Leaders who see themselves as infallible and who have no institutional constraints on their ability to make policy don’t leave power willingly. This can include leaders elected democratically. They weaken political institutions in their campaign to fend off challengers and remain in office. So whether or not Erdoğan survives is less important for Turkey than the damage being done to Turkish institutions, which in turn poses a real challenge for American interests in the Middle East that depend heavily on a strong Turkey.
The role of individual leaders is widely acknowledged in political science, but there is debate about their ability to overcome institutional constraints and shape policy along their own priorities. In earlier research, I compared Turkey’s two Islamist prime ministers to each other, and then compared their experience to two Israeli prime ministers to determine the extent of the individual-institutional balance. While I ranked Israel as a centralized system, in which the prime minister has considerable decision-making room to make policy, Turkey under the first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, was a decentralized system, because the military and other Kemalist institutions constrained the prime minister’s ability to pursue his own policy preferences.
Erbakan, head of the Islamist Refah Partisi (Welfare Party), was ideological and inflexible. He knew the constraints that faced him when he took office in 1996, and he certainly knew that the powerful and politically active Turkish armed forces would be watching him closely. Tensions were longstanding between the Islamist parties and the Kemalists — those agencies that committed themselves to protecting the secularist legacies of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — and the military had already thrown three secular governments out of office.
Erbakan antagonized the military almost from the beginning of his short tenure (he was removed from office about 11 months later). His foreign policy shifted Turkey from a focus on Europe and the West to the Muslim world, and his domestic policy promoted Islamic institutions and norms within the public sphere. When the military finally had enough and pressured him to leave office, it also launched the Feb. 28 process, a purging of civil servants and military men suspected of Islamist sympathies. Erdoğan himself was caught up in the purge: He later spent four months in jail and was briefly banned from politics.
Erdoğan was pragmatic and flexible. He watched Erbakan try to get around his institutional constraints and fail, and he saw the damage the resulting military response did to the Islamist movement. The lesson he learned was that institutions matter; but instead of ignoring institutional constraints on the executive, the trick was to change them.
Erdoğan set about adapting the institutions of Turkish politics. He amended the Constitution (a process that had begun under previous governments) and the legal system, and he shifted the balance in the national security decision-making process in favor of civilians over security officials. All of this was consistent with the process of democratization, and made the political system more democratic.
But there was a darker side to this process. While removing the army from politics, Erdoğan also undermined the ability of any actor or agency to dissent from his authority or to criticize it. Over the last few years, Erdoğan has seen himself as the embodiment of the Turkish state and Turkish identity. His comments during the Gezi Park protests alongside his scolding of Turks on their morals and demands about their personal behavior are part of this. Without any institutional constraints on his policy, some argue he has become as authoritarian as the army he has replaced.
This makes the current struggle over the corruption scandals so consequential. It is one part tug-of-war between the two main elements of Turkey’s Islamist-conservative movement, the AKP and the Gülenist movement (also known as Hizmet, or the Service), one part Erdoğan responding to what he sees as illegitimate criticism of his rule.
At this point there is no viable substitute to either the AKP or to Erdoğan himself (though President Abdullah Gül is touted as a possible candidate). What is more likely is the undermining of Turkey’s political institutions to the point that the country’s politics becomes as dysfunctional as it was in the pre-AKP era. The institutions that have suffered most directly as a result of Erdoğan’s effort to shut down the investigations are the judiciary and the police, but the civil service and the media have also been victims of Erdoğan’s tenure. So, too, has the entire political system that, in a democracy, depends upon a loyal opposition able to safely critique the government and suggest alternatives.
Erdoğan understands the importance of controlling institutions; that was the lesson he learned from Erbakan’s experience. But he understands them in a particular framework: as a support structure for the leader, rather than for the state. By removing all institutional limitations on his power, or by controlling whatever remains, Erdoğan has ensured that whether or not he falls, the damage to Turkish political institutions will still be considerable.