Turkey – Is Erdoğan’s Competitive Authoritarian Regime Stable?

Christopher Carothers argues in his recent article “the Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism” that many competitive authoritarian (CA) regimes have not achieved stability over the past ten years.(1) The data suggest that only a small number of CA regimes seem stable; the rest either democratised or turned into fully authoritarian regimes. According to his observations, there are four factors leading to breakdown in CA regimes: losing elections (national, local/mayoral) due to poor electoral strategies; manipulated elections triggering massive public protests and anger; achieving successful election rigging but turning the regime fully authoritarian out of fear of rising opposition; and finally losing ideological legitimacy for their regime.

Turkey is an interesting case study testing all these theories. Upcoming local elections will be held on 31 of March, 2019 and current polls suggest that the ruling AKP’s vote share is around 34-35%. If the opposition wins mayoral elections in big cities like İstanbul, Ankara, and Kocaeli, this might not only create an electoral alternative as suggested by Carothers, but it would also cut the patrimonial ties controlled by municipal authorities. In the Turkish context understating neo-patrimonial relations as a source of de facto power for President Erdoğan and his party, the AKP, is important to grasp the dynamics of the Turkish regime. (2) Neo-patrimonialism sets hierarchical patronal relations based on transferring collective interests from the big patron to the loyal group in exchange for political loyalty.(3) The selective transfer of collective interests in the forms of public aid, power and even public service is mostly controlled by local authorities, which also possess knowledge about electors in their area. Losing local elections would cut those ties which are already beginning to be severed by the deepening economic crisis.

Allegations of election/referendum rigging have been voiced for quite some time in Turkey without massive public protests.(4) This can be seen especially in the 2017 constitutional referendum, which established a hyper-presidential legal ground for Erdoğan’s patrimonial CA regime. The Higher Election Board accepted unstamped ballots, despite the clear ban in law no. 298, art.10. Furthermore, the fear of massive public protests like the Gezi protests in 2013 pushed the Erdoğan regime into passing repressive laws and being more aggressive. For instance recently 13 liberal academics and human rights activists were arrested and accused of spreading and organizing the Gezi protests, which more than 3 million people attended. Freedom House data confirms Carother’s arguments that the regime is turning seemingly more authoritarian spreading fear among the public in case they decide to take streets again.

As for losing its ideological legitimacy, the AKP’s CA regime faces the same danger. President Erdoğan still claims that Turkey is a democratic and free country where people enjoy basic rights despite overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise. Erdoğan’s regime increasingly compensates for the weaknesses of this argument by turning to Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially at the local level however high corruption rates and patrimonial relations potentially damage the religion and its power as source legitimacy increasingly in divided Turkish society even though it is hard to measure its extent at the moment. Also Erdoğan’s regime has enjoyed performance legitimacy due to its good economic performance in the past. Nowadays high inflation and unemployment, lower economic growth and bad economic performance will test Erdogan regimes’ performance legitimacy.

In short, the immediate state of the Turkish regime points in a towards more authoritarian direction, however it will be very hard for the AKP regime to stabilise it in the long run.

Notes

  1. Christopher Carothers, “the Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism”, Journal of Democracy, vol.29/4, October 2018, p. 130.

2. Fatih Çağatay Cengiz, “Proliferation of Neopatrimonial Domination in Turkey”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2018.15096938.
https://doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2018.1509693.

3. Gero Erdman, – Ulf Engel, “Neopatrimonialism Revisited – Beyond a Catch-All Concept”, Giga Working papers, no.16, 2006. P.20.
http://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/system/files/publications/wp16_erdmann-engel.pdf.

4. Koray Çalışkan, “Toward a New Political Regime in Turkey: From Competitive Toward Full Authoritarianism”, New Perspectives on Turkey, vol. 58,2018, p. 12-16.

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