He has finally done it. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who has won 12 electoral contests in a row since first coming to power with his neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, would now seem to be lord of all he surveys.
Last Sunday, faced with his first real challenge at the ballot box by an energised opposition that had banded together to block his path to one-man rule, he won decisive victories: re-elected as president under a new regime modelled more on Russia than on France or the US, and with a parliamentary majority he secured by allying with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Under the new presidential regime, the job of prime minister, in which Erdoğan served three terms before being first elected president in 2014, is abolished. He will dominate not just the executive, appointing all ministers and chairing cabinet, but the judiciary and the legislature—even though the vitality of these elections and the reinvigorated opposition suggest that parliament will not easily turn into a rubber stamp and that this diverse country will not simply roll over.
Turkey remains a nation split down the middle. On one side are the conservative masses of Turkey’s Anatolian heartland to whom Erdoğan and the AKP have given voice, marginalised as pious backwoodsmen by the Kemalist elites who ran the country as their inalienable inheritance from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire almost a century ago. His followers know it was Erdoğan who included them for the first time and gave them new schools and hospitals, new roads and airports, and above all, dignity and identity. In his victory speech Erdoğan vowed that he would make those who were once left out into ‘first class citizens’.
The opposition, led by the centre-left and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Atatürk, took the Aegean coast and the big cities, while the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won heavily in the predominantly Kurdish southeast and east.
Erdoğan’s almost revivalist constituency held firm, giving him thumping majorities of over 70% in cities of the interior like Kayseri, Konya and Sivas—his so-called ‘Black Turks’ thumbing their noses at coastal and metropolitan clusters of privileged ‘White Turks’. The president did what he does best: he polarised the country, the tactic he employs to turbocharge his followers.
Over the past three years, since he briefly lost the AKP’s parliamentary majority in the first of two general elections in 2015, this neo-Islamist has turned to the ultranationalist right to swell his following. After a 30-year-old conflict reignited with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in mid-2015, the government fanned the flames as Erdoğan launched a three-pronged attack on Kurdish rebels and insurgents—in southeast Turkey, across the border in Syria and, in the run-up to this election, inside Iraq—harvesting more than enough MHP votes to make up for AKP losses.
Just as Turkey is split, there have always been two sides to Erdoğan. There’s the natural politician, richly gifted and sometimes reformist, a towering figure and an almost elemental electoral force. Then there’s the wilful and petulant would-be sultan, stalked by paranoia and hubris in his vast faux-Ottoman palace which would fit Versailles, the White House and the Kremlin. This is the man who has always said that a parliamentary system is too weak to bring Turkey to the greatness which is the birthright of Turks and which he alone incarnates.
In the past five years, as Erdoğan set his course for his Vladimir Putin–style presidency unfettered by checks and balances, it is the second half of this split personality he has most shown the world, as he treats Turks and Turkey as his patriarchal property, brooking no dissent and tolerating no other power centre, even inside an AKP he has purged of potential rivals and packed with sycophants.
It was in 2013 that Erdoğan’s halo slipped. Until then he looked a plausible standard-bearer of an ostensibly modern Islamism marketed as a Muslim analogue to European Christian democracy. In mid-2013, secular and liberal Turks went into the streets of Turkey’s cities to demand an end to the government’s pious intrusions into the personal and public space of a very diverse society, and by year end Erdoğan’s most valued allies within the system—followers of the shadowy Islamist movement of Fethullah Gulen—exposed massive corruption in his inner circle.
Those graft probes by erstwhile allies burrowed into the police and the judiciary flicked the AKP’s conspiracy-theory switch, and lit the country with an efflorescence of Erdoğanist rage. The abortive coup of July 2016 that the government blames on Gulenists infiltrated in the military confirmed Erdoğan in his thinking: there could be no surrender of any power whatsoever.
The government carried out vast purges, sweeping up dissidents and opponents as well as real or alleged Gulenists. It has jailed more than 50,000 and fired another 130,000: generals and police, judges and prosecutors, teachers and academics, civil servants and journalists. Dozens of leaders, MPs and mayors from HDP are in jail. Its control of the streets and media is total. These elections were to make de jure what is de facto, to legitimise powers Erdoğan has already seized.
In his supreme moment of triumph, nonetheless, Erdoğan’s unfettered power will not necessarily help him weather the storms ahead: a vulnerable, indebted and overheated economy with rising inflation and a falling currency; poisonous relations with Turkey’s traditional allies in the EU and NATO; and perilous military incursions into the neighbouring maelstroms of Syria and Iraq. When heading into storms of such ferocity, even the mightiest presidents need lightning rods—such as prime ministers—and Erdoğan, by his will and choice, is alone.