Erdoğan’s Turkey: Beyond Legitimacy and Legality

Erdoğan’s Turkey: Beyond Legitimacy and Legality [1]


This article aims to explain Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s understanding of politics and political order by focusing on two phrases he frequently uses. Especially since the Gezi Park protests and the December 17th corruption investigations, Erdoğan has responded to those who have criticized him and the AKP with the phrase “know your limits and place”. Again, to justify the policies he followed as a response to these two events, he said that ‘what is necessary is being done’. These two phrases are the expressions of Erdoğan’s authoritarian political mentality. Rancière’s distinction between politics and police explains that the idea that individuals and groups have different limits and places in a hierarchical order is the characteristic of the police order. Every time Erdoğan retorted ‘know your limits and place’ to his opponents, he has exactly such an unequal and hierarchical police order in his mind. Erdoğan wants to determine the boundaries of the political sphere. When he reminds others’ limits and places, he redraws this boundary. Yet, this means the rejection of political equality as a fundamental principle of democracy and the end of democratic politics. In their discussion on the exception and sovereignty, Schmitt and Agamben underline necessity as a justification for the suspension of law and the concentration of power. Foucault also points out a similar relation in his discussion on raison d’État and coup d’État. The discourse of necessity hides Erdoğan’s responsibility from his decisions and actions. It implies that what he has done are not his choices but the objective and inevitable necessities of situations. Erdoğan is responsible neither from the police violence nor from the government’s intervention to the judiciary. These are all what has to be done against the protests and the investigations. By implying objectivity and inevitability, the notion of necessity legitimizes Erdogan’s decisions, which are actually arbitrary and subjective. Erdoğan has internalized raison d’État and he equates the AKP’s and his power with the continuity of the state. As a result, he presents any opposition directed to him and the AKP as threats to the state, instead of consequences of democratic politics. For this reason, he sees no obstacle in going beyond the limits of legality and legitimacy in order to eliminate any opposition to the AKP and himself.


The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi-AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002 and since then it has faced criticism, opposition and resistance as the source of deep political controversies. Yet, until the summer of 2013, the AKP and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan knew how to successfully divertor silenceoppositions by presenting them as instances of the Kemalist tutelage against the will of the people. In the summer of 2013, however, nationwide anti-government protests –starting with the Gezi Park occupation– on one hand and the corruption investigations on December 17th, 2013 on the other hand, led the AKP to its most damaging political crisis since its rise in power.[2]

As a response to the first political crisis, the AKP tried to delegitimize the Gezi Park protests by declaring them another instance of extra-political intervention and a call for a coup. This political strategy did not work: AKP’s reaction of violence as a response to democratic protests demonstrated that the AKP has no commitment to democratic values especially when it comes to dissenting voices.[3] The Gezi protests dismantled the ideological image of the AKP as a self-declared “conservative democrat”.

The second political crisis erupted on December 17th, 2013 with the corruption investigations involving sons of three cabinet ministers. The information and accusations spread around during and after the investigations once more called the AKP’s political program into question. What revealed the AKP’s authoritarian character more than the accusations, however, was its reaction to these investigations: they purged the police force by reassigning thousands of police officers, removed the prosecutors of the corruption probe from the case, extended its control over the judiciary and censured the media. While the violence against the Gezi protests undermined the AKP’s democratic legitimacy, the abuse of executive and legislative powers casted doubt on AKP’s commitment to the rule of law and constitutionalism. The AKP’s choice of violent intervention in the democratic Gezi protests and its reaction to the corruption investigations revealed Erdoğan’s authoritarian understanding of political order.

In this paper, I explain Erdoğan’s understanding of political order by focusing on two phrases that he has been using in response to his opponents and critics since the Gezi resistance: ‘haddini bilmek’ and ‘gereğini yapmak’. These two phrases, I argue, epitomize Erdoğan’s political mentality, which is based on inequality and a hierarchy devoid of any commitment to plurality and democracy. Using Jacques Rancière’s distinction between the police and politics, the notion of exception in Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben and the notion of raison d’état in Michel Foucault, I explain how and why these two phrases should be considered as expressions of anti-democratic, authoritarian impulses in one’s own understanding of ruling and politics.

‘Haddini bilmek’ and Erdoğan’s Police Order

‘Haddini bil!’ is one of the phrases Erdoğan has frequently used in response to those who criticize, oppose, resist, or simply disagree with him. It means ‘know your limits and place’– which Erdoğan uses as a scolding and warning to the person who ‘presumptuously’ oversteps their place by speaking or acting. Explicitly or implicitly, the phrase is always coupled with a threat of Erdoğan showing them their place if they do not know it themselves.

Against the protesters in the Gezi Park, who demanded the removal of certain police officers and the Governor of Istanbul from office due to their responsibility for police violence, Erdoğan replied by comparing the protests to the Janissary Revolts. He retorted, “Which government are you talking to? Do you think you can talk about these with the AKP government? First you have to know your limits and place. Since when have the feet become the head?”[4] During a meeting with a group representing the Gezi Park protesters, Erdoğan reacted angrily to Arzu Çerkezoğlu, the General Secretary of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (Türkiye Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu-DISK), when she said that the protests were no longer merely a dispute about an architectural project, but had become a sociological issue. Erdoğan gave a furious response. His immediate response was to remind Çerkezoğlu of her “limits and place” and that she was not in a position to give him lessons on sociology. One of the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk PartisiCHP) MPs also got his share of Erdoğan’s anger during the Gezi Protests, when the MP criticized the police of being excessively violent against the protesters. Such a criticism, Erdoğan added, is nothing but overstepping one’s “limits and place”.

Erdoğan reacted to a variety of people and institutions with the same phrase, including the European Parliament, the co-chairman of the German political party Alliance ‘90/The Greens, Cem Özdemir; the President of the Constitutional Court of Turkey, and the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (Hakimler ve Savcılar Yüksek KuruluHSYK). From MPs to the leader of the main opposition party CHP; from journalists to academicians; Erdoğan reminded them of their “limits and places” when they said or did something he did not like. Protesting against Erdoğan is to him a clear act of violating boundaries and exceeding limits. From Gezi to Soma, be it one protester or thousands, Erdoğan replied with the same phrase, warning them about their presumptuous act and inviting them to remember their “limits and places”.

Rancière’s concept of the police is useful in analysing the political consequences of the mentality or logic indicated by the phrase ‘Haddini bil!. In his attempt to rethink democracy and politics, Rancière makes a critical distinction between the police and politics as two different and opposite logics. The police order, for Rancière, is a logic of inequality while politics is a logic of equality. The police creates a regime of hierarchies: it counts the parts of the social body and assigns them names, proper places and tasks, distributing those parts into their defined places within a hierarchical order. The police, Rancière defines:

“is […] an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise.”[5]

The police order is a regime of the distribution of the sensible and the partition of the perceptible. It decides what can be seen, said, heard and done. It draws boundaries between speech and noise: it does not hear dissenting voices as speech, but considers them mere noises. Those who speak or act beyond their “limits and places” assigned by the police are not accepted using expressions of just and unjust, thus depriving them of being political or even human. The police order, therefore, causes depoliticization. It puts an end to politics in favour of maintaining the police order by taking all ‘necessary’ measures at all costs against those who dare to overstep their “limits and places”.

Similar to Rancière’s idea of the police order, ‘Haddini bil!’ implies a clear logic of hierarchy and inequality in Erdoğan’s mind. Everyone’s limits and places are hierarchically determined in relation to Erdoğan and the AKP. The phrase indicates that the status of the speaker, rather than what is being said or the reason of the protest, is significant. With this phrase, Erdoğan diverts the attention and discussion from himself or his party’s actions and towards the status of his critics, opponents or protesters. Erdoğan finds the very act of violating one’s limits and place outrageous: individuals are not considered equal in their capacity to speak, and whoever speaks critically about Erdoğan and the AKP has no right to speak in the first place. This is a denial of fundamental democratic rights and political equality.

Rancière places politics, on the other hand, diametrically opposite to the police. A political act, for him, is an act of being seen and visible. It is an act of disagreement and overstepping one’s limits and place assigned by the police. As Rancière puts it:

“[p]olitical activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once heard as noise.”[6]

This is exactly what Erdoğan cannot stand about democratic politics. He supports and uses democratic institutions as long as they produce outcomes to consolidate his power. Democratic rights and liberties, venues of participation and institutions are not open and available to everyone equally. While anti-government protesters are treated as criminals and terrorists, and suppressed violently, the AKP followers enjoy their liberties in public spaces and streets marching for Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s discriminatory treatment to protesters and his followers shows his conditional and instrumental commitment –or lack thereof– to democracy, which, for him, should function only as a stage of plebiscitary acclamation, instead of a source of dissent and resistance.

‘Gereğini yapmak’ and Erdoğan’s Internalization of Raison d’État

‘Gereğini yapmak’ is another phrase that is symptomatic of Erdoğan’s anti-democratic political mentality and attitude, meaning ‘to do what is necessary’ or ‘to do what the situation necessitates’. While ‘haddini bilmek’ is a phrase Erdoğan uses to delegitimize his opponents, this phrase provides justification—or frees him from the burden of justification—for his decisions and policies. Instead of giving a reason or explanation, Erdoğan repeatedly utters the same phrase: ‘Gereğini yaparız!’.

Similar to the first phrase discussed, Erdoğan has used this phrase for a variety of issues. Criticized for the excessive police violence during the Gezi protests, Erdoğan responded that the police were “doing what is necessary”. As a warning for those who were planning to come to Taksim Square on the anniversary of the Gezi protests, Erdoğan said, “if you will come to Taksim, our security forces has received their orders and they will do what is necessary from A to Z”.[7] Many have criticized Erdoğan for his police reassignments, legal changes regarding the HSYK and the National Intelligence Organization, and his ban on social media. Erdoğan gave the same response: “We are doing what is necessary”. When Erdoğan did not like the decisions of the Central Bank or the Constitutional Court, he stated his disagreement and underlined that what is necessary will be done to prevent such decisions in the future.

What does invoking “necessity” do for Erdoğan, and what are the political consequences? Before answering these questions, I would like to discuss the concept of necessity as a justification for concentration of power and suspension of law. As we will see, necessity is considered the main rationale or a ground for the closure of democratic politics, suspension of law and authoritarian state interventions.

Carl Schmitt defines the sovereign in his famous first sentence of Political Theology as “he who decides on the exception”.[8] The sovereign has the capacity and competence to define and act at the time of emergency, i.e. dangers against the existing order and institutions. Sovereignty, then, in Schmitt’s conception, is a matter of deciding on emergency and of doing what is necessary to eliminate a situation constituting destructive danger for the order. As Tracy Strong mentions, “the sovereign must decide both that a situation is exceptional and what to do about the exception in order to be able to create or recover a judicial order when the existing one is threatened by chaos”.[9] Schmitt also underlines the two dimensions of the decision when he says, “[sovereign] decides whether there is an extreme emergency as well as what must be done to eliminate it”.[10]

This decision of what constitutes the exception is also the moment where the sovereign goes beyond the limits of law. As Schmitt underlines in Bodin’s discussion of sovereignty, “conditions of urgent necessity” become the limit of the prince’s commitment to the estates and the people.[11] Such a commitment can be expected from the sovereign until the emergence of the exception, that is, a case whose requirements necessitate suspending the laws. The exceptional cannot be responded by the routine, as it necessitates exceptional measures. Norm cannot be the source of what has to be done in an emergency situation.

The logic behind the sovereign’s decision on the exception seems simple and clear: once the sovereign decides the existence of an emergency situation, then all the following steps are considered as dictates of the ‘conditions of urgent necessity’. A situation emerges and becomes a threat to the order; the emergency and urgency of the situation require the sovereign to decide and act immediately; the law turns into an obstacle that prevents the sovereign’s capacity to act immediately and take the necessary measures. Hence, the sovereign suspends the law for the sake of the juridical order itself.

However, defining a situation, an event, or an act as an exception is very much related with the sovereign’s perception of order, security and threat. Schmitt underlines this when he defines the concrete application of sovereignty, which “means who decides in a situation of conflict what constitutes the public interest or interest of the state, public safety and order, le salut public, and so on”.[12] Then, sovereign becomes more than ‘he who decides on the exception’. This decision is based on a set of prior definitions and decisions regarding the nature and frame of public interest and order. To understand the authoritarian consequences of it, we need to move from Schmitt’s conceptions to the more critical ideas of Foucault and Agamben.

As part of his lectures at the College de France, Michel Foucault discusses the raison d’Étatand the coup d’État, referring to the texts of Palazzo, Bacon and Chemnitz during the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. After presenting Palazzon’s understanding of raison d’État, Foucault gives Chemnitz’s definition of the phrase:

“[Raison d’État is] a certain political consideration that is necessary in all public matters, councils and plans, which must strive solely for the preservation, expansion, and felicity of the state, and for which we must employ the most ready and swift means”.[13]

In this definition Foucault underlines some main characteristics of raison d’État. First of all, he suggests there is no reference other than the state itself—the state is not treated as part of another entity or existence. Second, raison d’État is not only the essence of the state, i.e. the reason for its integrity and unity, but also refers to the knowledge of maintaining and securing its integrity. Lastly, there is no inherent or external purpose in raison d’État other than the well-being of the state itself.

On the other hand, at the beginning of the 17th century, coup d’État was understood as “a suspension of, a temporary departure from, laws and legality”.[14] Another definition was that it is “an extraordinary action against ordinary law, an action retaining no order or form of justice”.[15] Foucault questions the relation between coup d’État as the suspension of the juridical order, and raison d’État as the preservation of the state. If the raison d’État of the state is identical with a legal system, then coup d’État becomes antithetical to it. Foucault states that raison d’État is different than a legal system. The state would obey the laws as long as those laws serve the existence and maintenance of the state itself. Thus, coup d’État as the suspension of law is part of raison d’État. In line with raison d’État, the state may obey the laws and act within the existing legal system. Certain times may also come, however, which necessitate the state to act outside the legal system. As soon as the laws cease to serve the aims–the integrity–of the state, there isn’t any reason to obey to the laws. As Foucault defines:

“The coup d’État is the state acting of itself on itself, swiftly, immediately, without rule, with urgency and necessity, and dramatically. The coup d’État is not therefore a takeover of the state by some at the expense of others. It is the self-manifestation of the state itself. It is the assertion of raison d’État, of [raison d’État] that asserts that the state must be saved, whatever forms may be employed to enable one to save it. The coup d’État, therefore, is an assertion of raison d’État, and a self-manifestation of the state”.[16]

At this point, it is worth mentioning the similarities between Foucault’s discussion of coup d’État and Schmitt’s notion of the exception, discussed above. Like Schmitt, Foucault also underlines the notion of necessity as an element of coup d’État. Necessity, arising from the sole aim of the state’s salvation, becomes “over and above the law”.[17] Politics as colonized by raison d’État is reduced to the consideration of necessity. Raison d’État alienates politics not only from discussion and dissent but also from legitimacy and legality. As Foucault puts, “we do not have government connected with legality, but raison d’État connected with necessity.” [18]

Chemnitz, as Foucault informs us, gives another definition of raison d’État informing its essential relation with coup d’État:

“It is something that allows departure from all ‘the public, particular, and fundamental laws of whatever kind they may be.” In fact, raison d’État must command, not by ‘sticking to the laws,’ but if necessary it must command “the laws themselves, which must adapt to the present state of the republic”.[19]

The criteria for an ordinary situation –legitimacy and legality– are replaced by necessity during the extraordinary situations. When the political authority monopolizes the decision on what situations should be considered threatening (and hence require exceptional measures), it also gains a capacity to use exception as a technique of government justified by a discourse of necessity to eliminate dissent and resistance.

Agamben also discusses the concept of necessity as the foundation of the exception. He points out “the theory of the state of exception is wholly reduced to the theory of the status necessitatis”.[20] The state of exception, in other words, is presented as a state of necessity, statis necessitatis. Necessity fulfils the main function of freeing the state of exception from the burden of the question of legitimacy.

In his discussion on the state of necessity, Agamben mentions “an extreme aporia” in the theories behind the idea that necessity implies ‘an objective situation’, a ‘pure facticity’ which carries no trace of the previous normative–and thus subjective–judgment. The idea of necessity as an objective situation makes it a legitimating force. There remains no need for further legitimation and justification for an act, as it is based on the requirements of necessity. However, as Agamben states, necessity carries a subjective judgment. The requirement of the situation is not independent from the evaluation of the situation and the normative judgments of the evaluator. Necessity becomes the source of legitimacy for the suspension of the legal order by presenting the subjective judgment of the sovereign as an objective decision. Necessity transforms the subjective decision of the political authority into the objective requirements of the situation. The arbitrariness and subjectivity behind this decision, however, is concealed by the objectivity implied by the discourse of necessity.

Why, for instance, did the corruption investigations necessitate the reassignment of thousands of police officers and the extension of the executive control over the judiciary? Or, why did the Gezi Park protests, which were the use of the constitutional right to hold meetings and demonstrations necessitate police violence? When Erdoğan stated that the police were doing what the situation necessitated, he implied that it is neither his nor the police’s choice to intervene violently, but rather it was the necessity of the situation. Necessity became a pretext for arbitrary power to enforce excessive state violence. By invoking necessity, Erdoğan diverted his responsibility for the police violence to the protesters being responsible from the emergence of the conditions of urgent necessity. There is, however, normative and subjective choices behind these decisions and are eclipsed by the discourse of necessity. The Gezi protests could have been accepted as the use of constitutional rights and a legitimate way of democratic participation, yet Erdoğan and the AKP government chose to reframe it as a threat to the public order and a conspiracy to weaken the AKP.

Erdoğan’s political mentality as epitomized by these two phrases has antidemocratic consequences for the political life in Turkey. Erdoğan discursively depoliticizes individuals and groups when they oppose him or the AKP rule. Instead of accepting them as political interlocutors, who can legitimately ask questions, express opinions, disagreements, or use their right to dissent and even resist, Erdoğan declares them criminals, betrayers, conspirators, terrorists, enemies of public order, national will or unity. Discourse of necessity helps him to remove particular issues from the realms of political contestation and divert the attention to those who bring these issues into discussion. When an issue –about social and economic policies, urban transformation projects, regulations on public life, or police violence– becomes a matter of political contention, Erdoğan immediately reframes it as another attempt of those who want to prevent progress and change in Turkey.

Parallel to depoliticization, exception becomes a ruling strategy. With the claim of guarding the people and the national will, he sees no problem in going beyond the limits of legality and legitimacy. As a ruling strategy, however, exception does not take the form of suspending the entire juridical order. Instead, instrumentalization of law and the discourse of urgent necessity function to insert the logic of exception into ordinary politics. Erdoğan uses law as a means of suppression by instrumentalizing it. As a result law loses its relation to both justice and the idea of limited government. Moreover, he is able to free himself from the burden of legality, accountability, transparency, due process and the separation of powers by using the discourse of necessity and exception.


In this article, I have discussed Erdoğan’s understanding of politics and political order by reflecting on the two phrases he frequently uses. These two phrases epitomize Erdoğan authoritarian character and that what he has in mind as politics is actually a police order in Rancière’s terms. And by referring to Rancière, Schmitt, Foucault, Agamben and to the notions of police, exemption and raison d’État, I have explained why these two phrases are part of an authoritarian mentality.

According to the mentality behind the phrase ‘know your limits and place’, individuals, groups and institutions are considered as part of an unequal and hierarchical order. For Erdoğan, they are not political actors with equal rights to participate political processes. They cannot be part of a democratic deliberative process. Politics and political participation, for him, is only for the reproduction of his political power. Using necessity as the justification for his actions and policies, Erdoğan hides arbitrariness and his responsibility by presenting them as the inevitability of circumstances.

At the end of his twelve years in power, Erdoğan and the AKP have liquidated the Kemalist establishment and acquired the control of state institutions. Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Kemalism equalized itself with the state and identified the state’s permanence with its own. In other words, Kemalism became the raison d’État.[21] The AKP and Erdoğan have replaced Kemalism in this sense as well. It is for Erdoğan to determine who can enter into politics and in what way; who can speak and who has no right to speak; who should be considered a political interlocutor or a terrorist. Erdoğan reframes any critique or protest against his rule as a threat to the integrity of the state. Erdoğan and the AKP internalized the raison d’État. Hence, as a consequence of raison d’État as the logic of ruling, he usurps the political sphere, suspends the law and goes beyond legality and legitimacy when he sees it necessary.

Dr. H. Ertuğ Tombuş, New School for Social Research, Department of Sociology 

Please cite this publication as follows:
Tombuş H. E. (December, 2014), “Erdoğan’s Turkey: Beyond Legitimacy and Legality”, Vol. III, Issue 12, pp.40-52, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


[1] I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers of Research Turkey and my colleagues from the New School, Demet Evrenosoğlu and Dolunay Bulut.

[2] As its victory in the March 2014 local elections has shown, the AKP did not lose its electoral base after the Gezi protests and the corruption investigations. Yet, these two events were significantly damaging for the AKP in the sense that it is no longer considered as the agent of democratization but authoritarianization by its national and international supporters outside its electoral base. The AKP and Erdoğan, in other words, could continue to be in power, yet not with a democratic identity.

[3] The AKP and Erdoğan used democratic rhetoric in their struggle against the Kemalist establishment and to gain support from the national and international actors outside their political Islamic constituency. The Kemalist establishment was the main source of authoritarian reflexes in Turkey. The AKP has gained its democratic identity through its struggle with the Kemalist tutelage over the political system. The more the AKP presented itself as anti-Kemalist, the more it successfully portrayed itself a democrat. The AKP’s struggle and the liquidation of the Kemalist establishment as its outcome, however, have not generated democratization in Turkey. Rather, the AKP has acquired the authoritarian institutions and used in the same authoritarian way to establish its hegemony and silence resistance in any form.

[4]“Başbakan: Ayaklar ne zaman baş oldu?” T24,ğan dan-mujde,232720

[5] Rancière, Jacques (1998). Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press, 29

[6] ibid., 29-30

[7] “Erdoğan: Gezi’de polis A’dan Z’ye gereğini yapacak” Radikal May 31, 2014ğan _gezide_polis_adan_zye_gereginini_yapacak-1194878

[8] Schmitt, Carl (2005). Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. University Of Chicago Press, 5.

[9] ibid., xx

[10] ibid., 7

[11] ibid., 8

[12] ibid., 6 (emphasis original).

[13] Foucault, Michel (2007). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France. Palgrave Macmillan, 257

[14] ibid., 261

[15] ibid., 261

[16] ibid., 262

[17] ibid., 262

[18] ibid., 263.

[19] Fouczault, Security, Territory, Population, 261

[20] Agamben, Giorgio (2005). State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 24

[21] On Kemalism and raison d’État, see Köker, Levent (2001). “Kemalizm/Atatürkçülük: Modernleşme, Devlet ve Demokrasi” (Kemalism/Ataturkism: Modernization, State and Democracy). In Modern Türkiye’de Siyasi Düşünce: Kemalizm, vol. 2, İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları.



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One thought on “Erdoğan’s Turkey: Beyond Legitimacy and Legality

  1. Mithat Mardin

    thank you Ertug Bey for this very comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of the man who now is about to dismantle Ataturk’s alphabet reform. Unless the Turks wake up to this madness themselves I fear the worst


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