The End of Political Opposition
Turkey was undeniably transformed by last July’s failed coup. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having barely survived an attempt on this life, has become a Turkish Muslim messiah in the eyes of his supporters: he is the unchallenged leader of the nation, charged with reinvigorating the Muslim umma, the global Muslim community. Opposition has become blasphemous. Those who refuse to support him are anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim and therefore enemies of the state. This is terrible news for Turkey’s democracy, which requires a healthy opposition to survive.
Erdogan, a right-wing leader, first came to power as prime minister in 2003 through his Justice and Development Party (AKP). He became president in 2014. In that time, especially during the last decade, he has delivered economic growth, which has helped him increase the AKP’s vote share. More insidiously, he also demonized electorates unlikely to vote for him, including seculars, liberals, social democrats, leftists, and Kurds. This strategy built Erdogan a large base made up of conservatives and political Islamists.
After 2014, Erdogan strove to transform the Turkish political system into an executive style presidency in which he, as president, would consolidate the powers of head of state, head of government, and head of the ruling party. This seemed a tall order; Erdogan needed to win a popular referendum to change the constitution before he could become omnipotent, but his AKP had never received more than 50 percent of the vote.
Erdoganism has set Turkish democracy on a path to self-destruction, and there seems to be no exit.
Almost two years later, Erdogan’s presidential ambitions were reanimated through a crisis that threatened to destroy him entirely: the July 15 coup attempt. Before that, Erdogan had already been one of Turkey’s most powerful leaders. By surviving an attempt on his life and subsequently defeating his enemies, especially the Gulen movement—a former ally that seems to have played a key role in the coup—he only gained in stature, which he then leveraged in a snap constitutional referendum to achieve his political ambitions.
Following the coup, Erdogan was faced with the options of reconciliation or further polarization. He made what the writer Busra Erkara described in the New York Times as the “unmistakable choice to blow up, rebrand and capitalize on the collective anxiety instead of soothing it.” And anxiety there was: the country’s capital city of Ankara, which had not come under attack since Tamerlane raided it in 1402, was repeatedly bombed by coup plotters, who directly struck the parliament. Erdogan’s attempts to use that fear have unleashed forces unprecedented in the history of the Turkish republic.