The past few years have seen drastic changes in political systems across the world, notably the perversion of postwar institutionalism in favor of individualism. In Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan blatantly used a referendum to strip institutions of their power and to appropriate them for himself (while also chipping away at other foundations of the Turkish Republic, like secularization). Across the continent in China, President Xi Jinping has essentially elevated himself above the bureaucracy of the Communist Party (CCP). Thus, while institutions have played the predominant role in national politics since the end of World War II, individual leaders are now challenging their power and stability. This rapid rise of personalistic politics is evident in various regimes across the ideological spectrum, especially in Turkey and in China, who clearly exhibit this radical shift.
In January 1921, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed their constitution called Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu, or the Law on Fundamental Organization. This legislation determined that the country would be administered by an executive and legislative branch, as well as a Council of Ministers composed of elected representatives from Parliament. What had once been the authority of the Sultan, who ruled alone with political and ecclesiastic legitimacy, was placed in the hands of legislators who represented the sovereignty of the Turkish people.
Erdogan upended this system in 2017 by significantly increasing the president’s powers. Specifically, the referendum enables the president to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree. Unlike most of the government officials, the aforementioned ministers will not be subject to any legislative or judicial review and will be answerable only to the president. With the rise of the individual power, institutional power in Turkey has declined accordingly. According to the Brookings Institution, Parliament will lose its right to scrutinize ministers or propose inquiries. More importantly, the referendum will make it extremely difficult for Parliament to overturn the president’s decisions if the president’s party has an absolute majority, which is likely to remain the case for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Thus, by weakening Parliament’s veto power, the referendum effectively weakens Turkey’s system of checks-and-balances and will render the legislative branch merely a rubber stamp.
When the Republic of Turkey was first established, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk set a variety of hurdles to limit individual power and to preserve the design of secular political institutions. Though Turkish presidencies have experienced complexities and numerous coups, the power dynamic was never reversed and the absolute dominance of the system was never deprived. Erdogan is challenging all of this. According to Freedom House, Turkey had always been classified as at least a partly free “electoral democracy” until now, where we see decreased institutional checks and significantly lessened freedoms. Turkish politics is now characterized by Erdogan and his desires. And these desires are tightly associated with individually-oriented ideals, such as the move away from secularization and the hostilities towards the West.
Contrary to Turkey, which already had an established democratic system, China shows the pre-eminence of individualization from a different perspective. The Chinese political structure, whose powerhouse in the Communist Party, is highly institutionalized. The party system and national government live in symbiosis with one another. The hands of Chinese leaders are often even tied by this system, given the Party’s restraining power: Chinese national leaders have to make decisions within the context of a massive and complex network of Party administration. For example, former president Jiang Zemin has made multiple attempts to introduce a National Security Commission since 1997, largely to increase his own power, but failed multiple times because of the Party’s dissent. Decisiveness based on personal will is often absent, as challenging the power of the Party is equivalent to challenging the institutions of a democratic society. Yet this is exactly what Xi has been doing.
Xi has established a series of new Central Small Leading Groups, which make specialized policies for different aspects of society, as well as national organizations in charge of cybersecurity, economic development, and other pertinent political issues. He has named himself the head of all of them, the most important one of which is the National Security Commission (NSC). According to You Ji, a professor of International Relations at the University of Macau, the establishment of the NSC is a major regrouping of Beijing’s power structure and has boosted Xi’s idea of power re-centralization. The NSC is not only a group in charge of national security—it also groups everything mildly associated with national security under its authority, including the economy. In terms of power-wielding, the NSC chief, who is Xi himself, is granted the convenience of bypassing and even excluding the Party’s intervention in the decision-making process.
Additionally, a recent amendment of the Chinese Constitution, which removes the two-term limit set upon the presidency, is another key indicator of this individualization. In 1976, China’s Communist Party instituted term limits after the death of Mao Zedong, in an attempt to ensure that no individual leader would rule for life. With the removal of this Party legislation, Xi is on the path of transforming China from being under the gigantic Communist Party system to now being under an individual.
Erdogan has justified his individualization of power on the basis of external threats and the necessity to tackle them. He has reminded the Turkish people of the external intentions of Western countries and other enemies (e.g. Kurds) to break Turkey apart as a nation. Xi has begun to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, seeing his rule as the best way for China to truly ascend to its position as a global superpower. Thus, in order to further legitimize their newly acquired power and win over popular opinion, these two leaders will act accordingly to pursue their goals. Turkey’s tough stand on Kurdish forces and resistance to the United States in Syria, in the name of national sovereignty and unity, can be seen as a demonstration of these moves. On the other hand, to become a true superpower, Xi has emphasized that the stability and continuation of the regime, through his power, is necessary.
The crucial point of this inversion, however, is that individualization is not sustainable. As the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested, the dominance of personalistic leaders is unstable. A nation’s future without this one specific leader is unforeseeable, in marked contrast to the stability of a future determined by institutions. Whether Erdogan will fall victim to a polarized Turkey or transform it into dictatorship based on his ideas is impossible to say. In China, the future of the Communist Party is just as uncertain. The only thing that can be known, however, is that this increased individualization has sowed the seeds of political division in Turkey and has foreshadowed more profound changes within the CCP.Valerie Zhu is a Contributing Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article has been copyrighted by Reuters and was taken by Jason Lee. The image can be found here.
Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.