In the Hall of the Mountain King: The Politics of Uncertainty and Turkey’s Off-piste Year of Authoritarian Transformation
In the Hall of the Mountain King: The Politics of Uncertainty and Turkey’s Off-piste Year of Authoritarian Transformation
Increasingly in recent years and particularly since 2010/11, Turkey began to leave the asphalted road of a defective democratic system painfully trying to reform and consolidate itself. Instead, the central dynamic has recently pointed towards the consolidation of a political format akin to that of electoral authoritarianism. According to Andreas Schedler, that is to say a political regime in which regular elections are held, and which do hold spaces of autonomy for oppositional mobilisation, but their overall logic is restructured towards authoritarian persistence rather than electoral alternation according to popular preferences. Schedler’s more recent work has explored the conditions of institutional and informational uncertainty that set the parameters for political action in electoral authoritarian contexts which this essay will try to apply to the Turkish case. In doing so it will outline a series of critical junctures in recent years that have acted as accelerators in heightening the current climate of uncertainty and instability that dominate in the Turkish domestic context.
…it is not that the rules of the political game have changed, but rather there are no rules of the political game anymore.
(Nuray Mert HDN 2015)
In recent years, the topography of Turkey’s political system has seen tremendous rolling processes of transformation, turmoil and intra-societal polarisation. Marked by a series of critical junctures and key events, it seems more and more during the past five years that the Turkish body politic gradually left the asphalted path of a struggling and flawed democracy painfully attempting to consolidate itself and overcome the illiberal and tutelary legacies of the past. Instead, it appears to have driven off-piste into a dark and crisis-riddled future of civil authoritarian regime building and rule by domination.
Political scientists Philippe Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl wrote that politics in consolidated democracies usually takes place under conditions of ‘bounded uncertainty’ in the sense that while one may not know the exact future outcome of elections, the ‘rules of the game’ through which democratic electoral politics occur adhere to a very solidly institutionalised set of mechanisms and procedures. In Turkey however, at the present time of writing, in the wake of the atrocious October 10th Ankara bombings, the expectations of the short- and long-term political future are marked by more unbounded uncertainty, ambiguity and insecurity than they had been for a long time even though similar episodes of democratic regression and breakdown had repeatedly occurred previously. In this sense, recent years were particularly significant and for the purposes of this essay, I would like to analyse domestic developments therein with reference to what Andreas Schedler in his work on electoral authoritarianism coined “the politics of uncertainty.” Although I will not address them further in this essay, the significant impact of the regional and international context on Turkey’s domestic politics in recent years also needs to be acknowledged, especially the spill-over from the escalating civil war in Syria, the post-Arab Spring regional instability in general, and the hardening global economic climate. These are all factors that have exacerbated domestic political uncertainty and instability in Turkey.
On August 28th 2014, Turkey held its first ever presidential election. As a result, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan left the prime ministerial office he had occupied since 2002 and became the 12th president in Turkey’s republican history with 52% of the vote-share. Though significantly strengthened with the 1982 military constitution, Turkey’s presidential office has always been seen as invested mostly with ceremonial functions and supposed to operate from an impartial, non-partisan position. In contrast, the actual executive institution was centred in the Prime Ministry. Nevertheless, as Erdoğan pointed out prior to the presidential election campaigns, in him Turkey would receive “a sweating, running president who gives orders, not a ceremonial president.” Consequently, one of the primary factors driving the politics of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) and the government since 2014 has been to win a large enough electoral majority, which has become known as the quest for 400 MPs, to allow the incumbent government to in effect ‘update’ the 1982 constitution and equip the presidential office with the far-reaching powers and little democratic accountability that Erdoğan desires. Although this goal has eluded him at the June 2015 national election polls, it also needs to be acknowledged that the populist conservative-right AKP, despite its flagrant abuse of state resources and resort to electoral manipulation at times, remains by far the most popular party as witnessed by its most recent re-election on November 1st with a vote-share of around 49.40%.
This current ‘presidential’ turn constitutes a momentous development in Turkey’s republican history that should be seen as yet another critical turning-point in the country’s recent past, especially since the Gezi protests, which has ‘accelerated’ the steady shift towards a progressively unaccountable form of authoritarian and repressive political rule and the abandonment of the initial period of democratic reforms of the AKP’s first half in office. Specifically, Erdoğan’s transition from prime ministerial to presidential office was widely thought to be a means of saving his career from his party’s three-term limit. Beyond that however, it seems evident that the move reflects Erdoğan’s personal interest in transforming this largely ceremonial accessory of Turkey’s political furniture into a genuine vessel of increasingly absolute and centralised political power with himself at its head. If successful, the resulting format could come to be known as electoral Aksarayism, encompassing an electoral authoritarian regime, electorally underpinned by majoritarian, right-wing populism and institutionally reinforced by a strongly centralised, unaccountable and neo-patrimonial presidentialism.
Figure1: Transition of political equilibria in Turkey’s last five years
The growing authoritarianism of Turkey’s government in recent years and the reckless, head-long rush towards the creation of a super-strong Aksarayist presidential order triggered the systemic rupture of the longstanding equilibrium of political competition between 2002 and 2011 characterised by a competitive democratic system with hegemonic characteristics in which the AKP repeatedly achieved an electoral position of dominance. Instead, one now witnesses the steady accretion and crystallisation of a new hegemonic, authoritarian system with increasingly weaker competitive features in the format of electoral or competitive authoritarianism. This process has not been stable or smooth unlike the case of Russia under Putin. Instead it has been marked by a high incidence of tension, polarisation and crises within the political system, the state and overall society. It has increasingly brought into play what Schedler terms ‘the politics of uncertainty’ inherent in all electoral authoritarian regimes. This describes a political setting in which on one hand the rules, procedures and institutions determining democratic governance and competition become increasingly uncertain and open to arbitrary, top-down manipulation and change while on the other hand reliable and accurate information is increasingly absent resulting in a general state of relative ignorance also affecting the incumbent regime. The resulting political struggles between the incumbent and the political opposition take place within the arena of electoral competition.
Since the mid-1990s, a proliferation of concepts and typologies occurred in the literature on regime analysis and democratisation to help evaluate the nature and behaviour of political regimes, neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian, or as Freedom House famously puts it, “partly free.” Although these hybrid polities have historically existed since the emergence of representative institutions, their emergence and persistence in the post-Cold war period embarrassingly contradicted the supposedly universal, triumphal advance of western capitalist liberal democracy and subsequently drew increasing amounts of scholarly attention and study. Despite much disagreement and debate in the burgeoning academic cottage industry that the global expansion of these hybrid regimes gave rise to, the term’s accepted meaning refers to a political system combining a set of competitive and electoral institutions with a set of authoritarian institutions.
Andreas Schedler contributed to the debate by coining the influential term “electoral authoritarianism” to describe hybrid semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian regimes. In this particular ideal-type of political regimes, regular electoral cycles are held but their operative principles are reconfigured to respond to the logic of authoritarian rule and domination rather than alternation according to popular preferences at the ballot box. Schedler makes the point of distinguishing between two sub-types within the field of electoral authoritarianism. One enjoys high levels of institutionalisation and is termed hegemonic electoral authoritarianism, such as Russia under Putin. In the second variant, marked by intermediate levels of institutionalisation, spaces, institutions and agents of democratic autonomy and accountability are still strong enough to muster genuine electoral challenges that can threaten the project of authoritarian domination even to the point of at rare times delivering an electoral knock-out blow. Increasingly, since 2010/11, the Turkish case can be located within the latter category, a political regime gradually moving beyond the boundaries of a flawed electoral democracy and increasingly into the fold of competitive electoral authoritarianism. The contention that Turkey has shifted towards a format of electoral authoritarianism or rekabetçi otoriterizm, has also found more and more reflection within the scholarship on Turkish regime analysis in recent years.
As noted, the turn towards an incipient political system based on electoral authoritarianism in Turkish politics did not take place over a single night. Instead it should be seen as a gradual and incremental process occurring over a period of at least five years. In their respective recent analyses of Russian politics and the Gezi protests, Gel’man as well as Gürcan and Peker show how the notion of critical junctures can be utilised as a useful structured and structuring stepping-stone to help outline causal trajectories generating specific political outcomes. In this regard, I will tentatively set out a series of waypoints during this period that critically contributed to sharpening and crystallizing the eventual format of electoral authoritarianism emerging in Turkey. I choose the Gezi protests that erupted in May-June 2013 as the first of these due to the immediate and indiscriminate manner in which the government responded with naked repression. Thus, Gezi was a marker signalling more starkly than ever before the AKP’s abandonment of a catch-all political strategy that gave some, increasingly token, form of attention to other important constituencies apart from it’s core conservative voting base, such as the secular and liberal segments of society. Naturally, many more junctures could be added but I will restrict it to six for the sake of parsimony:
- May-June 2013: Gezi protests
- December 2013: December 17 corruption investigations
- April 2014: Local elections
- August 2015: Presidential elections
- June 2015: National elections
- July and October 2015: Bombings in Suruç and Bombing in Ankara people at peace rallies in October
Each of these particular junctures within their own context and in how they informed the course of the subsequent ones acted as catalysts in the emergence and closure of distinct pathways of development in Turkish politics. Though to some extent contingent, each of these respective events set off or re-animated struggles and contests between the incumbent regime and a range of outside and insider challengers, which at each stage accelerated and heightened the prevailing sense of uncertainty and instability in Turkish politics. They have also increasingly crystallized the determined and ruthless drive towards a more authoritarian and repressive project of regime building as one of the central conflictual axes underpinning the country’s current political landscape.
In that regard, as Keyman and Gümüşçü argue the nature of the political competition has become a “zero-sum game” pitting the incumbent AKP regime undergoing a relentless process of “power-fusion” and state-capture against the rest of the country’s party-political and civil-societal/extra-parliamentary opposition. The incumbent regime saw itself challenged or slowed down by a mix of differentially-located challenges at these different junctures. The Gezi protests thus could be termed as a bottom-up or vertical civil-societal challenge; the December 17th corruption investigations and the concomitant intra-regime mutiny of Gülen movement being more of a lateral threat in the form of a palace coup; whereas the other waypoints were electoral challenges. The 2014 local elections marked the onset of a new element in the menu of manipulation of the incumbent regime in the form of actual voter fraud perpetrated in specific constituencies throughout the country marking a further authoritarian shift. The run-up to the 2015 elections occurred in a general climate of insecurity especially in terms of the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (People’s Democratic Party) (HDP) opposition party which derives a great, though not absolute part of its electoral support from the Kurdish minority. It suffered over 70 attacks on its offices and the bombing of a final rally in Diyarbakır two days before the elections killed four people and injured many others. The terrible bombings of Suruç and Ankara, in which at least 130 people were killed, had the more general aim of exacerbating the current climate of uncertainty and extreme polarization in the country.
In this context, one could say that the meta-level object of Turkish politics at the present time concerns a struggle over dual uncertainties revolving at one pole around the further authoritarianisation of the current political system and regime persistence. The other pole, as Turkey is still at an incipient stage of electoral authoritarianism, revolves around the resilience and survival of the spaces, institutions and actors of representative democracy. As stated, Schedler distinguishes between institutional and informational uncertainties. Institutional uncertainties relate to the ease and speed with which the principal ‘rules of the game’ underpinning the format of political governance and representation can be changed or manipulated to serve the purpose of regime building, consolidation and persistence. Simultaneously, as informal, behind-the-scenes processes of decision-making and regime-building based on patronage and clientelism increasingly take centre stage, the formal institutions of governance gradually lose their ability to structure political governance. The project to establish a super-presidential authoritarian system of rule in Turkey is a very suitable example here as its evolution has time and time again generated severe violations of the accepted constitutional rules and mechanisms underpinning democratic politics in Turkey.
The intentional failure of coalition-talks throughout the 2015 summer with the aim of repeating the electoral cycle in November, following the AKP’s inability to win majority-government status in the June elections, is just one case in point, tantamount to disregarding the election results. One can also point out how Erdoğan’s blatantly partisan presidency has systematically exceeded the established constitutional parameters of what was previously a largely ceremonial and impartial institution. In fact, he stated in August 2015 that his presidency constituted the ‘de facto power in the country’ and urged the political system to be reformed in accordance with these new facts on the ground. Furthermore, the strengthening of the presidency as the real executive center has effectively blurred the lines between it and the other institutions of government, including the prime ministry and the cabinet, and introduced pervasive confusion and tension regarding the exact prerogatives and limitations of different branches of government and their relationship towards each other.
The secretive and non-transparent manner that has accompanied this steady process of power fusion is compounded by the informational uncertainties inherent in a news environment characterised by severe threats to press freedom in which the brunt of the mainstream media’s output is managed to project an image of regime legitimacy, (self-)censorship is rife and systemic, and oppositional media are constantly subject to pressure and intimidation, including outright physical assault and taking over media companies to place them under government trusteeship. In the context of this combination of factors, one could coin a new term for the current art of deciphering and interpreting Turkish governmental politics – Aksarayology. That is to say that in the absence of concrete and reliable information on the political process, this craft, like its Soviet-era counterpart, largely depends on hear-say, guess-work, or the study of indirect clues and anecdotal evidence.
As was argued, the increasingly forceful shift towards an institutional format of electoral authoritarianism since 2010/11 has been marked by multiple, chaotic and destabilizing crises of governance giving rise to different sites of democratic regression as well resistance and conflict. This is an indication of the stress that this dynamic process of regime transformation has put on the Turkish body politic as well as wider society. In this context, the atrocious Suruç and Ankara bombings in July and October 2015, represent further key junctures that have enhanced and accelerate the sense of institutional and informational uncertainty and instability affecting Turkey’s current politics. Furthermore, with existing ethnic division being re-activated and brought to boiling point over the summer in hand with the Turkish state’s renewed military campaign against the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) (PKK), a deeply worrying trend towards reversing the pacification of politics, one of the most significant benefits of democratic polities, has been resurrected. The paradoxical nature of the politics of uncertainty in both its informational and institutional dimensions is that it affects both the political opposition and the ruling regime in their calculations for and expectations of the future, thus possessing the dual ability of constituting both a source of strength and weakness for the incumbent. The political opposition of course also seeks to increase the uncertainty of regime survival through electoral means. This was perhaps most emblematically signified by the June 2015 election slogan of the HDP party, ‘We will not make you president.’
In this current atmosphere, at first glance the newly held elections on November 1st in which the AKP attained a single-party mandate with 49.40% of the vote do not seem to have done much to defuse the current spiralling sense of uncertainty, polarization and authoritarianism in Turkey’s politics as they further strengthened the current project of institutionalizing presidential one-man rule. It remains of course to be seen for the moment what the exact regime trajectory in this new post-electoral phase will be. Should the path taken lead even more into the darkness of further authoritarianism and polarization then it may be prudent to recall Schedler’s caveat that ‘authoritarian overstretching’ can eventually destroy the sustainability of electoral authoritarian regimes by weakening their main pillars of support.
Dr. Marc Herzog, Honorary Research Fellow, British Institute at Ankara (BIAA)
Please cite this publication as follows:
Herzog M. (November, 2015), “In the Hall of the Mountain King: The Politics of Uncertainty and Turkey’s Off-piste Year of Authoritarian Transformation” Vol. IV, Issue 11, pp.6-18 Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, Research Turkey (http://researchturkey.org/?p=9926)
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Schedler, A. (2002) ‘Elections without Democracy: Menu of Manipulation,’ Journal of Democracy, 13(2), pp.36-50.
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Zakaria, F. (1997) ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,’ Foreign Affairs, 76(6), pp.22-43.
 Mert, N. (2015) ‘Faking Politics in Turkey,’ Hürriyet Daily News, [Accessed on 1st November 2015], Available at:
 Schmitter, P.C., Karl, T.L. (1991) ‘What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not,’ Journal of Democracy, 2(3), pp: 75–88.
 Schedler, A. (2013) The Politics of Uncertainty: Subverting and Sustaining Electoral Authoritarianism, Oxford University Press.
 Al Jazeera (2014) ‘Terleyen cumhurbaşkanı nasıl olacak?’, Al Jazeera Türk, [Accessed on 1st November 2015], Available at:
 Christos Teazis points out that the presidential project slowly emerged in the AKP as far back as the mid-2000s; Teazis, C. (2011) Ikincilerin Cumhuriyeti (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), Mızrak Yayınları
 Similarly, in Italy, the Christian Democrat party (DC) was a dominant force in politics from 1944 to 1994 whereas Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party was in office from 1955 until the present day with very brief interludes.
 Diamond, L. (2002) ‘Elections without Democracy: Thinking about Hybrid Regimes,’ Journal of Democracy, 13(2), 21-35; Levitsky, S., Way, L.A. (2002) ‘The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism’, Journal of Democracy, 13(2), pp.51-65; Schedler, A. (2006) Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition, Lynne Riener; Zakaria, F. (1997) ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,’ Foreign Affairs, 76(6), pp.22-43
 Schedler, A. (2002) ‘Elections without Democracy: Menu of Manipulation,’ Journal of Democracy, 13(2), pp.36-50
 Schedler 2013: 24
 Arbatlı E. (December, 2014), “Turkey’s New Path: The Rise of Electoral Authoritarianism”, Vol. III, Issue 12, pp.76-92, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=7621);
Konak, N., Özgür Dönmez, R. (2015) ‘Deconstructing a Neopatrimonial via humour: Gezi Park ‘capulcu’ protests in Turkey,’ in Konak, N., Özgür Dönmez, R. (eds.), Waves of Social Movement Mobilizations in the Twenty-First Century, Lexington Books, pp.59-82; Özbudun, E. (2014) ‘AKP at the Crossroads: Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift’, South European Society and Politics, 19(2), pp.155-167
 Gel’man, V. (2015) Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes, University of Pittsburgh Press; Gürcan, E.C., Peker, E. (2014) Challenging Neoliberalism at Turkey’s Gezi Park, Palgrave Macmillan
 Keyman, E.F., Gümüşçü, Ş. (2014) Ruling vs. Governing: Pluralism and Democracy in Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia, German Marshall Fund of the United States.
 Hürriyet Daily News (2015) ‘Erdoğan’s declaration of ‘system change’ outrages Turkey’s opposition’, Hürriyet Daily News, [Accessed on 1st November 2015], Available at:
 Önderoğlu, E. (2015) ‘Journalists Sued Every Day Allegedly Insulting the President Erdoğan,’ Bianet, [Accessed on 1st November 2015], Available at:
 Schedler 2015: 377.