Explaining Erdogan’s Decision-Making

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a brilliant politician. The Prime Minister, through the use of modern campaign techniques that are unrivaled in Turkey, is able to keep his thumb on the pulse of the Turkish Republic and – more importantly – is able to marshal incredible resources to shape the country’s political narrative.

The recent graft recordings have, however, forced the Prime Minister to shift away from his preferred political talking points – Turkey’s infrastructure projects – and towards the uncomfortable subjects of graft and sex tapes.

In launching its guerrilla assault on the Prime Minister, the Hizmet has robbed Erdogan of his most precious resource – namely his ability to set and then control the country’s political talking points. In turn, Erdogan is now reactive, and thereby prone to crafting political talking points/strategies in a hurry. To be sure, the party is using the “foreign powers are frightened of Turkey’s – ie, Erdogan’s – independence and have therefore resorted to political shenanigans to tame Turkey’s strong prime minister,” as a catch-all to explain all that ails Turkey (street protests, graft, a slowing economy, etc).

However, the party’s need to think up things on the fly has led to political mistakes – the most noteworthy of which was the recent decision to block access to twitter. Erdogan’s actions are often diagrammed using the rational choice theory. The prime minister, for example, is assumed to have mapped out a long-term political strategy that he is now methodically working to implement. To be sure, he did such things in in the past. But is he doing so now? And, with regards to twitter, what are the factors that led him to direct his allies to block access?

I strongly suspect that Erdogan is making decisions based on the availability of the heuristic – ie the subjective variables, or rules of thumb, that leaders use to simplify complex decisions. My analysis indicates that Erdogan is not really thinking things through, but rather making decisions quickly – and those decisions are based upon his own perceptions. These perceptions, I believe, are aimed at ensuring his political survival and are thereby aimed at short-term goals, rather than being part of a larger political strategy. (To be sure, the AKP is trying to trash the reputation of the Hizmet, but that is something different.)

Naresh Khatri and H. Alvin Ng note that an “unstable environment poses three challenges” for decision-makers. They are: 1) Time constraints on collecting data; 2) need to collect a large amount of data to deal with environmental instability; and 3) lack of reliability about data or information.[1] In the absence of time and data, leaders then rely on “an intuitive synthesis” of data they acquired and their own subjective thoughts on the topic. In a stable environment, Khatri and Ng note, “data are more reliable [and] there is not much pressure to collect data quickly.”[2] In the context of a campaign, this means that one can’t focus group everything, which means one has rely on the “gut feeling” of the decision-maker for direction. Well, we all know who the AKP’s decision-maker is. So we best better get a sense of what those “gut feelings” are.

In doing so, one must then account for how anxiety and fear is affecting Erdogan’s decision-making. To borrow from Jacques Hymans – a political scientist working at the nexus of psychology and nuclear weapons decision-making – “Fear produces a higher threat assessment, which motivates a serious effort to enhance a nation’s defenses … Fear also lowers cognitive complexity, blurring the lines between destructive force and political-military power …. And adds to the goal of decreasing fear, which can be achieved through the acquisition of symbols of power.”[3] While Hymans was discussing “why states proliferate,” the psychological research about decision-making yield useful data for understanding Erdogan. He is afraid. And he is acting out of fear. And he is trying to use symbols of power to thwart the graft allegations.

For example, just hours before ordering the blocking of twitter, Erdogan told a crowd of supporters, ““We now have a court order. We’ll eradicate Twitter …I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” The move suggests that the motivation was twofold: 1) to regain some control over the narrative; 2) And to do “something” to beat back the flood of embarrassing leaks that are plaguing his future political plan. And, in trying to do “something” he framed it as a symbol of Turkey’s – aka Erdogan’s – power.

The difference between decision-making in stable and unstable environments suggests a key distinction between Erdogan’s decision-making before December 17th (and perhaps the Gezi protests) and after his hold own power was threatened. In a stable environment, a leader can take the time to focus group political talking points, craft a well-rounded strategy, lean on the media to report the facts as he wants them portrayed (Alo Fatih), and then take stock of the impact of his decisions. In an unstable environment, all bets are off.

The Illusory Correlation: The AKP Telegraphs its Current Political Playbook

David L. Hamilton and Robert K. Gifford describe people’s tendency to rely heavily on illusory correlation when making judgments. Illusory correlation “refers to an erroneous inference about the relationship between two categories of events.” The study concluded that “distortions in judgments can result in the cognitive mechanisms involved in processing information about co-occurring events, at least when the various events co-occur with differential frequencies.”[4]

For Erdogan, twitter became a scourge during the Gezi protests (in other words, a co-occurring event). Yet, the timeline also suggests that the illusory correlation between Gezi, post-December 17th, and the role twitter has played during both events has prompted Erdogan to formulate his own judgment vis-à-vis social media. And, more broadly, it suggests that the illusory judgements Erdogan has made about Turkey’s history of coups plays a large part in his history of political decision-making.

For example, after the Gezi protests subsided – but never really went away – Transport and Communications Minister Binali Yildirim telegraphed the government’s intent. Yilidirim told Reuters:

When information is requested, we want to see someone in Turkey who can provide this … there needs to be an interlocutor we can put our grievance to and who can correct an error if there is one … We have told all social media that … if you operate in Turkey you must comply with Turkish law …

And, according to the same Reuters report:

Turkey successfully pressured Google Inc into opening an office there last October after blocking YouTube, a Google subsidiary, from Turkish Internet users for two years. While Ankara had no problems with Facebook, which had been working with Turkish authorities for a while and had representatives inside Turkey, Yildirim said it had not seen a “positive approach” from Twitter after Turkey issued the “necessary warnings” to the site. “Twitter will probably comply, too. Otherwise this is a situation that cannot be sustained,” he said, without elaborating, but he stressed the aim was not to limit social media. An official at the ministry, who asked not to be named, said the government has asked Twitter to reveal the identities of users who posted messages deemed insulting to the government or prime minister, or that flouted people’s personal rights.

The history, therefore, shows that there was a “playbook” put in place in June to deal with twitter, should it ever prove to be a threat to the AKP again. But why wait to implement that decision? Well, for one, it appears that Erdogan’s initial impulse was to use his own army of twitter users to try and take-back the message. In doing so, Erdogan’s instinct resembled that of his approach to mainstream media (conquer it, rather than co-opt it. One can use status quo bias to explain this, but my post is going on too long). Thus, after threatening to take tighter control over social media, the party appeared to put those plans “on the shelf,” in favor of a longer-term strategy aimed at shaping the narrative on social media.

The Change: The Subjective Variables

All of this changed on 20 March 2014. Erdogan appears to have abandoned his previous approach to social media and rapidly moved to the “nuclear option.” The decision is puzzling. For one, Turks can still access facebook – and indeed Yildirim indicated that he was cool with facebook during Gezi – for links to the recordings. Moreover, the Prime Minister did not move to ban youtube, where the bulk of the recordings have been uploaded. So why just twitter? Well, the answer may not be rational.

According to  Hymans, the key to the “puzzle” may in fact be an “interpretivist” understanding of “speech acts, with careful attention to nuance, pregnant pauses, Freudian slips, and other seemingly small things ….” There is merit to this approach.

For one, my wife (who has since had the good sense to get an MBA and get a job in the corporate world), used similar discourse analysis in 2010, to measure the different ways in which Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu talked about the EU accession process. Her findings suggested that Babacan was more accommodating to the EU process than Davutoglu (this is unsurprising, given the title and nature of Davutoglu’s PhD thesis.) In any case, one can clearly see a shift in Erdogan’s speech patterns since Gezi began.

Thus, it is important not to dismiss the prime minister’s rhetoric as a “distraction,” but rather to file it away as evidence of a broader set of variables that we scholars can use to understanding how/why he is doing what is doing. Erdogan may in fact be telegraphing his intent, rather than employing tactics to distract the voters, when he speaks – and he speaks a lot –  during this turbulent election cycle.

The Subjective Variables

So what does this mean? It appears that when Erdogan does operate in an unstable environment, he is prone to relying on subjective variables when making decisions. So what are those subjective variables? I’d start with his understanding of history, his education, and his approach to politics thus far. This leads me to believe that we should take Erdogan’s words about the hanging of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes seriously. While Erdogan is clearly using the killing of the Prime Minister for political reasons, I think it stands to reason that segments of Turkey’s conservatives – including Erdogan – believe that he is now engaged in a life or death struggle with coup plotters. Thus, this may be an example of a Freudian slip.

If this is the case, then one can rationalize authoritarian acts as being absolutely necessary to ensure personal – and political – survival. If I am correct, than this could help explain why the Prime Minister’s base is so unwavering in its support for Erdogan. The stakes couldn’t be higher. This narrative is based on years of history. For one, Erdogan was arrested for reciting a Ziya Gokalp poem in 1999 and his party was nearly shut down in 2008 for the very dubious charge of threatening Turkish secularism.

Moreover, as a child and young adult, Erdogan attended an Imam Hatip high school and, as early as 1969, got involved with Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist youth groups and political parties. Thus, during Erdogan’s most formative political years, he was exposed – and probably internalized – Erbakan’s Milli Gorus manifesto. While Erdogan did distance himself from this approach to world politics between 2002-2009, certain aspects of the ideology now dominate his public speeches. In turn, the reverence in which Erdogan is held amongst people of similar backgrounds is certain to influence their perception of him now.

And, more broadly, we should expect more rash decisions that are ill thought out and difficult to implement. However, I do believe that his speeches – when combined with what we know about the subjective variables that influence his decision-making (my list is not exhaustive, in fact it barely scratches the surface. But this is a blog post) – should be taken seriously, and are useful guides for understanding the direction of Turkish politics. Moreover, it explains the different approaches different Turkish leaders with similar backgrounds have taken since Gezi. Bulent Arinc and Abdullah Gul, for example, have not been targeted by the Cemaat. And they may in fact rely on different subjective variables when making complex and non-routine decisions.

The current discourse paints a rather bleak picture of the direction of the country.  Erdogan’s speeches have become increasingly bitter and confrontational with rival political actors, the European Union, and the United States. It appears that he using these to do “something” about the graft allegations and to demonstrate his political power. If he continues on this course – and there is no reason to expect a deviation from his current political path in the near future – than it stands to reason that Turkey watchers should expect more rash decisions in the near future. And, more broadly, I think it helps explain the rather puzzling decision to ban twitter. Perhaps, the move wasn’t rational, but rather a political flail designed to do something about a media platform he can’t control.


[1] Naresh Khatri and H. Alvin Ng, “The Role of Intuition in Strategic Decision Making,” Human Relations, vol. 53, no. 1 (2000).

[2] Ibid

[3] Jacques C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity Emotions, and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[4] David L. Hamilton and Robert K. Gifford, “Illusory Correlation in Interpersonal Perception: A Cognitive Basis of Stereotypic Judgments,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 12, no. 4 (July 1976) pp. 392–407.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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1 Response to Explaining Erdogan’s Decision-Making

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