Most observers of Turkish politics understandably are obsessed with the political power that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accumulated over the past 16 years. They focus exclusively on him and his autocratic tendencies. But this fixation creates a false idea that overstates Erdogan’s reach at the expense of the real driver behind Turkish politics: the anti-Kurdish coalition that exists between the Turkish “deep state” and Erdogan himself. The decision to void the Istanbul election is the latest example that proves the power of this coalition. It is a big mistake to think of Erdogan as a leader who operates with full independence from deeper structural factors that have historically defined Turkish politics.
Although the notion of a deep state is largely unknown in the West, Donald Trump has recently advanced the idea in the US to describe the bureaucratic and legal resistance to his populist agenda. Nevertheless, it is hard to take him seriously. Most of what the US president sees as actions of an American deep state are, in fact, the legitimate checks and balances of government.
In Turkey, however, such checks and balances are absent. The country is home to a more genuine and malign version of the deep state. In fact, Turkey holds patent rights over the term. A dark force has been in action in the country since the transition from empire to nation state in the early decades of the 20th century. For instance, most historians note that the Armenian Genocide was planned by a small clique within the Young Turk movement that operated in secrecy. Today, in its more modern version, the deep state is a nationalist, clandestine network composed of rogue elements within the military, police and intelligence service. It is in charge of conducting the state’s dirty work against the presumed enemies of the regime.
Unlike the legitimate version of the state, which acts in the open and ostensibly is bound by the rule of law, this “deeper” version of the state functions covertly and with impunity. It can therefore claim plausible deniability in its operations. Historically, the state’s dirty work consisted of eliminating threats deemed existential to the regime. During the Cold War, communism was such a threat. By the 1990s, however, as the Cold War ended, the threat, as it was perceived, shifted to Kurdish separatism and political Islam. Turkish nationalism and secularism had to be defended from these forces. Not surprisingly, the military played a critical role in defining these existential dangers to the republic.
The deep state considered Erdogan a major challenge to the secular system when he first came to power in 2003. First, he quickly amassed popular legitimacy through his successful management of the economy and foreign policy. Then, thanks to his alliance with Fethullah Gulen – the Islamic scholar, preacher and leader of the eponymous movement – he managed to neutralize secularist hardliners within the deep state and the Kemalist establishment.
However, once Erdogan and Gulen had defeated their common enemies, they turned against each other. Erdogan won this fratricide within the Islamist camp by forming a nationalist coalition with remnants of the deep state and with ultra-nationalists.
After 16 years in power, Erdogan has proved himself to be a Machiavellian survivor who has successfully transformed the deep state’s secularist threat perception. Political Islam, in today’s Turkey, is no longer perceived as a threat. This is because Erdogan has infused his religious conservatism deep into Turkish nationalism. As a result, long gone are the days when the headscarf was seen as a harbinger of an Islamist revolution.
With Islam now internalized within the political system, what remains an existential threat to the deep state is Kurdish nationalism – a rising force both at home and in the region. The alliance between Erdogan and the deep state, therefore, is predicated on conservative Turkish nationalism. Its principal aim is to neutralize Turkey’s ascendant Kurdish political movement.
All this brings us back to the nullification of the municipal election in Istanbul. It is no secret that Erdogan’s party lost Istanbul mostly because Kurdish voters overwhelmingly supported Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party. This fledgling alliance between the Kurds and the founding party of the Turkish republic, formed by Ataturk himself in 1923, potentially signals a historic reconciliation between a reformed Kemalism and Kurdish ethnic identity. It also represents an existential threat to the alliance between the deep state and Erdogan.
The audacious decision to void the Istanbul vote and have a rerun on June 23 proves that Erdogan, who initially conceded defeat, is now fully beholden to the deep state and the ultra-nationalists. This coalition will do all it must to torpedo the emergence of a game-changer in Turkish politics: the Kurds as kingmakers. For indeed, Imamoglu’s alliance with the Kurds in Istanbul could well shape the future of Turkey. And in this, the stakes for the deep state are high: whatever happens in Istanbul never ends in Istanbul alone.
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.