Law & politics

Sultanism on the rise

‘The Sultan is dead, long live “Başyüce” Erdogan Sultan!’ argues Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Tunc Aybak

Dr Tunc Aybak, Senior Lecturer in Politics, dissects the recent actions of Turkey’s President Erdogan and argues that the current regime is moving towards a neo-sultanist ideology

Erdogan’s desire to install a presidential system in Turkey has been inspired by Kisakurek’s ‘Basyuce’ concept as the representative of the Sunni majority.

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Poet and Islamist ideologue, Necip Fazıl Kısakürek. Wikicommons/ Berildeman. Some rights reserved.
Sultanism is on the rise. Beyond Turkey, the election of Trump in the US, the resilience of Putinism in Russia, all point out the emergence of highly personalized regimes of a certain type. What distinguishes sultanism from other forms of authoritarian regimes is its unrestrained personal rule beyond ideological constraints and rational legal forms, leading to the gradual removal of checks and balances in the system. Even though sultanism is traditionally more common under authoritarian regimes, features of neo-sultanism can nowadays also exist in so-called `democratic and societies of transition’.Max Weber developed the concept of sultanism primarily based on unbounded personal discretion. Weber understood sultanism as an oriental form of despotism, deriving the term from the Ottoman state. But his study of the Ottoman Empire as a sultanistic regime appears to have been less meticulous than his inquiries into China, and India. In fact, the Ottoman state was a highly sophisticated construct, with its separate palace, military, and religious hierarchies, and its millet system for management of non-Muslim religious communities. In this sense reducing the entire Ottoman system and history to mere unrestrained personal rule could be seriously misleading, not least because there were serious attempts and movements to limit the powers of the Sultan from 1876 onwards.The kind of sultanism we are currently witnessing reflects a more universal form: all sultanisms have some common features but some are more pronounced. Not long ago Chehabi and Linz argued that sultanism arises when traditional domination develops an administration and a military force which are purely personal instruments, primarily based on the discretion of the ruler. They accept that the term can be interpreted as having an `Orientalist’ subtext with Islamic connotations. What I would like to call ‘neo-sultanism’, on the other hand derives its legitimacy from popular support leading to elected dictatorships. These are not necessarily hereditary regimes but may portray strong features of patrimonialism.Here I will limit my arguments to the Turkish context under Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule. Erdogan’ has been called “islamo-fascist, neo-facist, neo-Ottomanist” etc. but I would like to contend that these terms are not particularly helpful in making sense of the rise and consolidation of Erdogan’s regime. Although aware of the ideological ambiguities surrounding the term, neo-sultanism, I will deliberately  risk deploying it, since there is a need for a serious debate to understand the shaping forces of the new presidential regime in Turkey.

Erdogan’s neo-sultanism

Although claiming to be above and beyond ideologies, Erdogan’s neo-sultanism has been influenced by a cluster of ideologies that represent a continuity in the strong state tradition in Turkish history. His highly personalised authoritarian rule is rooted in and inspired by a combination of hegemonic ideological traits that can be located in the events leading to the emergence of modern Turkey.

Successive governments since the 1970s, under the leadership of right-wing party leaders such as Turkes, Demirel and Ozal also strongly favoured presidentialism above parliamentarianism. It is not surprising for instance that Erdogan secured the support of the veteran nationalist party head, Bahceli, as an ally in the referendum for a `Turkish style’, that is, a presidential system, doing away with checks and balances and concentrating power in the office of the presidency. The ideological traditions of Islamism, nationalism, conservatism and neo-liberalism, have always existed in modern Turkey’s history along discernible lines and movements in different combinations and articulations, particularly after the 1950s which witnessed the first peaceful transfer of political power in Turkish history. This is not to suggest that the Republican Party (the CHP, in power in a one-party state until 1946) was not guilty of this ‘one nation sovereignty’ logic. But parliamentary sovereignty, at least in rhetoric, was more appealing to its leading cadres. Erdogan has been much more successful in fusing statism, nationalism and religious conservativism, combined with market fundamentalism in comparison with his right wing successors.

Historical block and ideological continuity

Erdogan sits on the tip of an iceberg that represents a historical power block originating from the late Ottoman period.  It is repeatedly argued that the political pendulum in Turkey swings between Kemalist secularism and religious conservatism. According to this binary view, Turkish society is divided along secular conservative religious camps. This false dichotomy is simplistic. And like all false dichotomies it leads to false conclusions. In fact Kemalism, in the true sense of the Kemalist ideology, has not been in power in Turkey since the end of the Republican People’s Party’s one-party regime in 1950.

The coming to power of the conservative Democrat Party in 1950 elections marked a clear transition from utopian republicanism to a national conservative regime with authoritarian inclinations. Even the Turkish armed forces gradually abandoned a pure Kemalist ideology but not their role as protector of state and sovereignty. Their attempt in 1960 to reintroduce Kemalism failed, confronted by the same conservative nationalist Islamist power block. By the 1980s, the armed forces had become much more defensive and apologetic about the credentials of Kemalism and regarded the CHP as yet another failed political party on a par with the Islamic and conservative parties. It seems the Turkish military was well-aligned with the exigencies of neo-liberalism and identity politics in Turkey in leaving the orthodoxy of Kemalism behind.

I would like to make a bold claim here: in Turkey the state has indeed been the sole power since its inception, with its claims to hegemonic legitimacy justified by the protection accorded by conservative, nationalist and Islamist parties alike to the core component of the state – the Turkish and Sunni Muslim nation. The problem has consisted in who speaks for and controls the state, and protects the state against ‘the others’ of Turkish Sunni core identity rather than protecting its citizens, regardless of their religious affiliations and ethnic background, against the state. Raison d’etat, ‘devletin bekasi’ has always been the prevailing ideology. Historically, the Gulenist movement has been an integral part of this historical ideological block. The recent spat between Gulenists and Erdogan was an internal fight within the same hegemonic block over the ownership of the state and its institutions. The nature of this conflict was not strictly about ideological differences, but a power struggle over the hegemony of the state and its use of force.

It is often claimed that Erdogan is a neo-Ottomanist. But this label is not accurate as the history and the political system of the Ottoman Empire was highly chequered and complex. In fact, Erdogan’s neo-sultanism has been inspired by one particular sultan, namely, Sultan Abdulhamid who is Erdogan’s favourite. Abdulhamid, known as the Red Sultan( 1876-1909), attempted to revive Pan-Islamism and the status of Khalif as a last resort to holding the Empire together. Abdulhamid is also known in Kemalist discourse as a despotic sultan who suspended both the first short-lived Constitution and the Ottoman Parliament in 1878 after seizing absolute power.

Erdoğan also admires the Islamist-conservative poet and political ideologue Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-1983) and often recites his poems in public. Kisakurek is a favoured poet and writer in nationalist and conservative Islamic circles. He was also an advocate for the introduction of a totalitarian Islamist regime inspired by the Turkish-Islamist synthesis in Turkey, to be ruled by a supreme leader he called “Başyüce” (The Head Exalted One). Erdogan’s desire to install a presidential system in Turkey has been inspired by Kisakurek’s ‘Basyuce’ concept as the representative of the Sunni majority. His understanding of national will is not the peoples of Turkey but of that predominant Turkish Sunni majority. (See Necip Fazil Kisakurek, İdeolocya Örgüsü, “Plait of Ideology,” first published in 1963.)

Moreover, the fashionable distinction between the elitist, westernized so-called “white Turks” and the allegedly “real” and “authentic” nation composed of so-called “black Turks,” as produced and widely disseminated by the AKP in pro-government think tanks and media, also appealing to some liberal circles in Turkey and abroad, stems from Kısakürek’s oeuvre. Erdogan attacks western educated “white Turks” at every opportunity, while presenting himself as the saviour of the marginalized religious conservative masses by the Republic, “black Turks”, the “resented and the downtrodden” (mazlum).

Erdogan is the most powerful leader for more than a decade in Turkey, yet he manages to emerge from every crisis as the martyr of history, accusing internal and external forces of working against him, including leaders of foreign countries, financial institutions and international media. This is a siege mentality that often seems to work in his favour.

‘Retrodevelopmentalism’ as false Ottomanism

The Ottomanization of public space has been another feature of Erdogan’s neo-sultanist drive. Erdogan has often announced ‘crazy projects’ that have included grandiose schemes for bridges, a canal to parallel the Bosphorous, cavernous shopping centres and prestige projects such as the mega mosque on one of Istanbul’s beauty spots, Camlica Hill, ostensibly the biggest airport in Europe and so on. These projects are often named after ‘great’ Ottoman Sultans and figures.

Reviving the Ottoman Barracks in Taksim Square was no random choice as the rebellion against Sultan Abdulhamid started there. Like the Ottoman Sultans, Erdogan wants to be remembered as the great architect to rebuild and recreate in the image of the Ottoman Empire. As Ufuk Adak puts it, the imposition of a ‘Disney Park narrative of Ottoman history’ on the traditional structure and skyline of Istanbul has led to an overly simplified and callous recreation of the past.

The Ottoman state was the owner of all land in terms of a trusteeship which was not alienable. As sociologist Caglar has argued, unlike the Ottomans Erdoğan thinks of public land as his property to alienate, develop and sell as he wishes. Public space will be privatised in the best neoliberal manner. All this has been justified within a ‘retro developmentalist discourse’

It is crucial to understand the spatial dimension of Erdogan’s neo-Sultanistic hegemony.  He was a two-term mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s where he served his political apprenticeship. Space acts as an integral element of Erdogan’s hegemony. The transformation of public space reflects the outcome of the uneven capitalist development in the lopsided crony-capitalist-led urbanization, where the size of mega-building projects, flashy shopping centres next to deprived regions and poor neighbourhoods, act simultaneously as the signs of development and aspiration. Erdogan’s hegemony heavily relies on the production of everyday geopolitics in urban space. In this sense the reproduction of the space itself tends to restructure society.

Permanent state of emergency as the new norm

In Turkey, Erdogan is sole sovereign in defining ‘the exception’. Erdogan’s neo-sultanistic regime has established a permanent state of emergency. It was the political theorist Carl Schmitt in his examination of conditions in the democratic German Weimar Republic who first touched on the notion of a state of exception. Schmitt essentially conceived of constitutionality as something “decided” by sovereign power which could also decide the “exceptions” to it. Through its justification of infinite detention and the surveillance of citizens, law is appealed to in order to effectively create “spaces of exception” within democratic societies devoid of law. Erdogan’s constitutionally mandated “exception” now becomes a rule which abrogates both constitutionality and the rule of law over the democratic order and institutions.

It is no accident that Erdogan put the extension of a state of emergency at the top of his government’s agenda the day after claiming victory in a contested and apparently rigged referendum on a new constitution that dramatically extends his powers. Even before the referendum, Erdogan ruled with decrees side-lining the Parliament. So far, the decrees have allowed Erdogan to jail more than 40,000 people accused of plotting a failed coup, to fire or suspend more than 140,000 additional people, including academics, to shut down about 1,500 civil groups, repossess universities, arrest at least 120 journalists, and close more than 150 news media outlets.


Erdogan is the new sultan of Turkey. As a result of the referendum he has acquired extraordinary powers unprecedented in Turkish history since the times of Ataturk.

However, the legitimacy of his regime is not without question. He won the referendum by a very narrow majority. The referendum took place under the state of emergency and undemocratic conditions. The outcome of the referendum was not particularly favourable to Erdogan. Erdogan seems moreover to have lost his urban support base, including the neighbourhoods of Istanbul that carried him to where he is now.

He has managed to codify his de facto powers by the symbolic approval of `the people’ in whose name he will exercise sovereignty. The fact remains that a highly divided, polarized and personalized regime in Turkey has become difficult to sustain. Official laws and rules are now subservient to a whole range of informal laws centred on family, religious affiliations, ethnicity and personal allegiance to Erdogan. The all-powerful Erdogan is now Turkey’s new Sultan, Turkey’s Basyuce.

In Erdogan’s new sultanate, the distinction between regime and state is blurred and the institutions are hollowed out. Consequently, the constitutional façade and the futile referendum do not mean much. In Erdogan’s new sultanate, official laws and rules co-exist with and are often subservient to a whole range of other “informal” laws centred on his family, religious affiliations, business interests or simply personal allegiance to Erdogan. Erdogan’s sultanate is characterized by corruption, patrimonialism and buttressed by an increasingly subservient army and party. His personality cult may lead to dynasticism. Having lost much of his initial social support and strong base, he now has to rely on fear, rewards and nepotistic networks. He will be sustained by ‘kleptocratic’ relationships and rule with a constitutional façade lacking institutional structures.

Erdogan’s extremely personalized ‘sultanistic’ regime, is in reality fragile, ineffective, and potentially unstable. Its institutions could, as a result of an inability to cope with a sudden economic downturn, produce his downfall. Sultanistic regimes do not last long. As the legitimation of the regime is solely based on his highly and extremely personalized power, should this figure be overthrown or die, the sultanistic regime collapses. Fascist regimes organize their society strictly according to their ideology: in neo-sultanistic regimes society is organized according to the whims of the sultan, ideology is deployed only when it serves their personal interests and supreme authority lies above the state and its institutions.

This article was originally published in the independent online magazine

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