Erdogan’s steamrolling of both internal and external opposition raises a set of intriguing, if difficult, questions about the role of great men in politics. How much can one man matter in a nation with rich history and traditions and (relatively) strong institutions? Political scientists have long been uncomfortable attributing too much importance to individuals, since this would complicate the quest for causal conclusions and the ability to draw generalizations across cases. Put more simply, it’s quite difficult to “model” the role of individuals.
In an important 2001 article, subtitled “bringing the statesman back in,” my colleagues Dan Byman and Ken Pollack argue for “rescuing men and women, as individuals, from the oblivion to which political scientists have consigned them.” The challenge is identifying when individuals matter more than they might otherwise. One such context is when institutions are weaker and therefore less constraining. Of course, one reason institutions may be weaker in the first place is because power-hungry leaders insist on ignoring, challenging, or even dismantling them. In such circumstances, ambitious leaders may be doubly influential. “An exceptionally charismatic leader can overcome even strong institutions,” write Byman and Pollack, which is precisely what Erdogan was able to do in his battle with a once dominant “deep state,” a shadowy configuration of powerful networks, namely in the military, judiciary, and security services.
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The successes had clearly gotten to the president (something that became all too clear when I made my way into the decadent “White Palace” in 2015 shortly after it had opened to considerable controversy). Increasingly, Erdogan portrayed himself as a statesman on par with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who had abolished the Ottoman caliphate—the last caliphate—in 1924. In March 2014, Erdogan released a video suggesting he was leading Turkey’s “second war of independence,” shortly after an AKP press release referred to him as the “builder of Turkey.”
In writing about the Turkish “model” for my recent book Islamic Exceptionalism, I was interested in two questions. First, how much did Erdogan matter as an individual? And, relatedly, to what extent was Erdogan motivated by religious concerns? It is difficult to imagine, say, the former president Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP, being as divisive and polarizing as Erdogan. Gul had long been discussed as a potential, and more agreeable, challenger to Erdogan. What if Gul, a mild mannered economics professor, had become the leader of the AKP? As one of his former advisers told me, “[Gul] hates populist discourse. He’s also a pragmatist. He’ll look at something and say, there’s no possibility of me doing it, so why should I take the risk? And he wants people to be more religious, so he worries that divisive rhetoric undermines the cause.” At the same time, though, Gul, pragmatist that he was, would have come to realize that religious and social conservatism were good ways to rally the base in a country where the primary cleavages had to do with identity, ideology, and religion. Perhaps he would have found a way to be nicer about it. He almost certainly, though, wouldn’t have been as successful.