Quo Vadis Turkish Politics?

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By April 4, 2021

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,985, April 4, 2021

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Turkey has never had a fully liberal democratic regime. The country, which suffered the authoritarianism of the Kemalist regime’s top-down attempts to modernize, is now experiencing a different form of authoritarian consolidation under the AKP-controlled government.

Authoritarian consolidation can be defined as a state project driven by elites with the aim of securing their own ruling position. While the political regime in Turkey today is not yet entirely authoritarian, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened liberal democratic principles by changing the political regime from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2018. The principles that are now endangered include media freedom, checks and balances mechanisms, and the rule of law.

Turkey is a nation-state founded by military officers, and the political autonomy of the Turkish Armed Forces contributed to the erosion of democratic processes. The AKP government has challenged the political autonomy of the military to a significant degree, starting with the EU harmonization process. However, the normalization of civil-military relations would not in and of itself be sufficient to democratize the political system.

Democracy in Turkey has also been hindered by the mentality of some bureaucratic actors. The Kemalist bureaucratic oligarchy, motivated by a Jacobin secular vision of social and political order, played a key role in suspending political democracy and promoting statist and authoritarian practices in its stead. In 1997, a covert military-led campaign to deprive the coalition government of PM Necmettin Erbakan (Turkey’s first Islamist premier and Erdoğan’s chief mentor) of its parliamentary majority succeeded in forcing that government to resign. In 2008, the Constitutional Court opened a case to shut down the AKP and ban its leading members from politics for five years for the crime of having violated the principle of secularism.

The “virtual coup” in 2007, in which the military posted a subtle threat on its web site stating that military action would be taken against Erdoğan’s government if he persisted in undermining the constitutional principle of secularism, can also be seen as an attempt by the Kemalist state apparatus to challenge the power configuration dominated by the AKP. This challenge was not conducted via democratic mechanisms but instead via military and judicial intervention. The clash between appointed and elected elites revealed the extent to which Kemalist authoritarianism has undermined democracy in Turkey.

The AKP operates in a particular politico-cultural and economic context—one that is far from ideal for the promotion of a democratic political system. Kemalist state ideology had an illiberal understanding of the relationship between state and religion, and it granted supremacy to the military elites. These factors, as well as the authoritarian 1982 Constitution, all contributed to the deepening of authoritarian politics in Turkey.

The AKP could not remove this authoritarian structure despite pro-democracy reforms like broader rights for the Alevi minority, the democratic initiative known as the Kurdish Opening, the lifting of the ban on headscarves, and the normalization of civil-military relations. On the contrary: Turkey has been drifting steadily toward authoritarian consolidation, especially since 2018.

The AKP found itself with little room for maneuver in the early years of its leadership. Following the 2010 referendum, which showed the majority of Turks to favor changes to the constitution to bring it into compliance with EU standards, the party began to dominate the bureaucracy and the country by creating its own way of making politics—one that is fundamentally authoritarian in nature and based on one-man rule. In this sui generis type of politics, opposing actors and voices are seen as “others” and even “traitors” or “terrorists.”

Turkey has undergone a major transformation since the 2016 failed coup. Ever since that event, much greater pressure has been brought to bear on academia, civil associations, and the media. In 2018, Erdoğan formally turned Turkey’s parliamentary system into a centralized presidential system. The new regime empowers one-man rule, and the emergency policies it has put in place are paving the way for a shift from Kemalist authoritarianism toward Islamist consolidation.

Turkey has always been on shaky ground with regard to eliminating authoritarianism. Part of the problem is Turkish elections, which should—but do not—take place in a free and fair environment. Public resources should be fairly distributed among all political parties that compete in elections, and media coverage should be distributed fairly among all candidates .

Another serious problem is the lack of media freedom. According to the World Press Freedom Index 2020 published by Reporters without Borders, Turkey is 154th out of 180 countries in terms of media freedom. Yet another serious issue is the politicization of the Turkish judiciary.

Turkish democracy is being weakened by an authoritarian consolidation that is meant to secure the position of the ruling elite. The lack of a vibrant civil society and threats to media freedom, academic freedom, the rule of law, and freedom of speech are feeding this dangerous consolidation.

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Dr. Begüm Burak is an associate researcher at the French Institute for Anatolian Studies (IFEA) based in Istanbul. 

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