The accelerating erosion of Turkish democracy over the past decade has often been described in terms of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian ambitions and growing accumulation of personal power. Yet what this undeniably accurate narrative sometimes fails to convey is the extent to which Erdoğan’s authoritarianism has weakened the Turkish state itself.
In previous decades, the term deep state was used to describe the secret, usually sinister forces that were operating in conjunction with the Turkish military and bureaucracy to control the country beyond the reach of the elected government. While the deep state was often blamed for acts such as bombings and assassinations that spread chaos, it was always seen to be acting with an intended purpose, such as laying the groundwork for a military coup. In recent years, some observers argued that Erdoğan had at long last vanquished the deep state, while others argued he had simply created a new one under his own control. The reality appears far messier and more dangerous than either of those two alternatives. Beneath the swirling conspiracies that mark political rhetoric in Turkey today there is a profound insecurity about who truly governs the country. A growing number of armed and potentially independent actors, both within the state and outside of it, are competing for control of Turkey’s present and future across a shattered political landscape.
As a result, the gravest threats to the Turkish state today are sitting in plain sight, not hidden in the shadows. After more than a decade and a half of electoral victories, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) still struggles with how to manage the bureaucracy, the military, and other elements of the national security establishment. Since coming to power, Erdoğan—driven by his own belief in the deep state and fear that conspiracies were being hatched to oust him—has cycled through a variety of potential allies whom he has used to target enemies, real and perceived, within the state apparatus and Turkish society more broadly: Gülenists, Kurdish nationalists, liberal reformers, and Turkish ultra-nationalists. Almost all of these erstwhile partners have now become Erdoğan’s enemies. It would seem Erdoğan’s greatest fear remains that his rivals for power will unite to overthrow him and his party. What this insecurity seems to betray is his lack of faith in the state’s loyalty, or perhaps his ability to govern it cooperatively.
Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt offered an indication that perhaps Erdoğan’s position was not as secure as it first seemed, and his fears not unfounded. An ensuing wave of purges may have strengthened Erdoğan’s control of the state, but it also left the country’s governing apparatus more fragile and fragmented than ever before. The combination of Erdoğan’s distrust of the state, and his further weakening of it in the wake of the coup attempt, has now left him increasingly dependent on a diverse array of sometimes-competing factions and institutions within the state itself. This process may in turn further fuel Erdogan’s perception of threats emanating from within the state itself, including those on which he has come to depend. This vicious cycle has deprived the Turkish state of the ability to coherently respond to the multiple challenges that it faces and represents an alarming—but often overlooked—threat to Turkey’s stability.