On April 16, 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrated the passage of their landmark Constitutional referendum by a margin of 51.4% to 48.6%. 85% of registered voters turned out for the election, with over 98% of the votes being considered valid. At first glance, it seems like a great example of democracy-in-action, as the country made a decision with high turnout on an important issue. However, this is yet another example of how President Erdogan has managed to successfully leverage the electoral process as a way to consolidate his power and erode democratic norms.
To understand the turn of events, Turkey’s complex relationship with democracy must be explored. Borne out of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s first President was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former military officer who brought secularism and republicanism to the country. Ataturk is widely credited with modernizing Turkey, as he extended full suffrage to women, invested aggressively in education and the military, and promoted what he called “Turkification”, in order to create a unified country.
His political legacy would dictate Turkey’s future, as he left a lasting mark on Turkish political foundations, particularly the military. Despite the generally negative connotation of elite generals having significant influence in politics, the Turkish military was an inclusive institution widely trusted by the populace for most of the 20th century. The Turkish military took it upon itself to preserve his reforms, ousting authoritarian and Islamist governments in several situations from 1960 to 2000, including the fundamentalist Welfare party in 1997. This strong institution would allow some form of democracy to flourish in Turkey, backing Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s claims that strong, inclusive institutions anchor democracy.
When Erdogan and other former Welfare Party Members formed the AKP in 2001, they masked their Islamist roots under a pro-Western, pro-American platform, and subsequently won election in 2002. During this time period, Erdogan carefully consolidated his power as Prime Minister at the expense of the country’s traditionally important institutions. Instead of paying homage to the military, he courted Islamic religious leaders and other traditionalists, promising more conservative policies. He also initially promised greater freedoms to the Kurdish people, but would begin rolling back those reforms by 2014. After the attempted so-called Gulenist coup in 2016, which featured military officials unsuccessfully trying to depose the President, Erdogan then put forth the referendum in question to the voters, citing the concern of national security.
Opposition to the referendum ranged from sources as wide as NGOs like Human Rights Watch to Turkish Kemalist political parties. The Economist stated that “a vote for Yes would saddle the country with an elected dictator.” The main reason for this was the expansion of President powers that would be held by Erdogan,This referendum granted many new powers to the Turkish Presidency, including the ability to appoint Vice-Presidents, hire and fire ministers with unlimited discretion, dismantling elements of the judicial branch, and increasing the amount of seats in Parliament. Notably, the referendum’s changes in regard to Presidential power would not be granted to the President until after the next election cycle in 2019. However, given the strength of the AKP nationally, there’s consensus that Erdogan will win the 2019 election with the help of the MHP’s backing.
With these reforms, Erdogan has almost copied the playbook of many “illiberal Democrats”, such as Viktor Orban of Hungary and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Scheppele notes that Orban expanded the size of parliament once taking power, allowing his party take more seats in the next election. Erdogan then proceeded to do the same. By increasing the amount of seats in parliament and increasing the threshold needed to be seated, Erdogan has decreased the likelihood other parties will be able consolidate opposition in government. This form of “Constitutional Retrogression” as noted by Huq and Ginsberg reduces electoral competitiveness and allows incumbents to stay in power. His attempt to create what Scheppele calls a “frankenstate” – where he can rule indefinitely not through force, but through democratic restrictions – has been successful.
Like Chavez, Erdogan has been able to use specific electoral strategies to consolidate his base and impose certain restrictions on liberal democracy. In the referendum, as well as his previous contested elections, Erdogan has relied on traditional rural voters to back him, particularly conservative Muslims. This parallels Chavez’s base of the rural agrarian poor in Venezuela as noted by Javier Corrales, and both individuals faced opposition from more urban areas, professional classes, and the intellectual elite. This composition of support and opposition allowed both individuals to use populist tactics to win their elections, using anti-elite, anti-pluralist rhetoric. In Erdogan’s case, the elites are the Kemalists, who tend to be pro-European integration and pro-Westernization. The underclass is the Kurdish population, which is often the target of anti-pluralism in Turkey. As Hochschild notes, “defining an underclass” is an extremely effective way to leverage anti-pluralism.
Erdogan’s use of the ballot is particularly significant because he can maintain the facade of a “democratic process”, while dismissing the technocratic and institutional elite. In the case of Turkey, this means the professional classes and military elite lose influence. Sheri Berman remarks that modern day “soft autocrats” have no issue with being labeled “illiberal democracies” provided they still are termed democracies. Erdogan has shown himself to be part of this camp, as he continues to call for elections so the AKP can get an appropriate mandate and maintains legitimacy. Then while in power, he has gone after media outlets and the opposition, to make his next election an even easier process. Since he has taken power, hundreds of journalists have been censored for speaking out against the AKP government. He has also restricted civil liberties, as seen by his quelling of the protests in Gezi Park in 2013.
Erdogan’s success at dismantling democratic institutions through the ballot should be a cause for concern for political observers. The fact he has continuously been able to leverage majoritarian democracy as a mandate for consolidating power means that there is a blueprint for other potential autocrats elsewhere to follow him. On a policy level, his authoritarian push with sympathies for fundamentalist Islam spells trouble for much of the West, which has relied on Turkey as an ally in NATO since the Cold War Era against both Communism and the War on Terror. A belligerent Turkey which is unfriendly to Western democracies may bolster support for other authoritarian regimes, such as Putin’s Russia, that have undermined democratic institutions in the West. Keeping this in mind, Turkey’s use of democratic processes like referendum to damage democratic institutions threatens liberal democracy internally and abroad.