions sur L’Archipel du Goulag [1976], Paris, Belin, 2015, particularly chapter III (p. 79-109).

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Hamit Bozarslan, Histoire de la Turquie contemporaine, Paris, La Découverte, 2004.

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Victor Klemprer, LTI. The Language of the Third Reich, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013 (1947).

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Hamit Bozarslan, “La crise comme instrument politique en Turquie”, Esprit, January 2001, p. 140-151.