As Turkey’s referendum approaches, President Erdoğan’s electoral victory seems to be hanging by a thread. Never before has his electoral machinery, the AKP, seemed so out of tune, out of zest, and out of zeal. There are serious conflicts within and across the party apparatus, the courtiers, the bureaucracy, and the incumbent political coalition – the so-called “National Consensus” (Milli Mutabakat) – conflicts that are difficult to hide. These conflicts might have been exacerbated by the referendum process and Erdoğan’s relentless pursuit of absolute power; however, they will not dissipate after the referendum, regardless of the result. Indeed, these conflicts represent the structural causes of the rise of Erdoğanism. Any explanation that misses these underlying dynamics is doomed to reiterate clichés that might be found in medieval treatises written for princes: the regime’s decay was brought on by the prince’s lack of virtue, lack of education, excessive ambition, or else by the presence of greedy advisors.
In fact, prevailing analyses in Western media and academia seem to prefer these clichés to a critical reassessment of their once beloved “Turkish model.” Blaming the driver is more convenient than analyzing the shortcomings of an idealized liberal democratic model, which seems to be failing even in its very birthplace in Western Europe and North America. What is at stake is more than a theoretical exercise. We cannot answer the question of why Erdoğan is pushing for a referendum despite the fact that he can (and does) already rule without any checks unless we first understand these underlying dynamics.
In his analysis of Louis XIV’s Versailles, Norbert Elias suggests that single-man rule (monarchia) is in fact a consequence of the immense potential for conflict among the political elite. The proliferation of rivalries among the French nobility that threatened to explode in civil war could only be prevented by the centralization and concentration of power in the hands of a prince, bound by no law (legibus solutus). The court society was constituted neither the free will of the courtiers nor the will of the absolutist king as such; Elias claims that the court is a determinate social formation, like the church, the factory, or the bureaucracy, and should be studied sociologically. The merit of Elias’ analysis of absolutism lies in its emphasis on structural political conflict rather than on the intentions of individual members in a political society.
In a postscript to his dissertation, Elias criticizes the view that there could be a state without structural conflict – a view common to both the Kemalist and the Islamist ideal of the nation. The late ultra-nationalist Alparslan Türkeş would have agreed with this view: in his words, “there can be no talk of a mosaic; the Turkish nation is a nation of marble.” Such high-flown allegory only attests to the need for propaganda within an unstable regime. The contemporary truth-claims of Turkish nationalism should be approached with the same healthy skepticism levied upon depictions of Louis XIV as Caesar or Jupiter on the walls of Versailles.
The emergence of Erdoğan’s court as the powerhouse of the government coincides with the formation of a coalition among the Erdoğanists and the so-called Ergenekon faction, a loose coalition of Nationalists and Eurasianists. The program of this governing coalition is constituted by a rapprochement in foreign policy with Russia and Iran, as well as a policy of oppression against the Kurds, the Turkish left, and the Gülenists. Given its own not-so-distant memory of criminalization, the Ergenekon faction is unlikely to rely merely on Erdoğan’s good graces, especially after the example set by the purge of the Gülenists.
Erdoğan’s primary goal in organizing the 16 April referendum is to legitimize his leadership publicly and internationally. A “NO” vote would be a serious blow to Erdoğan’s leadership, and it would embolden his coalition partners in their will to power, exacerbating the structural conflict inherent in the state. A “YES” vote would legalize and naturalize the current state of emergency. Regardless of the result, however, Erdoğanism will always be a governing logic based on the art of fait accompli. Looking beyond the façade of a supposedly harmonious society, as Elias emphasizes, highlights the degree to which political conflict takes place not within the public debates of parliamentary politics but within the intrigues of the Byzantine court.
[Mehmet Sinan Birdal is Visiting Assistant Professor at the School of International Relations and the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Southern California. He is the author of The Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans: From Global Imperial Power to Absolutist States (I.B. Tauris, 2014).]