A Coalitional Politics Perspective of Rising Authoritarianism and Its Implications for the Future

A Coalitional Politics Perspective of Rising Authoritarianism and Its Implications for the Future


Analysing ‘rising authoritarianism’ through the lens of “electoral authoritarianism” and/or “competitive authoritarianism” may not be adequate for a better understanding of why the government resorts to authoritarian rule in recent years. The selectorate theory of Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003) is applied to Turkish politics. The piece argues that the winning coalition of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AK Party) governments used to be initially larger when it was first elected in November 2002, but its size shrank until today. A smaller size of a winning coalition enforces the government to protect its ‘fortress’ by its own means in order to limit influence of the opposition so as to remain in power. After briefly presenting the theory and my main arguments, I discuss four implications of a reduced size of a winning coalition for the future.


Headlines, columns, and daily news are full of new stories of statements of the President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and members of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AK Party) on controversial issues

[1] that lead society to be sceptical of rising authoritarianism in the country. Some may hear about the concept of “electoral authoritarianism” or “competitive authoritarianism”[2] applied to today’s politics in Turkey. In a nutshell, “competitive authoritarianism” underlines democratic features of a regime, namely democratic elections in a democratic country; however, the concept also highlights several authoritarian orientations in such a regime, especially suppression of the opposition. In such a political environment, the governing party can always remain in power because the opposition cannot fully find opportunities to reach voters as efficiently as the governing party does. Although this analytical framework provides insights on several aspects of dynamics of Turkish political life, nowadays, it cannot tell us why the government, especially the President likes to play the strong man card so incessantly.

Selectorate Theory and ‘Rising Authoritarianism’

Although it has been implicitly discussed that the AK Party has lost its domestic and external allies, the analysis may not offer much new food for thought. However, rising authoritarianism can be interpreted best by viewing how politics work from a perspective of coalitional politics. Governments, regardless of regime type, depend upon a coalition of supporters and allies both within and outside the political entity. A candidate of a political race is first accountable to the selectorate, in other words, “who has a formal role in expressing a preference over the selection of the leadership that rules them, through their expression of preference” (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003, p.57). In democracies, the selectorate involves the voters, whereas in non-democratic regimes, it is a small coalition of key actors on whose support the leader relies on. A winning coalition, which is a subset of the selectorate, involves actors who “control the resources vital to the political survival of the incumbent” (Ibid, p.57).[3] Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003) and Smith (2011) add one layer to the winning coalition which they call the “essentials.” The group is much smaller than a winning coalition, and the incumbent has to satisfy their political and economic needs so as to keep them loyal.

According to Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2003), the political leader makes two decisions, first taxing, and second spending. These decisions, in brief, are related to formation of the winning coalition such as how much to tax the core electoral constituency, and how to blend public and private good spending. The “essentials” within the winning coalition are rewarded by private good spending although private good spending can be in the form of public spending such as ‘white elephant’ projects that are not contributing to social welfare but rather aimed to keep the “essentials” happy through a rewarding mechanism. The leader needs political and economic support of the winning coalition, and perhaps more importantly that of the “essentials” in the inner circle of the winning coalition.

When the AK Party won the elections in November 2002, the winning coalition included both domestic and external supporters; namely, the European Union,[4] the United States,[5] liberals within the country,[6] the Gülenists,[7] conservative citizens of Turkish society –as their votes determine who would be elected in elections–, faith-based non-profit organisations,[8] and conservative businessmen[9] among many others when the party first assumed power in 2002. The “essentials” in the winning coalition were presumably the Gülenists, the conservative businessmen whose support was critical for the party. The party has achieved consolidation of its power in the last decade as it first by challenging the military and the Kemalists, and currently by excluding one of the major actors in the initial winning coalition, the Gülenists.  However, the party has currently lost, or say has entered in a process of side-lining many of the critical actors in the winning coalition.[10]

This results in at least two significant challenges for the party and the country as well. First, the size of the winning coalition has declined from 2002 until today since frictions within the coalition have become apparent in recent years. Although the size of the winning coalition seems to be declining, that of the electorate has been stable in terms of percentage of votes in general and local elections since 2002. Policies of the AK Party can still appeal to a large segment of society although the party has to rely on a smaller winning coalition that could well be argued to include only the “essentials.” The smaller winning coalition of the “essentials” currently includes “cronies,”[11] media (e.g. TV stations, and written media), business associations (e.g. Dış Ekonomik İlişkiler Kurulu (Foreign Economic Relations Board) (DEİK), Müstakil Sanayici ve İş Adamları Derneği (Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association) (MÜSİAD)).[12] The government was successful in disguising its aspirations for authoritarian rule when it first made attempts to exclude the military from the domestic balance of power in an unlawful manner. Even if this was politically desirable for democratisation, it was able to do so thanks to the ‘agenda denial’ role of former members of the winning coalition that applauded the government for its democratisation agenda. The members of the initial winning coalition presented the way reforms could have been interpreted, at least until the government changed its course.

Nowadays, the members of the initial winning coalition, who are currently side-lined, namely the liberals, the Gülenists, are criticising the government for several reasons such as resorting to authoritarian attitude, centralisation of power in the hands of the government, especially in the party. As the size of the winning coalition has reduced, the government needs to protect itself by using its own capacity and sources as it lost the support of ‘buffers’ that could shield the government from external pressure. Meanwhile, in order to keep remaining actors in the winning coalition loyal, the party needs to control more of economic and political life through centralisation of governmental decision-making, and perhaps through intervention in economic decisions. For instance, intervention in the interest rate policy of the Central Bank is only one case, which in turn forces the party toward authoritarianism so as not to lose control of a rent-creating and rent-managing mechanisms out of which political and economic rewards are paid.[13] Second, and related to the first challenge, the AK Party is tightening grips to keep control of this rewarding mechanism, which is subsequently leading to increased polarisation within the society.[14] The first challenge, a shrinking size of the winning coalition, brings about the second challenge, an increasing polarisation in society. It is not clear how the government can cope with these two closely linked challenges in recent future.

In addition, it should be noted that polarisation is one the main policies the government resorts in order to keep its influence stable over the country, its electorate, and the winning coalition. Increasing polarisation is beneficial for the government in several ways. The government can present one side to another as a stranger or even a threat to its welfare through alienation of the electorate. By doing so, the government can keep its electoral base stable because the AK Party voters seem to be worried about potential loss of acquisitions in the last decade;[15] but perhaps the most important goal is that the government can prevent a possible alliance between the electorate and opposition groups, particularly on cross-cutting issues such as alleged corrupt activities of ministers. To achieve it, the government presents the proposition as being engaged in activities for a coup in the country. The electorate, even some may believe in corruption allegations being proved by the tape recordings, seems to be incentivised to vote for the party since they may have doubts about intentions of the opposition if they assume power in the future. Consequently, the government remains in power by resorting to polarisation within the society. This is because the government officials are cognizant of the potential ‘alliance’ between the electoral bases of the party and the opposition.

Implications for the Future

These two challenges will definitely have dire consequences for the future. First of all, unless the opposition guarantees inclusion of the remaining parties in the winning coalition of the AK Party in the post-AK Party era, it is very likely that vested interests of the members of the current winning coalition will not allow them to defect and change sides. Any political party or coalition in the post-AK Party era will need to wrest the control over the rewarding mechanism so as to ensure rents would flow accordingly; but this cannot happen overnight. It would be also interesting to see if the transition of actors controlling this mechanism will be a smooth process insofar as authoritarianism reaches a point where the members of the current winning coalition may not be willing to hand over their interests if they are not included in the new winning coalition.

Second, rising authoritarianism breeds polarisation within society.[16] As it is likely to deepen in the near future, it is not clear how the country will overcome the bumpy roads of social, political, and economic stability. It is not clear today if the country has the ability of a smooth transition in the post-AK Party era when vested interests and coalitions would be redefined within the society. Leaving the actors in the winning coalition aside, polarisation within the society will pose challenges to stability in the country in the following years. The history taught us that in many examples around the world that regimes can oscillate from authoritarianism to democracy as society becomes disillusioned with authoritarianism. Finding common concerns and establishing collective action for the welfare of the whole of society require substantial effort to uproot seeds of ‘otherness’ in a society.

Third, ‘rising authoritarianism’ has several implications for the development of the Turkish economy. The ‘white elephant’ projects such as the third airport in Istanbul, the ‘Presidential Palace’ in Ankara like several other projects such as Canal Istanbul,[17] these projects are likely to create fiscal problems in an era of slower economic growth rate in short-term period. Although these projects are presented in the form of public good spending that would have welfare implications for the whole country, it is apparent that the government is trying to defend the private good spending mechanism with these types of projects.[18] In order to do so, a more authoritarian mode of governing is more appealing so as to keep political and economic support of the ‘cronies’ that are supposedly one of the most key actors in the remaining winning coalition.

The first three points focus more on domestic politics. The fourth point focuses on foreign policy. Whether like it or not, Turkish schools run by the Gülen movement around the world, and faith-based organisations closer to the Gülen movement such as Kimse Yok Mu[19] serve as informative sources for the greater reach of Turkish influence in various regions around the world. Their role is not limited to exerting cultural and historical influence in hosting countries. Additionally, their presence in the field means informational source about the hosting country, in other words they are playing a role in reducing transaction cost of reaching information in the field. Today’s choices have implications for the future. A change in the course of the policy toward granting support to those schools and faith-based organisations may reduce the political influence of the current Turkish foreign policy, its activism as well as economic interests the government sought to develop over the last decade. Organisational capability matters a lot if a country desires to be a regional and, if possible, a global power. If erosion of that sort of capability is not compensated with other organisational means and tools, the country can lose its reach to different regions around the world. That said, it seems to me that it will be quite challenging for the country to develop its organisational capability to maintain and expand its reach overseas in the recent future.


It is argued that rising authoritarianism originates in the size of the coalition as AK Party lost support of key actors in the winning coalition especially after it excluded several key actors in the initial winning coalition. It needs to protect its ‘fortress’ by its own means, which necessitates more control of political, social, and economic life that depends on a rewarding mechanism. We should at least be aware of the several facts mentioned above that authoritarianism driven by the dynamics of a smaller winning coalition may not end up in a ‘good equilibrium’ which involves stable political life, as well as social and economic stability. To avoid a most likely ‘bad equilibrium’ in the recent future, the country needs democratisation not only of politics but also in all aspects of the daily life of ordinary Turkish citizens. Horizontal and vertical inequalities (i.e. both among groups and individuals, respectively)[20] are much more visible recently, and if these inequalities are accompanied by polarisation and alienation within society, which seems to be the case nowadays, finding and establishing mechanisms and channels of collective action for the good of the society would likely be very difficult. In brief, the bottom line in this piece is that besides challenges posed by external dynamics, Turkey needs to address problems inside the ‘house’ through more democratisation of political, economic and social life and without resorting to alienation and populist rhetoric; all of which requires a larger winning coalition in which a greater number of stakeholders can better work together.

Mehmet Kerem Çoban, PhD Candidate, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore

Please cite this publication as follows:

Çoban, M. K. (April, 2015), “A Coalitional Politics Perspective of Rising Authoritarianism and Its Implications for the Future”, Vol. IV, Issue 4, pp.6-15, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8554)


[1]One recent example is the security bill, the government postponed the debate in the National Assembly; see

[Accessed Date 6 February 2015], Available at:


[2]On “competitive authoritarianism” see Levitsky S & Way LA 2002, ‘The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,’ Journal of Democracy, vol.13, no.2, pp.51-65;

Levitsky S & Way LA 2010, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War, New York, Cambridge University Press.

[3]For origins of the theory see Bueno de Mesquita et al. 2003, The Logic of Political Survival, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA; Bueno de Mesquita, B. and Alastair Smith 2011, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, Public Affairs, New York. The theory attracted attention, and is intensively used for political survival analyses. It has recently undergone empirical testing as well; see Kennedy, R 2009, ‘Survival and Accountability: An analysis of the Empirical Support for “Selectorate Theory,” ’ International Studies Quarterly, vol.53, no.3, pp.695-714; Philip, A & Nicholas, PN 2014, ‘Selectorate Theory, the Democratic Peace, and Public Goods,’ International Theory, vol.6, no.3, pp.391-416.

[4]The AK Party has been supportive of full membership in the European Union as long as a good track of reforms is considered, although the momentum has declined to a negligible level. See former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and current Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu’s interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel on June 9, 2011. [Accessed Date 6 February 2015], Available at:


See also on decline in momentum of full membership in Turkey; Onis, Z 2008 ‘Turkey and EU Relations: Beyond the Current Stalemate,’ Insight Turkey, vol.10, no.4, pp.35-50. Even if Onis (2008) ends the article with optimism, my understanding of current stalemate is more pessimistic. As AK Party consolidated its power and influence within society and bureaucracy, it is currently not only less dependent on external support from the European Union, but also less dependent on support from other actors that used to be part of the winning coalition since November 2002.

[5]We can add President Bush praising the country, [Accessed Date 6 February 2015], Available at:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/08/AR2005060801630.html, also;

Obama’s speech in the Turkish Parliament in 2009 praising the efforts of the country in the region, and ongoing commitment to membership to the European Union, [Accessed Date 25 January 2015], Available at:


I do not claim that the relations are always unproblematic. Two NATO allies can sometimes have diverging interests, but both depend on each other even when relations faces several problems; see Ozel, S., 2011-12 ‘Indispensable even When Unreliable: An Anatomy of Turkish-American Relations,’ International Journal, vol.67, no.1, pp.53-64.

[6]One can name Cengiz Çandar, a columnist in Turkish daily Radikal. In the aftermath of the Gezi Protests in June 2013, he wrote that Erdogan lost as he and his party suppressed opposition with fierce police force. The Turkish readers can refer to his column. [Accessed Date 24 January 2015], Available at: http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/cengiz_candar/erdogana_neden_karsi_cikiyorum-1138073

We can also name Joost Lagendijk, a former MP in the European Parliament. He mentions that he was attracted by Erdogan’s pragmatism, see:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/world/europe/turkish-liberals-turn-their-backs-on-erdogan.html?pagewanted=all [Accessed Date 24 January 2015], Available at:

[7]It seems rather difficult to spell out names that can be listed as Gülenist. We can at least name the Turkish daily Zaman, Zekeriya Öz, who led the Ergenekon case, has currently been alleged to be engaged in a graft probe against senior government officials, and ministers; several AK Party MPs such as former footballer Hakan Şükür. See: [Accessed Date 26 January 2015], Available at:


[8]Cansuyu, Kimse Yok Mu, İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım Vakfı (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) (İHH), Dost Eli, among others. These organisations are active in Turkish humanitarian assistance overseas. See for instance TIKA 2012 Turkish Development Assistance 2012, Ankara, TIKA, p.80.

[9]See Bugra, A. & Savaskan, O. 2014, New Capitalism in Turkey: The Relationship Between Politics, Religion, and Business, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

[10]My understanding of current Turkish politics still dictates that the Gülenists were the critical ally in the initial winning coalition since November 2002 because AK Party could not be sure of support by external actors such as the United States and the European Union if their interests change. Additionally, we can suspect liberals could reconsider their support if they observe ‘anomalies’ in policies or rhetoric as it was the case during and after the Gezi Protests in June 2013. Since AK Party can no longer depend on the Gülenists, it seems to me that it is much more vulnerable to pressure.

[11]One can easily think of construction firms which have been financially and politically supported by the AK Party. One can name Cengiz-Kolin-Limak consortium because the consortium won the 3rd airport in İstanbul tender. [Accessed Date 23 February 2015], Available at:

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/consortium-wins-istanbul-airport-tender-for-221-billion-euros.aspx?pageID=238&nID=46153&NewsCatID=344 We can also add Çalık Holding (http://www.calik.com/en) could be listed as well as the holding has investments in several fields and sectors that skyrocketed after AK Party assumed power in 2002; and the President Erdogan has family ties with the head of the holding. For a comprehensive examination of State-businessmen relations in the last decade see Bugra, A & Savaskan, O 2014, New Capitalism in Turkey: The Relationship Between Politics, Religion, and Business, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

[12]Dış Ekonomik İlişkiler Kurulu (Foreign Economic Relations Board) (DEİK), an organization aiming to promote trade relations with the outside world which was founded in the 1980s, has recently been exposed a dramatic shift in its organizational structure as the government now has a direct access to control and supervise the Board, [Accessed Date 24 January 2015], Available at:


Müstakil Sanayici ve İş Adamları Derneği (Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association) (MÜSİAD) was cited as being partnered with conservative political wing in the country, and the association can be listed as one of the supporters of the government insofar as members of the association and their relations with the government are closely examined. On relations between business associations –including MÜSİAD– see Bugra, A 1998, ‘Class, Culture, and State: An Analysis of Interest Representation by Two Turkish Business Associations’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.30, no.4, pp.521-539.

[13]I interpret interventions on interest rate policy of the Central Bank in a way that the government is trying to ensure ‘cronies’ can still have access to ‘cheap’ credit so as to entertain major projects such as the 3rd airport and the 3rd bridge in Istanbul. I suspect these firms have huge leverage and if an interest rate hike hits the country in the recent future, these firms can get in problem, which in turn may cause fiscal problems for the country.

[14]Keyman, EF 2014, ‘The AK Party: Dominant Party, New Turkey, and Polarization,’ Insight Turkey, vol.16, no.2, pp.19-31.

[15]Mustafa Akyol mentions that in October 2013; [Accessed Date 25 January 2015], Available at:


[16]My understanding of current Turkish politics still dictates that the Gülenists were the critical ally in the initial winning coalition since November 2002 because AK Party could not be sure of support by external actors such as the United States and the European Union if their interests change. Additionally, we can suspect liberals could reconsider their support if they observe ‘anomalies’ in policies or rhetoric as it was the case during and after the Gezi Protests in June 2013. Since AK Party can no longer depend on the Gülenists, it seems to me that it is much more vulnerable to pressure.

[17]Canal Istanbul is one of the major projects among other infrastructure projects targeted to be completed by 2023. Investment Support and Promotion Agency of Turkey listed the project as well; see

[Accessed Date 26 January 2015], Available at:


[18]See Bugra, A. & Savaskan, O. 2014, New Capitalism in Turkey: The Relationship Between Politics, Religion, and Business, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

[19]The readers can refer to a website about the Gülen Movement, and read about relief efforts provided the organization; see, [Accessed Date 6 February 2015], Available at:


[20]Stewart, F 2009, ‘Horizontal Inequality: Two Types of Trap,’ Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, vol.10, no.3, pp.315-340.



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