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HomeHeadlineThe Relationship between Defense Industry and Authoritarian Regime in Turkey

The Relationship between Defense Industry and Authoritarian Regime in Turkey

Abdullah Esin*

Abstract: The developments in the defense industry, especially in the last decade, have become the main campaign material for Erdogan and the People’s Alliance in the 2023 elections, while posing a challenge for the opposition in reaching the nationalist-conservative voter base. Erdogan, skillfully using the “doing ethos” of right-wing politics, turned UAVs/drones, TCG Anadolu, and other defense projects into symbols of a new and powerful Turkey, overshadowing economic crises, corruption, and earthquake disasters with a campaign that emphasized techno-nationalism.

Selçuk Bayraktar, considered the mastermind behind the New Turkey, the prodigy of the conservative community, and a possible successor to Erdogan by some, openly supported the government during the election process, associating the defense industry and Turkey’s future with Erdogan. His statements reveal the blurred relationship between the private sector and the state and the power dominance imposed on the defense industry: “Even the slightest relaxation, change, or actions taken with different agendas by the current political power regarding these projects may lead to serious setbacks and risks of losing its leadership position in the world.”

Analyzing this understanding and system that ties the fate of defense industry projects to Erdogan’s continued rule sheds light on the dynamics between authoritarian regime continuity and the transformation in the military industry. This article explores the political economy of the defense industry and the bureaucratic transformation’s effects on the continuity and power of the authoritarian regime in Turkey, with references to academic literature.

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New Mechanisms for Elite Coalitions

Political scientists studying the “durability of authoritarian regimes,” such as Beatriz Magaloni and Thomas Pepinsky, argue that one of the key strategies for maintaining authoritarian rule is the creation of new elite coalitions that are loyal to the regime and the marginalization of potential threats to the regime using mechanisms developed for this purpose. They support their claims through game theory.

In the case of the AKP government, the bureaucratic transformation of the defense industry can be seen as a strategy to create a new elite coalition and weaken the military, which has been considered one of the major threats to the regime. The comparison between the defense industry decision-making mechanism established by the Anavatan Party (ANAP) government in 1985 and the revised mechanism after the transition to the Presidential Government System in 2018 illustrates this transformation.

Transformation of the Defense Industry Decision-Making Mechanism

Until 2014, the military bureaucracy dominated significant decision-making mechanisms within the Defense Industry Undersecretariat (SSM). However, it was systematically transformed by the government to gain control over financial resources and bureaucratic mechanisms. In 2011, a significant change was made, shifting the purpose of the SSM from “meeting the needs of the Turkish Armed Forces” to “meeting the needs of the army, the National Intelligence Organization, and the General Directorate of Security.” This change was a crucial step in breaking the military’s control over the defense industry.

With the transition to the Presidential System in 2018, the entire bureaucratic structure, including the defense industry, came under the direct control of the president. The new structure replaced the quota reserved for military commanders in the management board with ministers appointed by the president. The sole military representative in the defense industry’s decision-making mechanism became the Chief of General Staff, whose authority was subordinated to the Ministry of National Defense. This transformation not only eliminated military influence but also replaced it with a new civilian coalition loyal to the government. The elimination of military domination in favor of a more democratic system did not occur; instead, it created a bureaucratic system where all power and control were concentrated in the hands of the president.

Another strategy employed by the government to gain control over the defense industry was the appointment of government-friendly individuals to the decision-making mechanisms of major defense industry companies such as ASELSAN, HAVELSAN, ROKETSAN, and TUSAŞ, which are the backbone of the defense industry and among Turkey’s largest companies. Before 2018, these companies were controlled by the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation (TSKGV). However, during the AKP era, a series of appointments were made to these companies, weakening the military’s bureaucratic and economic power and giving the government control over these major defense companies and their financial resources.

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The Defense Industry’s Political Economy

Under the AKP government, a new political economic order was established around the defense industry, creating new sources for the regime’s power and reinforcing dependency relationships between the private sector and the regime. This order contributes to the authoritarian regime’s continuity in three main areas: the establishment of a centralized bureaucracy under the president’s control, the creation of mechanisms for new coalitions with political and economic elites, and the production of new dependency relationships with both major capital groups and SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises).

The defense industry’s growth and the massive budgets controlled by the Presidency (SSB) form the basis for demands from private companies like BAYKAR to support the continuation of the current government. The defense industry’s increasing revenues and the number of projects also provide opportunities for Turkey’s struggling economy to create new jobs and income sources for SMEs and Anatolian capital.

The government’s control over the defense industry is further strengthened by the financing model based on the Defense Industry Support Fund (SSDF). This fund came under the president’s control during the bureaucratic transformation process in 2018. As a result, the president determines how the funds are allocated to projects and companies. Unfortunately, due to the lack of transparency in public institutions’ data sharing, it is challenging to track where the SSDF’s budget is allocated. However, the size of incentive packages given to defense industry projects indicates that the sector is financed more by the state than by the private sector.

The creation of Organized Industrial Zones (OSBs) in Anatolian cities like Ankara, Kırıkkale, Konya, Elâzığ, and Sivas with government incentives encourages SMEs to become part of the defense industry. Additionally, the establishment of “Defense Industry Sector Councils” within pro-government business organizations like TOBB and MÜSİAD can be seen as evidence of SMEs’ desire to enter this market.

Another crucial aspect of SSDF is the legalization of fund transfers to the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) in 2014. This legal regulation allows transfers from SSDF to MIT upon the proposal of the MIT’s undersecretary and the president’s approval. However, the lack of data sharing makes it difficult to track the amount of money transferred to MIT.

Conclusion

The defense industry has become a key pillar of the authoritarian regime in Turkey, as demonstrated in the election process. The government’s techno-nationalist discourse, Teknofest, and other events foster national pride and a sense of global power among its supporters, further contributing to the regime’s continuity. The bureaucratic and financial transformation of the industry supports three key aspects of the authoritarian regime’s power: the establishment of a centralized bureaucracy under the president’s control, the formation of new coalitions with political and economic elites, and the creation of new dependency relationships with major capital groups and SMEs.

The transformation and change in the media sector in the past have shown their impact on the establishment and consolidation of authoritarian rule, and similar dynamics can be observed in the defense industry. Understanding this political economy can provide concrete examples of how authoritarianism takes shape in Turkey.

[1] Magaloni, B. (2008). “Credible power-sharing and the longevity of authoritarian rule”, Comparative political studies, 41(4-5), s. 715-741.

[2] Pepinsky, T. (2007). Durable authoritarianism as a self-enforcing coalition, Boulder, CO: University of Colorado, Boulder, Department of Political Science, yayımlanmamış metin.

[3] “SASAD 2021 Performance Report”, https://www.sasad.org.tr/storage/reports/5tZOglTHC5JOmxP4yepHeOQiTItUWCYv5uqTmS0z.pdf

*Abdullah Esin is an editor and writer focusing on Turkish Politics.

This article was originally published in Birikim Magazine on July 18, 2023 and translated into English by Politurco.

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