A few decades ago, Turkey was the poster-boy of a democracy in the Islamic world. Fast forward to present day and Turkey is far from being a paragon of democracy, in light of the recent coup and referendum. Most scholars define Turkey’s current trend as “democratic backsliding,” a phenomenon which Lust divides under three headings in “Unwelcome Change:” regressing in terms of electoral procedures, civil liberties and levels of accountability. Recent developments in Turkey echo each of these three of these characteristics. The failed military coup, intended to unseat Turkish president Erdoğan, gave him justification to expand and legitimize his political dominance, since which Turkey has experienced textbook democratic backsliding.
Examining the democratic integrity of Turkey requires the investigation of current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan founded the AKP, the Justice and Development party, in 2001 and was appointed Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 until 2014, after which he became President in Turkey’s first direct elections. Before his rise to power, he served time in prison for publicly reading a poem in support of militant Islam during a secular, military regime.
While he makes claims in support of democracy, as the Turkish leader, he has severely restricted civil liberties, limited the freedom of the press, disregarded democratic institutions, and been extremely non-secular in his policies. For the most part, Erdoğan’s support and opposition base stem from differing opinions on the secularization of Turkey. Erdoğan derives much of his power from Turkish Islamic institutions. Since his rise, the increased number of mosques and non-secular schools demonstrate Turkey’s revived Islamization. Pre-coup, Erdoğan masked the connection between religious and political policies, but since last summer, he has grown unabashed in regards to his pro-Islam biases.
On July 15th, 2016, a military group staged a coup, during which Erdoğan used FaceTime to urge civilians to rise up and oppose the group. This led thousands of regular citizens to take to the streets, opposing and defeating the coup. Erdoğan pinned the coup on his political opponent and self-exiled businessman, Fethullah Gullen. However, Gullen maintains that he had no role in the coup, claiming that Erdoğan masterminded the coup himself as an excuse for him to expand this power. Considering Erdoğan’s retaliation and restrictions in response to the coup, Gullen’s allegation might not be too off base.
In “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt define an authoritarian leader as exhibiting, at the least, one of the four criteria; a. rejection of democratic institutions like fair elections and due process, b. branding political opposition as illegitimate c. the promotion of violence against political opponents, and d. downsizing civil liberties. In the wake of the coup, Erdoğan has checked all the authoritarian boxes.
In response to the coup, the Turkish government initiated a “state of emergency” in Turkey. According to international law, a ‘state of emergency’ allows the government to restrict citizen’s rights due to civil unrest or armed conflict. While Turkey’s presidential position was meant to be one of minimal executive power, since the ‘state of emergency’ was declared, Erdoğan has ruled through decrees with little concern for parliament. The coup has given Erdoğan an excuse to purge the Turkish government of any opposition. Since the failed coup, over 130 thousand people—journalists, political figures and activists— have been fired or put under investigation and nearly 45 thousand have been jailed, thus leaving Erdoğan’s pathway to unchecked power relatively unimpeded.
In April 2017, a constitutional referendum was passed that allowed Erdoğan to legally expand his presidential powers. Many news outlets have referred to the passage of this referendum as the death of Turkish democracy, in a clear move of governmental aggrandizement by Erdoğan. The constitutional reforms which were passed abolish the prime minister position, allowing Erdoğan to appoint all the cabinet and vice presidents and issue executive decrees. In addition to broadening his personal executive powers, Erdoğan expanded his support in the judiciary and legislative through constitutional ammendments. The referendum authorizes the president to appoint four more judges to the country’s judicial board and expands the number of parliamentary legislators, while also giving Erdoğan the power to dissolve the parliament.
The referendum passed by a small margin, with 51.3% support. The vote was merely a symbolic show of public support, validating the political jurisdiction which Erdoğan already possesses. However, whether this vote can truly be considered an example of ‘public support’ is up for debate. Electoral fraud ran rampant on voting day, fraught with claims of ballot-box stuffing, a lack of transparency from the oversight committee and voter intimidation. Since Turkish media is highly censored, only the “yes” campaign received coverage. Furthermore, the vote was characterized by a restricted potential for contestation. The referendum campaign comprised the violence and intimidation of opposition candidates and party members. Erdoğan’s expulsion and arrests of officials encouraged opposition members to hide their true preferences. While it benefited Erdoğan to create a climate of fear by dissuading a vocal, consolidated opposition from forming, his difficulty in gauging true public support will likely contribute to an increasing silent opposition. He faces the dictator’s dilemma, when a lack of credible signaling stems from repressive policies. As many leaders of partial democracies often do, Erdoğan held elections to project legitimacy to the international community, not to give the people a voice.
Twenty years ago Erdoğan compared democracy to a streetcar in that “when you come to your stop, you get off.” As the unchecked ruler of Turkey, Erdoğan no longer has need for democracy— he has reached his stop.