Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not only eschewed the prospect of real democratic change but has also reversed course. In many ways, Turkey is in the process of going back to its “factory settings.”
For a long time, Turkey was an illiberal democracy. Its constitutions, judicial systems, and political party structures were all authoritarian in nature. From 1960 onward, the army was the guiding hand behind the country’s political landscape. All this started to change with the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) ascension to power in 2002. Erdoğan accomplished much in changing the balance of power in Turkish politics as the military was finally sidelined and defeated in 2007.
Two problems have hindered Turkey’s development toward democracy, and it is important to understand them in sequence. First, there has been no opposition party that could challenge Erdoğan. Second, Erdoğan has been reluctant to share power with anyone as he won election after election.
Erdoğan is no different from any previous Turkish leader who concentrated power in his hands, except that his success has been unprecedented. However, a more prosperous Turkey has provided him with many more resources with which to consolidate power by buying off people’s loyalty. In the end, Erdoğan has been his own worst enemy and has turned Turkey into a one-party, one-man system.
Without question, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ongoing efforts to control traditional and social media in Turkey represent a threat to participation and freedom of expression. These steps, and the populist and intolerant rhetoric that accompanies them, are also doing real damage to Turkey’s international standing at a time when Turkey needs its Western partners to deal with chaos and conflict on its borders. At the same time, a deepening corruption scandal in the upper reaches of the government raises questions about openness and transparency. None of this moves Turkish democracy in the right direction.
But as the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013 showed, Turkish democracy has deep reserves of strength. Recent attempts to ban Twitter and other social media are akin to trying to hold back the tide. The fact that Turkish and foreign observers look to Turkey’s upcoming municipal elections as a bellwether highlights Turkey as a functioning democracy in the formal sense, even if its political discourse and behavior are a bit rough around the edges.
For over a decade, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has enjoyed the virtual absence of an effective opposition. Continued misguided attempts to limit freedom of expression in Turkey are likely to create a critical mass of opposition—including from inside the AKP itself. In the event that Erdoğan receives a renewed mandate to proceed on his current path, Turkish society is headed toward rough waters indeed.
Since June 2013, serious doubts have arisen in the minds of Western observers about the democratic credentials of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. During the Gezi Park demonstrations, initially peaceful street protesters were met with excessive force and branded “looters” and “terrorists,” the police were called “heroes,” and freedom of expression was muzzled further.
After a presumed corruption scandal supposedly involving the prime minister, his family, and close political associates erupted on December 17, a flurry of hasty decisions was made to prevent further revelations from being divulged before municipal elections on March 30. There have been massive movements of police and judicial personnel, further restrictions to press freedoms, new state controls over the judiciary, a restrictive Internet law, and an abrupt ban on the use of Twitter. These measures amount to an unprecedented rolling back of the rule of law in Turkey and call into question the democratic proclamations of the AKP government.
The question is no longer whether the Turkish government has engineered a serious setback for democracy—it has—but rather how, when, and with whom it may be able to restore and improve democracy. In the eyes of those in Western capitals, Prime Minister Erdoğan has lost his image of a reformist leader.
Not at all, in the narrow sense of democracy as popularly elected power. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still expect to win well over one-third of the vote in the municipal polls on 30 March. In speeches, rallies, and interviews, Erdoğan has justified the legitimacy of his actions on the basis of his party’s winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections in 2011.
But Erdoğan risks abandoning other crucial pillars of broader democracy. Direct government interventions in judicial appointments and the ending of police investigations into allegations of corruption at the heart of government have frayed the rule of law in Turkey.
Freedom of expression is under pressure from a ban on Twitter and apparent telephone calls documenting political pressure on mainstream television channels. At the same time, outdated antiterrorism laws are keeping dozens of journalists and hundreds of political activists, mostly Kurds, unfairly in jail.
Most worrying is the way all this risks either Ankara or Brussels abandoning Turkey’s EU accession process. Some in the EU’s corridors of power talk of suspending negotiations if Turkey moves further away from the membership criteria of a free market and democratic freedoms.
While this step seems unlikely for now, just raising the possibility represents a real loss of hope for mainstream Turkey. Most Turks may not expect or even want to join today’s EU, but many value the process of adopting the EU’s legislative framework as the best way to build democratic freedoms and rule of law in Turkey.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan deserves credit for civilianizing the Kemalist Turkish state and lessening the role of the military in the country’s politics. This is his major contribution to the development of a liberal democracy in Turkey and is no small achievement. Coups are now a thing of the past.
However, Erdoğan has not institutionalized the liberal state and has continued to subordinate institutions to his personal rule. The courts and the police, as well as the military and major parts of the economy, have been subjected to coercion and favoritism. Critics of his policies are harassed and intimidated.
Turkey continues to have free elections and a vocal civil society, but the trends have been toward a majoritarian form of democracy. The absence of a viable alternative to Erdoğan’s ruling party has further undermined Turkey’s democratic credentials.
This year of elections will provide some answers as to whether Turkey has passed the tipping point toward becoming a personalist system akin to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The trends are clearly moving in that direction.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is engaged in a battle for survival. A fighter by instinct, his current top priority is to defeat his enemies and secure victory. The Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, followed by a high-profile graft probe that has revealed deep divisions between Erdoğan and his former ally Fethullah Gülen, have generated a potential crack in the AKP’s hegemony. That is undermining the political and economic stability that Turkey has enjoyed for more than a decade.
As the prime minister seeks to reaffirm his leadership at upcoming municipal (and later presidential and parliamentary) elections, he has demonstrated his readiness to use all the weapons at his disposal. He has introduced draconian restrictions on Internet freedom and the use of social media, reshuffled police officers throughout the country, and further undermined the independence of the judiciary. These actions show that Erdoğan is willing to do whatever he deems necessary to win over his opponents. If the price for Turkey is de-democratization, so be it.
Looking forward, one can hope that the results of the March 30 local elections may take the sting out of the current political climate and reset Turkey on a path of reform. If, instead, current instability persists or increases, the danger is that even successfully closed chapters of Turkey’s democratization—such as civil-military relations—could be ominously reopened.
The answer to this question boils down to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s understanding of “democracy.” For the Turkish leader, democracy is defined by the ballot box: that is the essential component of democratic legitimacy in his view. Being elected in free and fair elections is certainly a necessary condition for democratic rule, but for Erdoğan it is also a sufficient one. As a result, majoritarianism rather than inclusiveness defines his style of leadership.
But Erdoğan’s approach to democracy contrasts with the aspirations of a substantial part of Turkey’s public, who desire a more expanded version of democratic governance. This contrast is at the core of Turkey’s political crisis.
It is expected that local elections on March 30 will help Turkey to overcome this tension. But it is far from clear whether the vote will produce a decisive outcome. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is expected to remain the largest party and, most probably, maintain control of the municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara.
But the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is likely to increase its share of the vote and win some other important constituencies. As a result, the struggle for better democratic rule is set to continue unabated—just like Turkey’s ever-heightening political tension.
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