On July 15, 2016, an event occurred in Turkey that rarely occurs in mature democracies. The Turkish armed forces initiated a coup d’état against Turkish governmental institutions, namely Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This coup was the bloodiest in the country’s history, with 241 people killed as the Turkish army dropped bombs on its own government buildings and ordered the kidnappings of its own political leaders. The coup’s failure can be attributed to disorder within the coup itself but, most notably, effective resistance from loyalist police forces and army factions along with an unprecedented number of citizens loyal to President Erdoğan. Soon after, President Erdoğan regained control of the country. The administration’s response to the coup attempt was described by The New York Times as a “counter-coup.” President Erdoğan initiated an extensive purge of the government, media, and Turkish civil service to rid the country of disloyal coup conspirators. The United States and France are among the numerous countries expressing concern for the purges as inherently un-democratic.
Following the coup, the government quickly blamed Fetullah Gulen, a former ally of President Erdoğan. After a close alliance for several years between the two, relations between Gulen and Erdoğan eroded, and Gulen fled to the United States. The Turkish government asserts that Gulen orchestrated the coup attempt from exile in Pennsylvania, and Erdoğan accused the United States government of sheltering him. Gulen, meanwhile, suggested that the coup was a sham perpetrated by Erdoğan to subsequently suppress and consolidate his power even further. Regardless, both assertions fail to account for the belief widely-held among the Turkish populace as to the real cause of the coup – systematic democratic erosion caused by the Erdoğan regime.
One simply needs to look at past actions of the Erdoğan regime to see that it has a record of undemocratic actions. In 2012, Erdoğan purged the military, raising many questions as to his regard for the rule of Turkish law. Since 2013, the government has taken unprecedented steps to gain control of as many media outlets as possible, nearly reaching a monopoly of all Turkish media. Numerous social media platforms, including Twitter and Wikipedia, have been blocked by the government. That same year, the government ordered that deadly force be used against peaceful demonstrations condemning governmental authoritarianism. In 2015 and 2016, the government consolidated their power to appoint judges at all levels of the Turkish judiciary and instituted compulsory religious curriculum in Turkish schools, weakening the nation’s secularism. Since Erdogan’s appointment to prime minister in 2003 and election as president in 2014, Turkey has seemingly been democratically backsliding.
The legitimacy of this claim can be supported by Pippa Norris, who analyzes democratic backsliding in her article “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks”. She argues that democracy depends upon three characteristics, but the second one, constitutionally, all the major actors and organs of the state reflect democratic norms and practices, is the focus here. Although from the outside Turkey may seem like a democracy, the consolidation of power of the executive, especially over the judiciary, denotes democratic backsliding. Checks and balances are one of the cornerstones of democracy, and the judiciary plays an integral part of these checks and balances. Without a legitimate judiciary to contest Erdoğan’s legislative actions, his executive’s rule is essentially unrestrained. Although the legislative actions executed by Erdoğan are “legal,” threatening the autonomy of the judiciary is nonetheless is a constitutional threat to “democratic norms and practices” in Turkey. The institutional trends in Turkey are deviating away from democratic norms and into the territory of democratic-backsliding.
Evidence that Turkey is experiencing democratic backsliding can also be found in Nancy Bermeo’s essay “On Democratic Backsliding,” where she also contemplates the reasons for and consequences of democratic erosion. Her first, and perhaps most important, point is that coups usually do not occur in stable democracies. If a country experiences a coup, this is generally a sign that democracy is beginning – or already has – broken down. But besides that smoking gun, Bermeo’s description of executive aggrandizement, another threat to the well-being of democracy, parallels the breakdown that has occurred in Turkey over the course of Erdoğan’s administration. Executive aggrandizement occurs without executive replacement, usually by the executive, and at a slower pace. She defines executive aggrandizement as allowing “criminal prosecution of journalists for discussing any subject deemed controversial by state authorities,” “blocking of websites and the identification of Internet users,” unrestricted control of intelligence collection due to a lack of privacy laws, and reducing the autonomy of the judiciary. Erdoğan has taken steps limit social media and internet access, decrease and power of the judiciary and increase his influence over its autonomy, expelled or imprisoned suspected disloyal military leaders and government employees without due process, and discredited or seized control of most of Turkey’s media outlets. It is, perhaps, quite clear why a faction of the Turkish populace was dissatisfied and felt threatened by Erdoğan’s actions and chose to engage in a coup to remove President Erdoğan from power.
At this point, the conclusion can be reached that Erdoğan’s undermining of Turkey’s democratic institutions are the main cause – if not the only cause – of the 2016 coup against him. It remains to be seen whether Fetullah Galen had any part in the coup attempt, but it can be assumed that blaming him was President Erdoğan’s effort to find a scapegoat and dismiss the accusations of Turkey’s democratic backsliding. For now, Erdoğan remains in control of Turkey, but Turkey remains one of the most likely countries to experience a coup in the near future. If – and when – Turkey experiences another coup, it will be interesting to see if Turkish citizens begin to see the breakdown of their democratic society and join the ranks of the coup in resistance.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, Jan. 2016.
Norris, Pippa. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” Journal of Democracy, Apr. 2017.