President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey are not the most popular leaders in the world today, but they are certainly popular with each other. Their mutual affinity is not just the result of personal chemistry, it also stems from a shared craving for unchecked power.
June 7, 2015, may prove to be the date when the destinies of these “electoral monarchs” diverged. Putin, of course, has established himself as the unchallenged master of the Kremlin, his success giving rise to an eponymous leadership style, Putinism. Erdoğan seemed to be on a similar trajectory as Putin – until the June 7 parliamentary election results dumped sand in the Turkish president’s gas tank.
Putin’s 15-year-long reign in Russia, Russian analyst Dmitry Trenin has noted, has led to the formation of the political system in which “his power is often likened to that of a monarch or a czar.” In Turkey, there had been a lot of talk prior to the election among the country’s pundits that Erdoğan was striving to emulate Putin: some analysts even started to use the term “Erdoğanism” to describe Erdoğan’s autocratic proclivities.
“If there is the touch of a czar in Putin, there is a sultan in Erdoğan,” as the Turkish journalist Hilmi Toros colorfully put it.
One can argue that the two leaders’ autocratic impulses are in some way an outgrowth of their two countries’ respective traditions of imperial rule and autocratic governance. It is also worth noting that when the Romanov and Ottoman empires collapsed in the early 20th century, the polities that emerged from under their rubble were not liberal democracies but highly centralized political regimes that pursued authoritarian modernization.
But there are notable differences in Russia and Turkey’s post-imperial political traditions that help explain why Erdoğan faced a more difficult path in trying to establish an imperial presidency. First, unlike in Russia, elections do matter in Turkey, representing genuine (and at times fierce) competition among various political forces. Second, political opposition may be largely marginalized in Russia, but it has always played a significant role in Turkish politics. Third, Turkey’s pluralistic and diverse society is much better organized at the grass-roots level than it is in Russia.
The June 7 elections marked a significant political setback for Erdoğan. His chief political vehicle, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), gained 41 percent of the vote. But that result marked a roughly 10 percent drop in electoral support over the total it received in the 2011 elections. That fact, along with the strong showing of the AKP’s competitors, in particular the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), denied Erdoğan’s party the ability to forge a supermajority in the Turkish parliament. This, in turn, dashed Erdoğan’s hopes of amending Turkey’s constitution to create an all-powerful, Putinesque presidency.
When the preliminary results of the parliamentary election were released, Putin called his Turkish friend to congratulate him on the AKP’s electoral performance. The call was a political blunder on two levels – one pertaining to protocol, the other practicality.
Concerning protocol, Turkey’s president is meant to be an impartial figure standing above party politics. Technically, Erdoğan resigned the post of the AKP leader when he was elected president last year. Even so, that did not prevent the president from openly campaigning on behalf of the AKP. On the practical level, Putin also did not seem to grasp the electoral implications: instead of sending his congrats, one Turkish opposition policymaker quipped that Putin should have told Erdoğan to “get well soon.”
Putin and Erdoğan relied on similar tactics as they went about consolidating their power, namely pursuing highly divisive policies with the aim of splitting their nations into friends and enemies, and, in doing so, portraying their political opponents as “treasonous elements” and “foreign agents.” Putin, of course, succeeded in reaching a seemingly unassailable position of authority. Erdoğan, meanwhile, appears to have failed to reach his goal. As the Nationalist Movement Party lawmaker Oktay Vural put it, “Turkey is a country run by a parliamentary democracy. There is no Putin system in Turkey.”
Igor Torbakov is Senior Fellow at Uppsala University and at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.