The Turkish Malaise by Cengiz Aktar

What is going on in Turkey since some time now, doesn’t seem to me an accidental deviation from an orthodox path, which could be redressed by a change in government. It is high time to recognize that the “Erdoğan phenomenon or problem” has morphed and now embraces the majority of the Turkish population… that Turkey is sailing towards uncharted waters, becoming increasingly un-democratic, dewesternized and unmanageable…that Turkey is having an aggressive external narrative and action. To decipher the present state of affairs I would like to make three observations pertaining to political theory in order to introduce the debate.    

First, the Turkish regime (not the government), looks different than a classical authoritarian rule; it shows clear features of a totalitarian regime. Always remember Umberto Eco: “Ur-Fascism (original) can come back under the most innocent of costumes. Our duty is to uncover it and point the finger at any of its new instances — every day and in every part of the world.

Current theoretical categorisations of authoritarian regimes look insufficient in defining the Turkish regime. They put too much emphasis on its repressive and authoritarian methods as well as the option of a political alternative. We often hear within the current theoretical framework, “illiberal democracy”, “competitive authoritarianism” or even “Erdoğanism”. This would not only be insufficient but also misleading as to the means needed to fight the monster… For in the end, the disappearance of the autocrat means often the end of autocracy. On the contrary, totalitarianism, unless some process of denazification is implemented, the masses may survive the demise of the leader.

The Turkish regime and its leader don’t seem ready to leave power by losing elections nor are they ready to organise free and fair elections. A regime that has been involved in so many illegal and anti-constitutional deeds in and out of the country cannot leave power by will. So any label containing “democracy” and “competition” like in “illiberal democracy” or “competitive authoritarianism” referring to competing political parties and to elections seem irrelevant and should be avoided.

But there is more…

As for Turkey, downstream, at the level of its majoritarian base, the regime enjoys a degree of popular support unmatched in the history of the Republic. Although there are similarities with authoritarian archetypes from the Ottoman Ittihadist era (1908-1918) and the time of the single-party regime in the first two decades of the Republic (1923-1946) for the first time, there is a massive support of the masses, one that the Ittihadists and Kemalists greatly lacked. In-depth analyses of this originality, of its roots and sources of inspiration are still in their early days.

Here the “masses” feature of Hannah Arendt’s political theory is, in fact, fundamental to the understanding of contemporary Turkish totalitarianism.

Let me quote her: “It would be a still more serious mistake to forget that the totalitarian regimes, so long as they are in power, and the totalitarian leaders, so long as they are alive, ‘command and rest upon mass support’ up to the end. Hitler’s rise to power was legal in terms of majority rule and neither he nor Stalin could have maintained the leadership of large populations, survived many interior and exterior crises, and braved the numerous dangers of relentless intra-party struggles if they hadn’t had the confidence of the masses”.    

Confidence! The key concept! Let me share a figure: Despite all odds, shortcomings, sufferings, a widespread kleptocracy, a sweeping waste and dilapidation of public assets, and an avalanche of catastrophic economic, political, social deeds in the country and outside, a rock-solid one third of the population is still supporting the regime. Add to it the so-called opposition, which is no different than the regime when it comes to issues pertaining to democratic functioning, Kurds, equal citizenship, gunboat diplomacy, conquests and invasions…

The source of Erdoğan’s and his regime’s legitimacy is the majoritarian constituency made up of disparate masses which he likes to call the “national will” and the “blessed nation”. These masses present totalitarian characteristics subsumed in a harmonious trilogy between themselves, their leader, and ideology. The opposition, with the notorious exception of the left-wing Kurds, is an integral part of the masses as the “national opposition”. We only need to recall this national opposition’s euphoria at the regime’s military adventures, its silence in the face of support for jihadism, its endorsement of the promiscuity with the Russian regime and its congenital Kurdophobia or anti-Kurdism that I derive from anti-Semitism. Of course the regime is happily relies on this so-called opposition and manipulates it as much as it wants.

The regime has secured the support of the masses, ideologically but also economically.

There are approximately 17 million citizens who survive without working thanks to various subsidies of social welfare, either in cash or in kind. Then there are the regime’s “clients” who benefit from a nepotistic public bidding system that favours a cohort of AKP businessmen. Then the regime’s large and influential crowd of propagandists. Also add to this all those who hedonistically benefit from the mass consumer society the regime has managed to develop. The system works in an oily fashion.

The second observation is the irregularity or oddity of the Turkish totalitarianism in a comparative perspective. Indeed contrary to the German, Italian, and Russian cases in the early 20th century, the Turkish totalitarianism has emerged in a political, economic, and social environment that were rather promising than conflictual.

Not only the environment was not conflictual but Turkey, let’s remember, was booming. It was a rising star, a role-model for Muslim countries, beacon of the new concept “muslim-democracy” with solid internal and external records, the EU candidacy and the EU inspired reforms that have broken countless taboos. Think tanks popping up everywhere, news articles, a huge visibility…

Turkey could have perfectly continued in the reformist, pro-European change process. But it didn’t… and nothing was imposing on Turkey such demise. Neither the regime nor the opposition nor the society at large, has had the desire and the energy to pursue, to follow up… To the contrary the Turkish polity has preferred to embrace an opposite course to the one we have witnessed say between 1999 and 2007. In other words the Turkish totalitarianism is a man-made or “man-desired” transformation and counter-reform.

The third observation pertains to the spectacularly speedy pace and the ideological as well as political supports of the transformation.

Once Erdoğan has decided to change course by 2010 (it is on 23 April 2010 that he uttered first the Turkish style presidential system) and to mark a 180 degrees rectification to the reformist, pro-European and “liberal” path, he found a fertile ideological and political ground to impose the new system.

Thus, to decipher the Turkish totalitarianism that Erdoğan has built brick by brick, we should consider, in addition to the support of the masses, his personality, his fears as well as the characteristics of the Turkish polity: anti-Westernism, lack of democratic culture, weak institutions, and a chronic absence of any meaningful social contract. All these enable a strong rule. At the end of the day, Erdoğan and Political Islam didn’t have to labour, to work much to destroy the ancient system.

2013 is certainly the year of the great shift. Three major developments occurred: The Gezi protests in June, demise of Mursi in July, and 17/25 December disclosures of embezzlement. These developments have completely transformed Erdoğan who detected the early signs of contest to his omnipotence.

Theron ideologically speaking, the regime surfed on the predispositions of the social fabric which is filled with a sense of religious belonging to Sunni Islam mixed with a hysterical, deeply rooted and conquering nationalism.

As for the salient characteristics of the social modus operandi, I would mention the disrespect for the rule of law coupled with an unwavering belief in the privileges of the Sunni Muslim majority.

These predispositions date back to the Armenian genocide and other mass crimes. They grow in the webs of a social fabric poisoned by mass killings and plunders which were shielded by impunity and amnesia.

So, able to digest the horrors of the past, the social fabric can possibly absorb much more. In a normal country, a regime which has violated countless times the laws and the Constitution, which has created an unprecedented institutional and social wreckage and continue to do so, should have been tried accordingly since long time.

Thanks to its culture of impunity and unaccountability Turkey lacks such modus operandi. Obviously, present day’s unlawful political, economic and social practices appear trivial compared to past genocides, pogroms, mass killings and spoliations! Indeed Turkey has always looked like a museum of malicious acts, crimes that has never been questioned, whose perpetrators have always gotten away with what they had done.

Therefore, irresponsibility, impunity, and amnesia over past crimes result in a “congenital” contempt for the rule of law. Concretely, that equates to widespread prejudice through the dysfunction of judiciary system and the destruction of the sense of justice in the society. The only exception remains the crimes against state, which are always punished.

Irresponsibility, impunity, and amnesia over past crimes result as well, in an instinctive enmity for the Other, for all those who are “different” than the role-model imposed by the strongman of the moment. Namely a “straight male Sunni Turk”!

Such a social fabric subsists only as long as it can continue to “devour” the Other, even prepared to self-consume, as is the case today.

Let’s finally turn to the desire for a strong government. As we have seen, no matter how irrational the political decision, the majority of public opinion supports the government, against all odds, driven by an ancestral feeling of insecurity and a belief in a Western plot against the country. The insecurity remains intimately linked to the constituent evils already mentioned.

Here I would refer to another brilliant observer of the rise of Nazism, Wilhelm Reich, who argues that neither the Marxist class-based explanations, nor the cult of personality, nor the claim that naive masses were exploited by evil politicians, nor the absurd claim that no one knew what was really going on, are appropriate for understanding totalitarianism.

According to Reich, people come to desire fascism… and their own repression (we are fully in Etienne de la Boétie and his mid-16th century pamphlet The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude) For Reich, mass ceremonies allow ordinary people to unload the irrationality that comes from thousands of years of repressed biological impulses. The masses, when conditions allow it, at certain periods in history, would find the opportunity to experience the totalitarianism they desire.

Indeed the inherited aspects of totalitarianism, gregarious and liturgical, are all present in the so-called New Turkey. The regime’s rallies are filled with exhortations, fainting hysterics, and outright lynching. The submissiveness to the megalomaniac raïs Erdoğan who has been truly in power since 1994 when he conquered the Istanbul mayorship, the leader of subjugated, often female, crowds capable of applauding anything and everything said by the man they adore, is unwavering.

All these make me say that we are in front of something that is far more serious than a simple accidental deviation.



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.