Erdoğan: A Religious Dictator or Rational Politician?

Gezi Park Resistance Article Series – No. 9

Erdoğan: A Religious Dictator or Rational Politician?

Starting on May 27, Turkey has witnessed some of the most violent clashes between security forces and the public in major cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Everything started when a small group of environmentalists gathered in Taksim Gezi Park to protest the demolition of the park. This event turned into countrywide protests after the police attacked these protestors with tear gas and removed their tents from the area forcefully. Similar to the Arab Spring that started with a small spark when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police behaviour in Tunisia, a minor environmental protest became a major challenge to the ruling government. In this case, it is the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP hereafter) and its powerful leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. According to one writer, this small event may “sow the seeds of a Turkish Spring.”[1] Observers in Western countries are inclined to explain the reasons for this so-called “spring” with Erdoğan’s ideological and personal characteristics.

In this article, I argue that although social-psychological factors play a role in Erdoğan’s policy-making and his attitude against the demonstrations, it is more effective to explain the events through rational-choice theory, which assumes that individuals act as a result of cost-benefit calculations. The latter argues that if the benefits of an action – here Erdoğan’s hard-line attitude against demonstrations – exceed the costs individuals follow that action and an analysis of the events show that Erdoğan and his AKP may benefit from the demonstrations significantly in the next election period.

The critical factor in cost-benefit analysis is to keep the costs to a minimum, or constant, while increasing the benefits. A comparison of AKP officials’ statements shows that there is an attempt to realize this factor through a “good cop-bad cop” game. Indeed, it is more appropriate to talk about good cops and a bad cop since several officials such as Kadir Topbaş, the Mayor of Istanbul, Bülent Arınç, Vice Prime-Minister, and Hüseyin Çelik, an AKP parliamentarian, have used moderate statements towards demonstrators while Erdoğan adopts an aggressive discourse. For instance, right after the first clashes Topbaş accepted the mistakes of the police and the leadership by stating that they should have given clear information to the public from the beginning.[2] He also tried to relieve the concerns of the environmentalists by adding that the demolition of the park is part of a pedestrianisation project of Taksim square in order to provide security for pedestrians in the area and the trees in the park will be moved into different areas in Istanbul and they will increase the number of trees in Taksim at the end of the project. While Topbaş is moderate enough to calm down the tension and to keep the costs constant, Erdoğan, as a bad cop, follows an aggressive discourse to increase the AKP’s interests. The prime minister challenged the demonstrators and the opposition by declaring that if the latter is to organize a public demonstration, his party would gather a million citizens in the streets and indeed, he announced two rallies in Istanbul and Ankara taking place on June 15 and 16[3] He further labelled the demonstrators as çapulcu which means “looter.” Erdoğan indeed is famous for this kind of aggressive discourse, as some may know his reaction against Israel’s President Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos Submit.

Then one may ask why does Erdoğan not try to mitigate the tension? It should be noted that pointing to his aggressive personality or religious identity would be too easy to explain his position against the demonstrations. To some, Erdoğan is a “dangerous Islamists who wants to turn Turkey into a religious society”[4] and his religious identity leads him to clash with the secular public. This argument points to the identity differences as the main reason for the conflicts and stresses that Erdoğan does not step back because of his ambitions to rule the country in accordance with Islamic principles. Indeed, some recent developments such as new regulations on the sale of alcohol contribute to these secular fears within the opposition. In sum, aggressive personality and religious differences are certainly some social-psychological factors to explain the situation in Turkey.

While social-psychological factors may have some point, it cannot show us the full picture on the main motivations of Erdoğan and the ruling party. Instead, we need to analyse the rational factors to explain the situation in a more effective way. First, social-psychological factors cannot explain the “good cop-bad cop” game in Turkish politics. The arguments pointing to Erdoğan’s aggressive policy and his religious ambitions are lacking an explanation of why he allows some officials to follow moderate discourse opposite to his aggressive one. This dilemma can be explained by bringing cost-benefit analysis under the spotlight. While moderate officials help him to keep the costs minimum or constant, his aggressiveness leads him to strengthen his position among his voters at the beginning of the events. Since the base of Erdoğan’s support comes from the more conservative, rural population in the heart of Anatolia, his aggressive rhetoric targeting the secular, urban protestors, shores up his support base as well as his chances to increase his votes in the next elections.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the success of the “good cop-bad cop” game is dependent on its longevity since moderate officials may lose their effect on demonstrators if the latter believes that the moderates have no help to end the problems. Therefore, moderates may lose their ability to keep the costs at a minimum or constant over time. We can see this in Erdoğan’s moderation in recent days; just as the other moderate officials were losing legitimacy with the protestors, Erdoğan stepped in with a more moderate tone and agreed to hold a referendum on the park project.

Then the next question is what interests of Erdoğan’s are being served by his continuing to follow an aggressive discourse while the moderate officials were able to keep the costs at a minimum or constant. I believe the answer to this question lies with the structural factors in Turkey. The most important factor is the lack of a united and strong opposition against Erdoğan and his AKP. Because there is not a strong and united political opposition, Erdoğan is able to benefit politically and electorally from small, limited crises. He proved this back in 2007, when he faced a similar but less-violent crisis.

Observers of Turkish politics will remember that Erdoğan adopted a challenging discourse not quite different from today during the Republican Protests (Cumhuriyet Mitingleri) that took place during the presidential election process in April-May 2007. On April 24, Abdullah Gül, former Foreign Minister, was announced as the AKP’s candidate for the presidency. Because of the Islamist origin of the party and Gül himself, the opposition in the major cities of Turkey held a series of non-violent demonstrations. Against these demonstrations, the AKP followed a policy similar to present day. For instance, Vice Chairman of the party, Eyüp Fatsa stated, “If we organized a meeting, we would gather crowds ten times bigger.”[5] Similarly, Erdoğan ignored the voices raised in the demonstrations and remained insistent with his choice of Abdullah Gül.

The winner of this political debate was Erdoğan and his party despite the relative threat from the military. Gül was elected as the president and the 2007 elections in July of the same year cemented the AKP’s control, as they received a 12% increase in the popular vote when compared to the 2002 elections. The Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP hereafter), which led the Republican Protests, was able to increase its votes only 1.5% and the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi, MHP hereafter) around 6%. This situation was caused by the lack of viable and united opposition within the country. Contrary to the AKP, neither the MHP nor CHP had charismatic leadership and there were large differences of thought between the opposition parties. When polarization emerged in Turkish politics between voters supporting Erdoğan and those against him, the group psychology led the former group to unite and withdraw their complaints of the leadership, if there even was any to begin with. On the other hand, within-group polarization in the opposition side caused the division of votes between the CHP and MHP. As a result, the polarization and tension served the AKP and Erdoğan during 2007 elections.

Today the picture is not much different. As stated in New York Times, there is still no viable opposition that is “capable of seizing the disenchantment of secular-minded Turks and molding it in to a cohesive movement.”[6] The opposition is divided into three parties – in addition to the CHP and MHP, there is the Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Özgürlük Partisi, BDP hereafter), which is known as an ethnically based party supporting Kurdish rights, and it is an important force in the Turkish Assembly – but there are grave differences between the political positions of these parties. For instance, it is difficult to think about an alliance between the MHP and BDP because of their nationalist orientations. Moreover, because of the repressive policies towards Kurds under republican regimes in the past and the recent détente between Turkish security forces and the PKK, it is not logical for the BDP to join into the movement directly aimed at overthrowing Erdoğan. It is also difficult to imagine sincere cooperation between the CHP and MHP because of the rightist orientation of the latter. Therefore, although there is a kind of solidarity in the recent demonstrations, it can be argued that this unification is only in appearance and it will not affect the behaviour of voters during the elections because of the within-group polarization in the opposition side. That is why experts argue that although recent demonstrations may increase the votes of the CHP 3 or 4 per cent, it would not be a surprise to see another dramatic increase in AKP votes in the next election period.[7] In the recent political landscape, polarization only works in favour of the AKP.

One of the differences between two events may be the lack of a “good cop-bad cop game” in 2007. Again this can be explained by cost-benefit analysis. Unlike the Gezi Park protests, the Republican protests took place in a non-violent atmosphere. Neither the police used repressive force against demonstrators nor did the latter throw stones or Molotov Cocktails at the security forces. Therefore, there was no need to attempt to keep the costs at a minimum through moderate officials. Today moderate officials are needed in order to ensure that small violent protests do not transform into a mass conflict since if the violence is not controlled it may have domestic and international repercussions for Turkey.

The lack of a strong and united opposition is not the only structural factor that may help us to explain Erdoğan’s rational motivations. The decreasing influence of the military and international factors in Turkish politics also should be underlined to explain the small level of violence used by the security forces against demonstrators. In 2007 the top brass of the military felt threatened by Gül’s nomination to the presidency and even released a statement emphasizing the secular identity of the Republic on the General Staff’s webpage. In addition, Turkey’s relationship with the European Union was prospering and Turkey was adopting reforms at full speed for a possible membership. Today the picture is quite different. During his second term, Erdoğan took the army under control through a judicial process called Ergenekon and created a significant transformation in the military’s top brass. In addition, today the Turkish-European Union relationship is at its lowest point, especially after the latter lost its attractiveness with the financial crises while the Turkish economy was blossoming. Cyprus’ leadership in the Council of the European Union during the second half of 2012 also froze Turkey’s relationship with the organization and Cyprus remains an important obstacle for Turkey’s path into the European Union. Through this comparison, it can be argued that if the structural conditions in 2007 had been present at the beginning of the Gezi Park protests, the government would have refrained from using repressive force against the demonstrators since the costs would have been higher than in the existing situation.

In sum, rather than focusing on Erdoğan’s authoritarian personality and/or religious identity, observers should focus on his rational motivations for using small-level violence and polarization in his favour during the Gezi Park protests. I have showed that three structural factors – the lack of a strong and united opposition, the change in civil-military relations, and decreasing influence of the EU – help us to understand why the government used repressive force and Erdoğan followed an aggressive discourse during the last two weeks. Based on this argument, I assume that Erdoğan’s aggressive rhetoric will diminish over time to keep the costs limited and the events will never transform into an “Arab-spring” type event that will result in the end of his rule.

Murat Ülgül, Postgraduate Student, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware

Please cite this publication as follows:

Ülgül, Murat (June, 2013), “Erdoğan: A Religious Dictator or Rational Politician?”, Vol. II, Issue 4, pp.56-60, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3550)


[1] Richard Seymour, “Istanbul Park Protests Sow the Seeds of a Turkish Spring,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/31/istanbul-park-protests-turkish-spring

[2] “Topbas’tan ‘Gezi Parki” Aciklamasi,” (Topbas’ Comment on ‘Gezi Park’), http://www.ntvmsnbc.com/id/25446632/

[3] “Basbakan: Biber Gazi Kullaniminda Yanlislik Var,” (Prime Minister:  There is Mistake in the Usage of Tear Gas), http://www.ntvmsnbc.com/id/25446582/

[4] Lisa Holland, “Erdoğan: The Man at the Heart of the Protests.” http://news.sky.com/story/1102654/erdogan-the-man-at-the-heart-of-the-protests

[5] “AKP’li Fatsa: Biz Miting Duzenlersek, On Katini Toplariz,” (Fatsa from AKP: If We Oganized a Meeting, We Would Gather Ten Times Bigger,” http://arama.hurriyet.com.tr/arsivnews.aspx?id=6342258

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