Argument

Erdogan Goes for the Death Blow Against Turkey’s Bureaucracy

In Sunday's constitutional referendum, the country's civil servants will make their last stand as an independent force.

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On the night of June 16, 1826, blood ran on the streets of Istanbul. Mobs of the sultan’s loyalists raided buildings belonging to the Janissaries, hunting down anyone affiliated with the group. The Janissaries had once been the elite fighting force that spearheaded Ottoman armies. By this time, however, they were also a vested interest group occupying key positions in business and government. They had de facto power over government policy and had deposed more than one sultan who displeased them.

But when their 1826 coup went south, Sultan Mahmud II sought to extinguish their political power once and for all. In what came to be known as the “Auspicious Incident,” thousands of Janissaries were killed and many more went into self-imposed exile.

Nearly two centuries later, in April 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a state visit in Croatia: “My greatest opponent in the bureaucracy has always been the bureaucratic oligarchy. Politicians are only as successful to the degree that they defeat the bureaucratic oligarchy. This I believe.”

To Erdogan, politics isn’t merely a matter of competing with different political parties in a clearly defined public space. It is also a deeper struggle, fought in the bowels of the state, against forces that may or may not be represented in the electoral system. And if governing is a war against vested interest groups, then the constitutional referendum scheduled for Sunday is meant to be the definitive battle.

The proposed system is designed to link all branches of government to the person of the president. Presidential and parliamentary elections would henceforth be held simultaneously, with the president permitted to serve as party bosses. In Turkey, those bosses have the last say over lists of parliament candidates before elections, which means the president could use party discipline to control major factions of parliament. The president would also largely determine the makeup of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

This system, Erdogan said in a recent speech, will “break the back of the bureaucratic oligarchy.” This will mark a dramatic change for Turkish politics. For as long as the Turkish state existed, certain religious, ethnic, and ideological groups have cooperated within it to varying degrees. Some only nurture distant sympathy toward one another, while others collude on which officials receive key promotions, influence policy, and line their pockets. Today, Alevis, who are often socialists, are strong in the judiciary. The “Ulkucu,” the base of the Nationalist Movement Party, are strong in the police and army special forces. Military officers can be pro-Russian Eurasianists, and it’s not uncommon to find Freemasons among the diplomatic corps, or Central Bank economists. There are also religious networks, usually named after a founder — like the Gulenists, Suleymanists, Menzil, Iskender Pashaists, or Cerrahiists. Traditionally, most of these religious networks have been loose associations.

Overseeing these, and many other such groups, is what Erdogan’s government today calls the vesayet, often translated as “tutelage.” The term refers to the Kemalist elite that occupied the commanding heights of the state until the mid-2000s. The mental image many Turks get here is senior judges and generals in smoke-filled rooms, talking about whom to promote, where to distribute rents, and how to hold down Communists and Islamists.

In order to get things done in government, elected politicians traditionally were obliged to constantly bargain with the groups that composed this “bureaucratic oligarchy.” Most of Turkey’s political trends, such as the Leftists or Nationalists, have long had their natural networks in the corridors of the state, and would leverage them to get things done. The prime minister would be from one of these groups and be responsible for the day-to-day business of government. The president would always represent the Kemalist order and oversee the senior cadre of the Constitutional Court and senior military officials. The basic rhythm of government was not one of formal checks and balances, but tension between the president and prime minister.

The Islamists were left out of this, because Turkey’s state ideology long considered them a threat. That is why they had to find other methods of governing when they came to power in 2002 — ways around the entrenched interest groups. In its early years, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) softened the state’s opposition to it by emphasizing liberal reforms, accession to the European Union, and economic discipline.

But the government was a hostile place for Islamists. When President Ahmet Necdet Sezer stepped down, Kemalist politicians and judges managed to block the AK Party from appointing its own candidate, and the military threatened a coup through its website. In 2008, the AK Party barely survived an attempt to shut it down.

The AK Party leadership found that it had to fight back, and a key ally in this endeavor were the Gulenists, an unusually large and cohesive Islamist group that been undertaking a parallel process to infiltrate the state. By allying themselves with the group, the AK Party government gained the leverage it needed to supplant hard-line Kemalists in the military and judiciary. The government initiated a series of high-profile court cases, which effectively purged the military, and organized a referendum in 2010 that allowed the Gulenists to stack the judiciary.

By 2013, however, the Gulenists were simply too powerful for the AK Party’s comfort. Like the Janissaries, they eventually tried to strong-arm the ruler to get what they wanted. Like Mahmud II, Erdogan purged them — not only from the state, but from the country. It is difficult to get a ballpark estimate of those who were fired or suspended, but the number is probably well over 100,000.

In a certain sense, Erdogan’s promise to break the “bureaucratic oligarchy’s” back has already been fulfilled. Critical parts of the state are now staffed with people and groups loyal to Erdogan, or at least don’t have affiliations that could get in the way.

So why the referendum? Partly because years of intense bureaucratic battles have done lasting damage to state institutions. Both the president and prime minister are now elected by popular vote, so the old system of balancing political and nonpolitical offices is no longer tenable. There are gaping holes in the bureaucracy where competent soldiers, intelligence officers, central bankers, and judges should be. It’s as if there was a bar fight, people are bleeding all over the floor, broken bottles scattered about, and among the wreckage, one rather tall man remains standing.

The constitutional amendments that are up for a vote in the upcoming referendum are designed to consolidate this victory and set up a new order. In the proposed system, the will of the majority is crystallized in the president, then reflected through all three branches of government. All actions of the state are an uncompromised extension of this single person’s will. There will surely still be groups within the state, but they will exist only to the extent that they can serve the president. The president will think of them as appendages, rather than allies.

According to the “Yes” campaign, this system will allow Turkey to finally seize its destiny as a great power. “Terror will end,” they say, and the economy will flourish. The assumption is that the state hasn’t solved its problems because it wasn’t in touch with the majority of the population. After the referendum, it would be imbued with the virtue of the people, and would cut through serious problems like a hot knife through butter.

These campaign promises are more than ambitious. The “Yes” campaign’s absolute faith in people power is reminiscent of the French, Soviet, and Iranian revolutions. “Have you noticed that this is not quiet, our people are loudly making a Revolution,” tweeted Mehmet Ucum, a chief advisor to Erdogan. “The people are taking a step to establish their own State. May April 16 be blessed.”

Leading pro-government columnist Ibrahim Karagul echoed the revolutionary language, calling the referendum a “miracle” and “not a domestic political struggle, but a struggle of history, a struggle of geography, and the struggle of absorbing the blows directed at our country.”

For those less enthusiastic about the proposed changes, questions remain. If 50 to 60 percent of the population forms a politically coherent majority and monopolizes the state, what is the minority to do? If state institutions are closed to a significant portion of the population, they could look for alternative areas of politics. That should be one of the lessons of the 40-year Kurdish insurgency in the southeast.

Professor Ihsan Fazlioglu, a historian of science and philosophy, once explained that the classical Arab historiographer Ibn Khaldun distinguished between two kinds of rule. “Hukuma” is — through good or evil means — rule according to the nature of circumstances. “Tahakkum,” however, is the ruler forcing himself onto circumstances.

Turkey today is a highly connected, fairly globalized society that is used to a certain standard of individual freedoms. With the upcoming constitutional changes, the most pressing question isn’t necessarily whether they fit democratic norms, but whether they align with the nature of Turkey’s circumstances today.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV).

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