The perils of personalizing power: Erdoğan’s one-man rule has made him increasingly vulnerable

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan long believed that establishing one-man rule would end all his headaches. Instead, the system he created has only caused him more trouble. So great is Erdoğan’s remorse that he is now said to be thinking of amending the executive presidency to strengthen the role of parliament.


Unintended consequences


The concentration of power in one man’s hands is to blame for the country’s ills and Erdoğan’s sagging popularity. The presidential system Erdoğan established in a bid to increase his power has only made him weaker. Under the parliamentary system, he was able to form single party governments with much less than the 50% plus 1 that is now necessary to win in the current system. With polls showing support for the AKP and MHP at unprecedented lows, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Erdoğan to maintain his majority.


The presidential system had another unintended impact on Erdoğan’s rule. He has always been blessed with a divided opposition, but the new system has forced the opposition to unite. They are still split among Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, secularists, and Islamists, but their rejection of the executive presidency has created common ground. Thanks to a new law allowing electoral alliances, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the nationalist Good (Iyi) Party, the Islamist Felicity Party, and the right-wing Democrat Party decided to put their differences aside and form a united front, the Nation Alliance, ahead of the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. Two AKP breakaway parties, the Democracy and Progress Party and the Future Party, are now expected to join the Nation Alliance. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was not included in the alliance, but in the 2019 local elections the party asked its supporters to vote for the united opposition anyway. Their victory in the local elections proved to the opposition parties that if they join forces, they can beat Erdoğan.


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The hollowing out of institutions


There are other reasons the presidential system has proved disappointing for the strong man as well. Erdoğan had promised that the new system would allow him to respond to crises faster and resolve the country’s problems more efficiently. Nothing of the sort has happened. A mountain of problems now constantly requires the attention of an exhausted Erdoğan, who regularly fails to address them. Many of them are urgent. This summer, Erdoğan faced criticism due to the government’s poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires. The government admitted that a lack of usable firefighting aircraft was part of the problem.


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But the real problem lies elsewhere. Under Erdoğan’s one-man rule, institutions have been hollowed out. Never truly meritocratic, the centralization of clientelism and patronage rendered the system all the more inefficient. Capable and experienced people have been replaced with Erdoğan loyalists, inept bureaucrats are scared to take action, and everyone waits for orders from the top, making Turkish bureaucracy paralyzed in the face of a crisis.


Problems at home, problems in the world


Some of the biggest problems with Erdoğan’s personalization of power involve the economy. The country’s economic woes are serious and continue to grow. Far from becoming one of the world’s 10 largest economies by 2023, as Erdoğan promised, Turkey is now out of the top 20. Double-digit inflation, increasing unemployment, and rising consumer prices have made life unbearable for millions. Erdoğan’s erratic and heavy-handed leadership is largely to blame. His decision to abruptly fire three central bank governors in the last two and a half years has roiled the lira and spooked investors, who are worried about his firm control over monetary policy. More paranoid than ever, he has surrounded himself with yes-men and oddballs, leaving his eccentric views, such as that high interest rates are the cause of inflation, rather than a cure, unchecked.


Making policy based on one man’s whims has had devastating implications for the country’s foreign policy as well. Erdoğan sidelined institutions such as the National Security Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which once played important roles in foreign policy making. Even if the ministry was not deliberately sidelined, it would have struggled to play the role it once did. It lost its technocratic depth and institutional memory and was staffed with inexperienced loyalists. The result is a confused Turkish foreign policy dictated by Erdoğan’s whims. Turkish people are now paying the price. Erdoğan’s missteps have strained ties with Turkey’s most important European trading partners, subjected the country to U.S. sanctions, cost taxpayers billions of dollars in lost contracts, and even led to economic retaliation from Russia, a country with which Erdoğan has cultivated close ties.


Looking ahead


The country’s problems are mounting and Erdoğan looks increasingly incapable of addressing them. Even his supporters complain that the presidential system has made things worse. In the past, they would ask members of parliament to solve their problems, but under the new system, parliament is weak and even AKP MPs have little access to Erdoğan. Growing public frustration with presidentialism has become a unifying force for the opposition. It is pushing for a return to a revised parliamentary system, and representatives of the opposition parties recently started working on a joint road map. By contrast, Erdoğan seems like a man without a plan. He established the presidential system to secure more power, but instead it appears to have rendered him even more powerless.

Gönül Tol is the founding director of MEI’s Turkey program and  senior fellow with the Frontier Europe Initiative.


Seren Selvin Korkmaz is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Turkey program, the executive director of the IstanPol Institute in Istanbul, and a doctoral researcher at the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies.


This is an excerpt from the original article, which appeared in [email protected] (link included)


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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.