Since the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government changed the manner of presidential elections in 2007, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's prospective political career has become a hotly-debated topic both inside and outside Turkey. In Western policy circles and media coverage, Erdoğan has been frequently accused for intending to become another "Putin-style autocrat" in Turkey in recent years. By referring to the Western media, the discourse of authoritarianism regarding the decade-old Erdoğan premiership has been also fashioned inside Turkish domestic politics by the main oppositional Republican People's Party (CHP) and its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as a part of his recent political campaign that aimed to demonize Erdoğan since last year's Gezi Park demonstrations.
Undoubtedly, such allegations come to the fore once again during Erdoğan's presidential campaign and soon after Aug. 10 when he will most likely become the first popularly-elected president of the Republic of Turkey. If he is elected, which is highly likely according to Turkey's esteemed pollsters, Erdoğan will have a chance to maintain his presidency until 2024 within the two consecutive five-year terms on the condition that the general will of Turkish people favor it. For many, Erdoğan's political move toward the presidency, by its very nature, is reminiscent of Vladimir Putin's constitutional changes in 2011, which also enabled him to once again regain the presidency of the Russian Federation from 2012 until 2024 within the framework of two consecutive six-year terms as long as Russians vote in his favor.
In reality, however, the Erdoğan-Gül leadership cannot be compared with the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate as the Turkish and Russian political-legal cultures and institutions have differed from each other throughout the 20th century and particularly during the concurrent Erdoğan and Putin eras. In other words, post-Soviet Russia tends toward constitutional autocracy through personalization of state power and legal system under Putin, whereas post-Kemalist Turkey has made gains in approaching EU conditions for accession during the unprecedented democratic transition under the auspices of Erdoğan's AK Party government in the recent decade.
Autocracy: Russia's path-dependent tendency under Putin
In the year 2000, after a period of turmoil after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ex-KGB officer and leader of the United Russia Party, Vladimir Putin, rose to power as successor to Boris Yeltsin. Since then, Russia is said to have started once again to turn its face toward autocracy under the interchangeable consecutive Putin-Medvedev era. Moreover, such a political backlash has been made without formal changing in the essence of the 1993 constitution. Those changes in Russia, of course, were related to hermeneutic interpretations of the document and arbitrary implementation of state law and/or the principle of "rule by law" within the legal justification of Constitutional Court of Russia decisions. Thus, the constitution itself together with Constitutional Court verdicts facilitated Putin's re-centralization of the state structure and adjusted autocratic governance in Russia in recent years.
Under these circumstances, President Putin was able to make his own institutional change within the borders of de jure fixation of Soviet-era legal nihilism and de facto implementation of the same mentality through legitimization of the Constitutional Court. As the most supreme executive power, namely being the president of Russia, Putin was very comfortable to re-order first the Russian senate, and then, by adopting the Federal Law, he also changed the decentralized federal structure of the state by using the bloody Beslan Hostage Crisis in 2004 as his pretext. Thus, he changed the status of governorships from an elected office into an appointed one, which unreasonably was not considered unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.
Hence, Putin could have opened the gate for his authoritarian manners through the recentralization of power that later on also provided him the power to reorganize the State Duma, party politics and the electoral system within a nationalistic statist narrative of public interest. The worst thing was seemingly the negative use of the Constitutional Court, which is perceived as the valve of supremacy of rule of law in all democratic states, but can easily be turned into a guardian of a certain regime and/or ideology in facade democracies. In Russia, the court also became a titular supreme body of law, and implicitly or explicitly helped to weaken formal institutions, hereby causing the rise of the concept of "sovereign democracy" under the Putin-Medvedev power structure.
Unbearable slightness of the 'rest'
In the lights of these developments, one could easily understand that Erdoğan and Putin are different leaders in terms of manners of political attitudes and governance toward the state and society. Putin once again has centralized state power and enhanced state control over Russian society throughout his 14-year reign, while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gradually started to liberate every segment of Turkish society from the bureaucratic oligarchy of the Turkish state, which was perceived as the "father state" by the Turkish people for decades. Simply put, Erdoğan decentralized the state's authority and gave sovereignty of it to its main owner, namely Turkish citizens, during a massive period of reforming the political order with the help of exogenous underpinnings from the Copenhagen Criteria and the endogenous will for change by the recent democratic awakening in the country.
In this regard, Erdoğan is the man who founded the "New Turkish Republic" in 12 years in which democratic and transparent governance, human and minority rights, religious liberties, freedom of expression and of the press, social welfare policies, rule of law and adopting a new constitution became the primacy of Turkish politics. Thus, Erdoğan's prospective presidency is now perceived as a guarantee of the democratic transition by the Turkish people. In this sense, the AK Party has recently declared its vision document for the presidency in which augmenting the quality of Turkish democracy together with the spreading of the social welfare state phenomenon were already promised by Erdoğan himself. Moreover, Erdoğan and his party members have agreed on the limitation of being deputy in the Turkish Grand National Assembly to three parliamentary terms (12 years) in order to institutionalize party politics in Turkey.
In the given comparative analysis with the Russian case, identifying Erdoğan with Putin seems meaningless and nonsense in terms of the objective parameters of political science and democratic indicators. Turkey today is neither a militaristic society nor an authoritarian state as in the past. Rather, Erdoğan's new Turkey is freer than its Kemalist and oligarchic predecessor.
Contrary to Putin, Erdoğan has progressed in Turkey despite the Turkish Constitutional Court and other supreme courts' verdicts that generally
attempted to restore the ex-political-legal order in the country. Besides that, Erdoğan consulted the Turkish nation for the changes of articles in the constitution regarding presidential elections and acquired a 69 percent support in the referendum in 2007, whereas Putin arbitrarily made constitutional changes in 2011, which paved way for his personal agenda with the help of the legitimization by the Constitutional Court of Russia.
Either Westerners did not properly read the recent democratic transition in Turkey, or they have been deliberately labeling Erdoğan as an autocrat, sultan, oneman party and even dictator in the so-called esteemed journals and newspapers of Europe and the U.S. Such a populist trend in Western media outlets has also started to be advocated by Turkey's political opposition leaders in order to conceal their ineffectiveness in terms of producing tangible and consistent policies vis-a-vis Erdoğan and the AK Party in Turkey's new political environment. In this sense, someone can easily comprehend that there is an opposition deficit in Turkish Politics in the recent years.
However, Western ignorance regarding Turkey's latest democratization under Erdoğan is not an acceptable situation as the country's leadership has been negotiating with the EU for full-membership since 2005. On the one hand, the Franco-German axis ledby Chancellor Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande as recently adopted this vision to legitimize their reluctance on Turkey's EU bid to join the Union. On the other hand, Turkish-Russian rapprochement and robust commercial relations in the new millennium with the endeavors of Erdoğan and Putin might be said to have caused the spreading of rumors about Turkey's axial slide toward Eurasia, and thereby popularized Erdoğan's comparison with Putin to demean the latest Russo-Turkish partnership.
Erdoğan's categorical comparison with Putin therefore reflects an archaic mentality of Orientalism, according to which Islam and democracy cannot go together and therefore authoritarian leadership prevails in Islamic countries. But, Erdoğan's leadership has obviously proven opposite so far in Turkey and added some fresh meanings to the values of democracy, human rights and liberties particularly at a time when those values have been declining in the wake of increasing Islamophobia, racism and democratic and humanitarian apathies in the West.
* Freelance Eurasia Analyst, MSc, Center for Russian & Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University, Sweden
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