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[OPINION] The Rise of “Predatory Government” in Turkey: An Insight into the Social Background


“The predators are praying you don’t educate your child.”

Kwasie Kwaku


Nature vs. Nurture

For an arboreal primate, distance from trees is associated with predation risk from terrestrial predators whereas a human being sleeping on the ground with no cover remains more vulnerable to predation. That seems to be the norm of the natural selection in a wild habitat.

When it comes to public or private goods, this principle of the natural selection does not work and declares that they are unable to escape or hide themselves easily. It is only by moral conventions and/or some legal measure that predation can be prevented. Therefore, it is the “civil society”, as an organised form of human gatherings, to develop effective ways to minimize their common goods’ risk of predation by greedy rulers at the top.

However, if all predation attempts are successful at a significant moment in space and time, this should raise questions on whether the evolved ways possess anti-predator traits as well as the quality of rulers and managers in positions of trust. In this sense, especially the last decade of Turkey under the authority of Erdoğan should be analysed from this point of view as a modern case study of leaders’ ambition for predation.


Predation in Human Gatherings

Predation, in its initial usage, refers to violence-loaded activities like hunting, plundering, fighting, war-making and frames the relationship between the prey and predator, of course from the latter’s angle. The term “predatory” therefore invokes a metaphor of predator and prey.

When we translate into political science, predation refers to activities involved by those who control the state apparatus to plunder without any more regard for the welfare of the citizenry than a predator has for the welfare of its prey. So, the preoccupation of the ruling elite with rent seeking turns the rest of society into prey (Evans, 1989).

From this point of view, when any state extracted huge amounts of otherwise investable surplus and provided so little in the way of “collective goods” in return, it is called “predatory.” In literature, Zaire under Mobutu (1965-1997), where predation was built from the absence rather than the presence of strong opposition, is considered an archetypal sample of the predatory state.


Predatory State

J.M. Shumba (2016), learning the lessons from Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe who has recently overthrown by his own party, identifies the predatory state as characterised by (1) party and military dominance in the state; (2) state-business relations shaped by domination and capture; and (3) state-society relations shaped by violence and patronage. The power elite, in alliance with local and international criminal syndicates, extracts high levels of rents from the state and economy and, in so doing, undermines country’s development potential.

Although the power is concentrated in the person of the ruler, he is not alone in predation because predatory regimes are run by predatory coalitions endorsing “winner-takes-all” game of power. In such a regime, predation represents redistribution of income in favour of this coalition to the detriment of the majority of the population.

Rulers are predatory in that they always try to set terms of trade that maximise their personal gains, which, as Levi (1988) argues, require them to maximise state revenues. They do not always plunder, pillage, and exploit. However, each will, “attempt to act like a discriminating monopolist, separating each group of constituents and devising property rights for each so as to maximise state revenue.”

In Levi’s viewpoint, rulers are chief executives of the polity. This sounds fine for the rulers like Erdoğan of Turkey who has the following words in 2015: “Republic of Turkey should be governed like a company!

Nevertheless, budgets mean little for a predatory ruler, both in terms of fiscal discipline and of best possible allocation of resources. Rather, main instinct governing the ruler can be summarised as “milking the state enterprises” so as to resources will be drawn from the economic to the political sphere (Lundahl, 1997).

Predatory rulers are also the normal of “kleptocratic” regimes in which corruption flows from the top downwards because a kleprocrat ruler will usually not be able to prevent his underlings from following his example. All he can do is, as Lundahl (1997) suggests, to attempt to create some method in the madness as Mobutu said to Zairian civil servants: “if you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way.”

A predatory ruler, when he came to power, needs to feather the nests of a fairly narrow coalition of supporters. This leads to the control of markets, natural resources, public procurements, concessions, etc. The ruler thus ensures steady revenue streams through the monopoly of economic activity, and thereby longevity in the office. Widespread dissatisfaction and grievances in society, however, rarely lead to conflicts since the ruler controls the military and other apparatuses of repression, and “patronage” politics, where community leaders and ethnic elites are bought off to ensure stability (de Soysa, 2017).

In a nutshell, the term predatory state (or government) refers to a condition in which corruption, inefficiency, and abuse of power mark political institutions. Predatory state typically lacks transparency and a system of checks and balances. It thus constricts markets because of arbitrariness and scars off both native and foreign investments due to lack of equal treatment by the government.


Political-sociological Dimension

The predatory ruler operates in a particular brutal and often destructive way in order to secure and maintain his wealth and lifetime in the office. Loyalty to the ruler is based neither on religion nor ideology, nor on having a unique personal mission or charismatic qualities, but instead on a mixture of fear and rewards to collaborators. What distinguishes a predatory state is not only a failure to deliver developmental outcomes; “it is [that it] also kills, maims and terrorizes its citizens” (Bratton & Masunungure, 2011).

At its worst, predatory rulers such as Erdoğan of Turkey systematically exclude, repress and kill their own citizens; often feeding political insecurity and leading to ruthless suppression of dissents. Being fair; his counterparts like Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and some more anti-western regime in the Middle East and Africa deserve to be mentioned in this respect.

On the other hand, constant predation and/or confiscation of public/private goods made possible a “socioeconomic homogeneity” among relatives, friends, and other allies of the ruling elite and gave them a sense of community. The predatory ruler maintains his power by catering to their demands. Hence, they gradually turn to people of the kind that have common interests.


Financial-economic Dimension

In a predatory state, governmental authority faces few constraints and the exploitation of public and private resources for the gain of elite interests is embedded in institutionalised practices with greater continuity of individual leaders. In this regard, a predatory regime can be seen as the extreme opposite of “accountable” and/or “developmental” forms of government.

Predatory relationships between the state and individuals depend on the power of the state to grab or to appropriate coercively and the ability of the subject to resist or escape (Vahabi, 2016). Therefore, predatory ruler directs his attention to high-revenue public enterprises that can be controlled more or less easier. Such is traditionally realised through siphoning off the funds from them. Thus, as suggested above, resources are directed from the economic to the political sphere leaving little financial and human capital to flow into productive sectors.

As a result of this policy, country’s wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of small elite whose members use government positions for massive personal enrichment, and corruption continues to be common practice at all levels. Thus, the following message is given to the business world: huge amount of money can only be made, not by fair competition in the markets, but through cliental affiliations with a political leader or party.


Erdoğanist Predation Methods

As for the creation of methods that aim to serve to facilitate predation, there simply seems to be no end to human imagination. The list by Lundahl (1997) provides the most widely employed devices in an unexhausted manner: taxation, tax farming, smuggling, sales of public offices, confiscation, inflation as a tax, foreign and domestic loans, embezzlement of aid, unbudgeted funds, government contracts, milking state enterprises or government-owned corporations, and so forth.

Apart from the previous attempts, taking the advantages of the state of emergency, since the failed coup of 15th July, 2016, Erdoğan regime has turned into the innovator of some new method for predation such as;

  1. “Asset Forfeiture Programme” to eradicate economic capacity of dissents (Decree Law no. 667of 22ndJuly, 2016) and “trustee” (kayyım in Turkish) appointment procedure that enables the government to access to almost any private property in the country in accordance with the article 133 of the Code of Penal Procedures on the basis of the alleged linkage with terrorist organisations,
  2. “Turkish Wealth Fund” (TWF) for siphoning off revenues from public enterprises (Law no.6741, Cabinet Decree no. 2017/9756dated 24th January, 2017; Cabinet Decree no. 2017/9758 dated 24th January, 2017; and Decree Law no. 680 of 2nd January, 2017), as examined elsewhere, the most representative device of Erdoğanist predation,

Remaining gaps seem to be plugged by the following provisions of the Decree Law no.696 dated 24th December, 2017;

  1. Despite particular protection of legislation and Islamic traditions (foundation deed is treated as a godly document), forfeit of the assets of certain foundations (waqf, plural awqaf) through transferring their shares represented by the General Directorate of Foundation at the board of Vakıfbank to the Treasury, and thus making their equity and legal entity controversial as returns of the shares concerned will go to the coffer of the state (article 6 amending the Law no. 6219 on Vakıfbank),
  2. Disregarding donors’ will, forfeit of donated monies hold in specific bank accounts for the establishment of the “Solidarity Foundation for the Martyr Relatives and Veterans”, a new pro-AKP player in battle theatre (article 128),
  3. Permission to the TWF and its affiliated companies to function as a central treasury in terms of debt management including debt transfer, lending foreign debt, and repayment guarantee (article 86 amending the Law no. 4749 on Public Finance and Debt Management),
  4. Disregarding the rights of shareholders, suppliers, customers, banks etc., as well as the ISA-705 standard of IAASB (para. 8), prohibition of auditor from expressing “Adverse Opinion” for the companies managed by the court-appointed government trustees (article 109 overruling the article 402(5) of Turkish Code of Commerce).

Note that, in this vein, the rhetoric of “war on terror” has remained as the government’s stalking horse while the rule by decree laws under the state of emergency facilitates the process of grinding out private/public fortunes on predatory basis.

As the main methods were analysed in depth within the previous articles (ForfeitureTWF), here, we will rather try to get an insight into the social-cultural ground above which Erdoğan regime’s electoral victories rises.


Toward a Predatory Regime in Turkey

Predatory state as characterised by weak bureaucratic capacity and poor institutionalisation, allows the ruler unconstrained access to and abuse of national resources. Since the emergence of the central state organisations, predatory rulers often try to cheat individuals who are ultimately bearing the cost of the distortions and deprivations that predatory behaviour produces.

Key personal “skill” for rulers in the cheating process is to keep the general public ignorant of their nature and intentions (Kramer, 2015). As for the social dimension, “advantages” from which the ruler enjoys in this vein vary from country to country. In the case of Turkey, three main pillars should be recognised as the ones over which the Erdoğanist predatory state rises.

First pillar: refers to the spiritual power of Islam in hearts and minds. World Values Survey (2010-2014) indicates 68.1% of Turkish respondents give utmost importance to the religion while 24.6% sees it rather important.

Thanks to his “Islamist” (not Islamic) background, Erdoğan associated smartly religious matters with his political agenda and ultimately turned the state and religion into hand and glove. Thus, he resolved the conventional contrast between politics and religion. This also revealed that God and afterlife have no longer meaning in the corrupted world of the AKP elite despite their apparent belief in both notions. From their viewpoint, Muslim values can be interpreted in the form of “ideology” that is not “religious” as normally understood.

Once fully established, through mass media and other ideological apparatuses like education and religious services headed by the Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri), this understanding ultimately produced an interesting “inversion” among majority of Turkish citizens: As moral understanding of the religious matters disappears, reliance on interpretation derived from the “pious” discourse of politicians increases.

Here is the point: This cultural ecology is what makes Erdoğan and others in the core AKP circle personally pious Muslims, not just the opposite! It is this cultural ecology to encourage Erdoğan, on several occasions, to declare bringing up “pious generations” by promoting state-run religious schools (imam-hatip) that had been hold limited in number because of secularist concerns. As a striking detail, AKP elites send their kids to secular schools.

It is also this inversion leading the supporters of Erdoğan to believe that he mobilizes his political power to raise the divine flag of Islam, to promote the unity of nation, etc. yet the facts prove the direct opposite. Thus, financial corruption at the top could be best hidden away from eyes by the moral corruption of the religious establishment.

Diyanet, taking charge of AKP’s campaign machinery in some extent, works as a conservative authoritarian force acting to mystify asymmetrical power relations and unequal distribution of resources. In a large sense, it derives its authority from some orthodox interpretation of Islamic theology praising obedience to Muslim rulers even they turn to bloody tyrants.

Turkey’s case dramatically demonstrates that, in a society without moral constraints and with low risk of punishment, it is rational for a greedy ruler to act as a shoplifter or looter. A religion comprising rituals and abstract performance of belief, however, provides little to build a theft deterrent system, but more to produce “pious thieves” as the case in the reign of Erdoğan.

Consistent with this understanding, AKP elites invoke the religion when it suits them, as on ritual occasions or as a tactic in pursuing a particular agenda, but they also employ it for narrower and more fundamental interests which may lead them to exclude “others” from the brotherhood of believers. Such an antagonistic structure constitutes a vital base on which Erdoğan, although he actually acts like a robber, relied in channelling the flood of wealth into his hands.

As a result, thanks to the exploitation of religious sentiments, they gradually built a system that contains within itself the conditions for its own reproduction. In this process, AKP supporters were not only exploited within “clientelistic” practices but they were also deformed. If we forget this result of the system, we will never understand why they cannot be expected to rise up when the government enters into one of its many economic crises.

Last but not least, what we should have learned from the last decade of Turkey under the AKP governments is that, as an ideology “Islamism” is a threat to the peace and tolerance promoted by Islam itself. All the available evidence makes it clear that, contrary to the secularist fears, the AKP never aimed to “Islamicise” the society and/or state, but rather to convert people from being constitutional citizens into herds of subjects through Islamism.

Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the AKP cannot be seen as a centre-right party like Christian Democratic parties in Europe, but is best seen as akin to a party with “authoritarian – predatory” features characterised by use of violence and patronage like “Zimbabwe National Union-Patriotic Front” (ZANU-PF) of Mugabe.

Second pillar refers to a political economy that couples high growth rates with persistent poverty. As Robinson (2001) suggested, even self-serving regimes would have an incentive to promote development if they could extract enough of the resulting wealth. It was true that the AKP, particularly in its first term in the office, achieved relatively high rates of growth and at the same time prevented poor from becoming independent in the sense of financial well-being.

Thus, Erdoğan guaranteed for himself an electoral base and manpower for Islamist movement. That is especially the case for poor voters who are more willing to compromise their ideology for immediate private consumption.

By the way, removal of the “Bulletin of the Social Assistance Statistics of Turkey” from publication as of 2014 seems to be significant before such a veneer of growth in figures. Factual poverty inventories indicating cliental relations between poor and incumbent have therefore remained inaccessible since then.

Yet TÜİK (TURKSTAT) statistics, despite prevalent distortions in the methodology, may give an overall insight into living conditions: as of 2016, 14.3% of the population (appr. 12 million) lives below the national poverty line while 68% of the population are indebted. This, more or less, clarifies why number of citizens whose General Health Insurance premium is being borne by the state totalled a little less than 6.7 million in 2016 according to the Ministry of Family and Social Policies.

Apparently, at least half of the population has been made dependants by a policy leaving the nation in the “middle-income trap” and even addictive of social assistances: Not fight against poverty, but making it a standing form of life for a vast majority of the masses while the returns of growth are gathered by the top end of the distribution pyramid. This provides the AKP with keen voters from low-income social classes as represented by;

  • Those who shrouded in white cloths (kefen in Islamic tradition, to shroud dead before being buried) symbolising that they are committed to go as far as sacrificing themselves for Erdoğan, and
  • Emergence of pro-Erdoğan paramilitary groupings akin to Esquadřao da Morte (death squads) of Latin America in the 1970s.

Although it is known very little about why poor vote for such a system keeping them in that way, Kurer (2001) underlines the interactions between poverty and “risk aversion”: as poor’s income is close to subsistence, any decrease threatens their survival. They can then insure themselves against this risk by joining clientele networks as the leader provides “subsistence insurance”. The cost of this insurance is the diminished income that accompanies corruption.

This interaction accounts why corruption tends to increase under the Erdoğan regime: In 2013, Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International ranked Turkey 53rd out of 175 countries. By 2017, together with Bulgaria, Kuwait, and Tunisia, the country declined to 75th out of 176 countries. However, in the recent elections this trend had little effect on voting behaviours. Since the costs of corruption are borne by the nation as a whole, the members’ share of the costs will be less than their gains (Kurer, 2001).

Yet poverty alone is not sufficient to explain the predatory voting behaviour. At least for Turkey, as well as the cultural ecology that enables the politicians to exploit the religious sentiments; this account needs to be considered as coupled with the corruption in the society.

Third pillar refers to distinctive conditions of Turkish society: so, when they came to power, Erdoğan and his associates saw a less-educated, divided society as key to maintaining their predatory goals over the country.

They also correctly ascertained that, as society become more polarised, the marginal returns for increasing polarisation increase to their advantage. When Erdoğan took position concerning the high-profile trials involving hundreds of arrests like “Ergenekon” (Turkish Gladio), “Balyoz” (coup plan), and “KCK” (urban wing of PKK), as well as maintaining his personal rule over the state and society, it was to deepen the polarization in question.

As can easily be observed from outside, Erdoğan’s AKP rules a country where society is highly fragmented and deeply polarized. Yet this polarization goes beyond the “right” and “left” traditions of political divide and rather involves different Islamist and nationalist groups, secularists, leftist-socialist, liberals, Kurds, Alevis, and so forth of which interaction with each other is wanting.

They traditionally do less interaction and more distrust with each other while attention, in a large extent, is directed to the exclusive control of the state apparatuses and its benefits e.g. concessions, public procurements, official positions of authority etc. Apart from the historical legacy that has still remained prevalent in governing the state, one underlying reason must be the following: they heavily suffer from “fundraising” simply because modern forms of “gift-giving” are less common among Turks.

That is what from which the AKP governments have better profited for personal gains of Erdoğan. So, their interactions with the political top create not a bargain “between” the equals, but rather a hierarchical giver-taker relation, and ultimately make takers vulnerable to the influence of state. Ruler, if he feeds and fuels them towards his political agenda, may find a way to penetrate deep in society to control citizens and opposition.

Increasing evidence shows that, in that way, Erdoğan has achieved to gather all right-wing segments including political parties and religious groups in his camp. He (or his strategists) was also well aware that a “communication strategy” with respect to public opinion offers considerable potential in order to help sustain such a political gathering and to brutalise remaining opponents politically. This strategy encompasses;

  • Praising a past greatness that never was, giving right-wing populist response to the political conditions, and promoting a combined use of Nationalist-Islamist narrative with vulgar, uncivil tones, and
  • Creating a scapegoat enemy domestically, directing social hatred to this enemy through mass media, and finally witch-hunting initiated by the state security apparatus.

The conditions that have been experienced by the followers of the “Gülen Movement” (so called “Hizmet”) suit best to the latter: as a result of media campaign accompanied by mass arrests and dismissals under the siege of the allegations concerning the coup attempt of 15th July, 2016, even though they know Erdoğan’s outcry against Gülenists is a smoke-screen for the real coup to legalise predatory operations, both secular and conservative segments with radically different goals joined his alliance against this movement.

Since a multipolar structure with the above traits is devoid of plurality and further leads to a cultural ecology from which a “civil society” cannot take root, the groupings concerned cannot evolve easily into “social movements”. And ultimately, less room remains for consensus or compromise in political theatre.

Not coincidentally, when they achieved to break this barrier through network of schools and charity organizations, the followers of Gülen Movement were accused by Erdoğan of being “a state within the state” and eventually plotting to overthrow the government. Namely, to some extent, this group appears to be victim of its own success.

The degree of the fragmentation could also be traced from the internationally recognized sources. For example, just 11.6% of Turkish respondents, according to the “World Values Survey” (2010-2014), say that most people can be trusted while 82.9% needs to be very careful in dealing with people. This implies their “fear” of one another is great and they are ready to exclude one another while each seeking to control the state. As such, that is a society in which nobody does anything for the common good.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising to see that Erdoğan’s campaign against disloyal groups like Gülenists, Kurds, socialists etc. gathered broad support from voters. As the notable political figures chose to endorse his correctness (!) in that respect, political opposition remained loose and loyal in some extent. That is also the case in “war on terror” waged by Erdoğan within the context of persistent instability in Syria.

Today, in persecution of dissents, Erdoğan relies on not only the state of emergency regime, but rather polarisation within the society in political/cultural terms. That was the case when the absolute majority of the voters (51.4%), with a turnout of 85%, endorsed the constitutional changes of 16th April, 2017. It is also reaffirmed that, although the controversial numbers of the votes for “Yes” represent a narrower margin of victory than he expected, the largest of these fragments are firmly in favour of granting Erdoğan dictatorial powers.

As a result, if we accurately identify the above conceptual pillars we then understand how Erdoğan and his allies still remain in the political theatre as leading players even under the following conditions.

  • Routinely prolonged state of emergency and rule by decrees throwing scare into both foreign and local investors,
  • The country’s growing diplomatic isolation marked by Erdogan’s personal zigzags,
  • The loss of qualified officials aggravating bureaucratic performance in public services, thereby decrease in societal trust,
  • Significant delays in fulfilment of the promises he made to the voters in order to win his referendum in 2017.


Conclusion: Cultivating the Corruption in Society

Under the Erdoğan-led governments, Turkey increasingly became predatory in part due to dynamics in society, economy, and the state. The key word in any analysis of the Erdoğan regime is “predatory” because the term “corruption” has already remained deficient to describe the affairs since the failed coup of 15th July, 2016.

What we learned from the happenings throughout his reign are, in Turkey’s conditions, (1) researchers have no longer a chance to assume the electorate as check on predatory operations of rulers even if they know about it, and (2) we are mistaken if we think that majority will save us from predatory leaders like Erdoğan.

As a conclusion of this paper, without jumping into mega analyses concerning the possible lifetime of Erdoğan in the palace (it is being hotly debated in other media), we suggest to study the roots of the predatory voting behaviour in Turkish society, and to seek answers to the following questions:

  1. How such a moral bankruptcy can influence into the huge parts of society?
  2. How a political leadership can cultivate the corruption in society, instead challenging it?
  3. How and why individuals remain less concerned and even tolerant when rulers regularly extract resources from the national economy in a largely predatory manner?

Thus, we could likely develop a long term exit strategy with a focus on teaching our children, as argued by Kramer (2015), “to recognize the early warning signs of predators who may seduce, con, exploit, or abuse them.” That is of paramount importance for social scientists including anthropologists unless their qualifications leaned more toward ideological loyalty than academic skills.




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de Soysa, I. (2017). Predatory Government and the Feasibility of Rebellion: A Micro Logic of the Capitalist Peace. Printed from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. USA: Oxford University Press.

Evans, P.B. (1989). Predatory, Developmental, and Other Apparatuses: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective on the Third World State, Sociological Forum, Vol. 4, No. 4, Special Issue: Comparative National Development: Theory and Facts for the 1990s. pp. 561-587.

Kramer, M (2015). Understanding Predatory Leadership: The First Step Toward a World Free of War, Corruption and Poverty. Available at:

Levi, M. (1988). Of Rule and Revenue, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lundahl, M. (1997). Inside the Predatory State: The rationale, methods, and economic consequences of kleptocratic regimes. Nordic Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 24, pp.31-50.

Shumba, J.M. (2016). Zimbabwe’s Predatory State: Party, Military and Business Complex, PhD thesis, Johannesburg, SA: University of Witwatersrand.

Robinson, J.A. (2001). When is a State Predatory? Paper presented in a seminar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Vahabi, M. (2016). A Positive Theory of Predatory State. Paper accepted for presentation in 2016 Conference of the Society for Institutional & Organizational Economics (SIOE), Sciences Po, Paris, France, on June 15-17, 2016.

Kurer, O. (2002). Why do voters support corrupt politicians? A.K. Jain (Ed.) The Political Economy of Corruption, pp.63-86, London: Routledge.

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