The Turkish Republic, since 1923 and for decades characterized by a form of authoritarian secularism and a military-dominated leadership, has come to a complete end. A new era is now beginning with ultra-centralist rule under the strategic doctrine of “Turkish-Islamic unity”, with strong ingredients of a Sunni-nationalist-dominated cultural hegemony. The entire society in Türkiye threatens to change. The majority of voters have made their final verdict, however much one can argue about the small gap between the two presidential candidates and cast doubt on it in favor of Kemal Kiliçdaroglu.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a master of symbolic politics: He did not present his new cabinet in his presidential palace, but in the old villa of the founder of the state, Kemal Atatürk, where all Turkish presidents before Erdogan resided. The building stands for what Erdogan usually calls “old Türkiye”. This is where his symbolic politics come into play: the old and new president appears briefly in the tradition of his predecessors, before he quickly disappears back into his new palace, which with its swank stands for all the power that Erdogan has had written into the constitution.
Many men who were powerful just a few weeks ago now sit as simple MPs in the rather meaningless parliament. Which can be seen as a sign that the president wants a breath of fresh air – or that in this country all power really lies with him alone. Long-standing companions such as Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu or Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoglu no longer belong to the tight circle of power in the cabinet. Internally, Erdogan’s personnel shift can be seen as a signal that the president is perhaps for the first time in his reign sure of the loyalty of his security authorities. He changes the defense minister and replaces him with the previous chief of staff of the army. He appoints his chief adviser and spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, one of the most important figures in Ankara, to head the MIT secret service.
Probably the biggest surprise: Erdogan is making Hakan Fidan the new foreign minister, an old confidant who most recently led MIT for many years. Fidan thus played a central role in the Turkish power structure. He was responsible both for the failed peace negotiations with the Kurdish PKK and for the persecution of the followers of the preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdogan blames for the 2016 coup attempt. As foreign minister, the new man is faced with issues that he is familiar with from the secret service. On the one hand, Türkiye will have to seek a new relationship with Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian regime, if only to make progress on the issue of the almost four million Syrian refugees in Türkiye. Fidan’s MIT has so far been the only Turkish authority that secretly maintained contact with Assad. In the meantime, it can no longer be ruled out that Erdogan could meet with Assad.
Above all, Fidan is waiting for the decision on Sweden’s NATO membership. Ankara has so far maintained that Sweden is not acting hard enough against the PKK in the country. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Erdogan’s inauguration and met him on Sunday to promote Stockholm. He then said that Türkiye’s concerns were “justified” and that no NATO country was “so threatened by terror.” However, Sweden has now fulfilled all the conditions. So that Erdogan can agree to the NATO summit on July 11 in Vilnius, diplomats from Türkiye and Sweden should meet in Brussels this week.
Erdogan can lean on a parliament in which more than 400 seats went to a mix of conservative, Islamist fundamentalist and nationalist parties in the parliamentary elections. The now elected parliament, but also the runoff result of 52 percent to 48 percent, will be extremely useful for Erdogan to claim legitimacy in front of the world and to defend his rule. Erdogan will argue that the presence of 15 parties in parliament and the way the elections were conducted prove that “Turkish democracy works”. In fact, the many congratulations from world leaders show that his presidency and his tough rule are accepted without much reservation, even Putin’s close friend, German ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, enjoyed the celebrations in Erdogan’s palace in Ankara with his wife.
The Turkish opposition has succumbed to the illusion that “Türkiye would show the world that an autocrat can be overthrown at the polls”. It was the result of the overestimation of a political culture still characterized by populist, tribalist and utilitarian elements. Once again, the opposite has become reality: the impossibility of overthrowing an authoritarian regime at the ballot box. Erdogan has proven to be an efficient autocrat. As one who holds the masses spellbound, as one who secures his position at the head of a power alliance that now includes some of his former arch-enemies: ultra-nationalists and anti-Western militarists, as well as a dense layer of corrupt bureaucrats and businessmen.
Election day was a day of deception. It is said that Erdogan is starting his third term as president, which is not correct: he was prime minister for eleven years prior to his presidency. In addition, this third term is actually not allowed under the constitution. Erdogan’s explanation for this: With the new constitution, everything started all over again, so his first term in office doesn’t count.
With the reform of the electoral law, Erdogan has managed to get a large number of parties into parliament. This system allows politicians to represent their personal interests, those of their extended family or interest group – and not those of a larger electorate. The vast majority of the newly elected MPs, like Erdogan, know that they will be part of an assembly that, given the dominance of MPs serving the palace, will be little more than a debating club or nodding coalition. This is almost reminiscent of the dependencies in Russian politics. The 61 MPs from the pro-Kurdish party HDP will feel the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. The sultan already demonized them in his victory speech, and as ruler he created the political climate and all the means to further criminalize them. He also made it clear there that he wants to bring Istanbul and Ankara back to his party in the local elections in early 2024. There are already indications that Ekrem Imamoglu, the charismatic mayor of Istanbul, will be given a five-year political ban on the charges against him.
Given the approval of the masses and his rigid control over the state apparatus, Erdogan may have already won the battle in his “Kulturkampf”. He will hold cultural hegemony as “president for life”. Since May 28, we have been dealing with a new Türkiye, the remnants of the “old” republic can be considered buried.
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