Erdoğan’s Rule Demonstrates Turkey’s ‘Moral Bankruptcy,’ Scholar Charges

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

In a new journal article, M. Hakan Yavuz contends that the third decade of the strongman’s rule poses “significant challenges” for the future. 

This week’s suicide bombing outside the Interior Ministry has reignited Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK claimed responsibility for the explosion, which wounded two police officers, and Ankara retaliated with a series of airstrikes against the militant group in northern Iraq. 

This new attack by the Kurdish separatists plays into the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As M. Hakan Yavuz explains in an article just published in Middle East Policy, the strongman survived the close elections this year by stoking and exploiting fears of terrorism and portraying opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as aligned with the PKK. 

Yavuz argues that while Erdoğan took advantage of his control of the media and election regulators to win the unprecedented runoff vote in May, Turkey faces deep social issues that go beyond his grip on power. Erdoğan’s populism and fear-oriented nationalism have ushered in a “moral, economic, and political crisis,” he writes. 

Turkey is “a nation with a complex sociopolitical landscape,” Yavuz observes, “characterized by a fundamental division between the conservative, Islamo-Turkish sector and the secular-Western citizenry,” among other ethnoreligious subgroups. The divide dates back to the country’s founding in 1923 and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s orienting newly republican Turkey toward Europe. 

Erdoğan manipulated these divisions to win at the ballot box. The perpetuation of “fear-based, ethnoreligious Turkish nationalism was the most effective force in the 2023 election,” Yavuz contends, as the polarized rhetoric “succeeded in mobilizing the conservative sector” that turned out to vote for Erdoğan. 

As a result of these trends, the scholar laments, the country exists in a “state of moral bankruptcy” where “moral principles have been overshadowed by a culture of transactional relations” and “people and communities are bound by mutual fears of one another.” 

The president’s nationalist turn also has implications beyond the domestic sphere, as it has complicated Ankara’s relationship with Europe. Yavuz, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, told Middle East Policy in July that “the ascent of populist nationalism impedes any possibility of Turkey’s EU membership….As long as Erdoğan remains at the helm of this kleptocratic system, Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are slim.” 

The EU relationship is just one of the major challenges facing the re-elected president, and Yavuz sees many of them as created or worsened by Erdoğan: a limping economy, decreasing quality of education and healthcare, reconstruction after the February earthquake, refugee flows on the Syrian border, struggles with the Kurds, and balancing relations with Russia and the West. 

“Addressing these problems will require efforts to foster inclusivity, restore democratic principles, encourage pluralism, and nurture a more open-minded approach to engaging with the world,” concludes Yavuz, adding that it feels like “these are not possible.” 


Among the takeaways and arguments readers can find in Yavuz’s article, “A Torn Country: Erdoğan’s Turkey and the Elections of 2023”: 

  • Turkey faces a social and moral decline. Its society is divided between a conservative, Islamo-Turkish camp and Western-oriented communities. 

  • Erdoğan has exacerbated and capitalized on longstanding feelings of inferiority, encouraging a shift towards an Islamist and conservative future.  

    • Some of this is a reaction to the modernization efforts of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who looked toward Europe.  

  • Erdoğan has used state resources to undermine the opposition and spark division.  

  • In the 2023 campaign, Erdoğan exploited populist nationalism, fears of refugees and Kurdish separatists, and resentment of secularization. 

    • Kılıçdaroğlu, the opposition leader, emphasized coexistence, equality, and restoring democracy. 

  • Key factors that shaped the election’s outcome: 

    • The cult of the “strongman,” a culture of authoritarianism, rejection of pluralism, and pervasive fear of other groups.  

    • Religion and nationalism: Erdoğan stokes Islamism and scapegoats opponents as terrorists or puppets of a foreign entity.  

    • Oppression of political parties and civil society, including the jailing of opposition leaders.  

    • Media control: The president successfully portrayed Kılıçdaroğlu as a supporter of Kurdish terrorists.  

    • Election integrity: Erdoğan altered a law to gain authority to appoint all members of the Higher Election Commission. 

  • Erdoğan faces many major challenges:  

    • Domestic issues: a deteriorating economy, the erosion of the judiciary’s independence, the decrease in the quality of education and healthcare, and reconstruction after the deadly earthquake. 

    • Foreign-policy issues: the Kurdish question, refugees from Syria, managing economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean, relations with Russia and the West in the wake of the Ukraine war, and cooperation with the European Union.  

  • Addressing the issues will require a focus restoring inclusivity, democracy, pluralism, and open-mindedness, Yavuz argues. 

You can read “A Torn Country: Erdoğan’s Turkey and the Elections of 2023” by M. Hakan Yavuz in the Fall 2023 issue of Middle East Policy

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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