In the past fifteen years, Turkey has gone from economic ruin to burgeoning democracy held up as a model for the world to a state in the midst of severe democratic and liberal backsliding. All these stages have occurred under the leadership of Racep Tayyip Erdogan, the man behind the recent arrest of over 50,000 Turkish citizens, more than 100 journalists, and around a dozen Americans for crimes related to the attempted coup that occurred in July of 2016. President Erdogan has leveraged Turkey’s longstanding polarization between secularists, Islamists, and the sizable Kurdish minority population in order to increase his power dramatically, in the process eroding Turkey’s democratic institutions. This polarization and consolidation of power culminated in the successful April referendum that drastically altered the country’s constitution, and demonstrated the vast divisions in the country.
Kemalist Foundations, Military Interventions, and Deepening Polarization
In order to understand the state of Turkey’s democracy and Erdogan consolidation of power, it is vital to first look to the country’s founding principles, the ubiquity of military intervention in civilian government, and ethnic/social divisions. The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 after a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire and occupying western forces, and the nation’s first President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decisively influenced its direction. Atatürk was both a nationalist and secularist, and despite the fact that 99% of the population was (and still is) officially Muslim, he was careful to keep religion and government spheres separate, and enshrined freedom of religion in the Republic’s constitution. Atatürk’s school of thought became known and Kemalism, and many in Turkey still see these ideas as vital parts of the nation’s identity. Historically, the military has been a bastion of Kemalist ideology, viewing itself as the “guardian of Turkish democracy” and engaged in successful coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, along with a so-called “postmodern coup” in 1997.
Military interventions in democratically elected governments allegedly aimed at safeguarding democracy are inherently suspect, with some scholars arguing that due to such actions, polarization is an “embedded aspect in Turkish political life through military interventions and top-down institutional arrangements.” Another cause of the country’s polarization appears to be omnipresent ethnic and social conflict. Leftist political movements clashed with liberal, elite sensibilities in the 1970s, secularist and Islamist differences have grown since the 1990s, and the 37-year war against Kurdish insurgent groups have sewn distrust between ethnic Turks and Kurds (~20% of the population).
These social and ethnic divisions combined with persistent military intervention in civilian affairs have created a deeply polarized society that President Erdogan has managed to leverage. German Marshall Fund research in 2016 found that more than three-quarters of Turks do not wish to have neighbors whose political stance varies widely from theirs, and 83% did not want their children to marry those whose parents have a political stance far from theirs. Notably, the party seen as most distant from participants’ viewpoints was the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), indicating many in the country feel politically alienated by the desires of the country’s large Kurdish population.
Choosing Party Over Democracy in the April Referendum
These results are disturbing because of the tendency of deeply polarized populations to trade off democracy for partisan interests, as demonstrated by Milan Svolik in his study of subversion of democracy by incumbents. When the opposition seems fundamentally foreign or out-group, each voter understands that “punishing the incumbent for manipulating the democratic process by not voting for him amounts to supporting a challenger that she detests.” Thus, authoritarian leaders like Erdogan are able to erode democratic norms without losing significant support from citizens aligned with his faction, the Justice and Development (AK) party. Svolik argues that this fact is true even among voters who support democratic ideals, and proves especially salient when political reforms are proposed by a candidate whose economic policies appeal to their interests. This makes perfect sense in the Anatolian heartland of Turkey, where Erdogan’s development goals have resulted in drastic economic improvements and voters have, in turn, reciprocated by overwhelmingly supporting his consolidation of power.
The April referendum – which transformed Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to one focused on a strong executive presidency – also demonstrated Erdogan’s ability to capitalize on the deep divisions in the country. The weeks leading up to the referendum were tense and divisive. Many feared that a Yes result would further erode Turkey’s democracy and allow Erdogan to permanently use the emergency powers he had been granted after last year’s failed coup. However, that was not an opinion heard in the Turkish media.
Despite the fact that Human Rights Watch, an NGO, described the referendum as “a huge threat to human rights, the rule of law and the country’s democratic future,” there was almost no debate in the public sphere. A study of 168.5 hours of campaign coverage on 17 national television channels at the start of March showed that Yes supporters got 90% of the airtime, meaning that the state-controlled media became an echo chamber of Erdogan support. This fits with Cass Sunstein’s argument that a key reason for polarization is the information that people are exposed to. When all the information Turkish citizens receive through media paints Erdogan as the only thing standing between them and total chaos and labels those who oppose him as terrorists, it follows that his supporters will become more extreme.
The results of the referendum showed firsthand the polarization embedded in the country and the deeply contested nature of the proposed constitutional change. 85% of eligible citizens voted, with the Yes camp receiving 51.41% of the votes and 48.59% voting No. The Yes votes were also concentrated in more rural regions along the Black Sea and in the Anatolian region, while major cities like Istanbul and Ankara favored the existing parliamentary system.
Polarization is not a new phenomenon in Turkey due to historical cultural divisions and military interventions, but the recent referendum campaign and narrow win showed how extreme polarization has gotten. Erdogan has used these divisions to his advantage and undermined the principles of pluralist democracy, and his consolidation of power is likely to further exacerbated political divisions.
Photo By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons