The concept of democratic erosion implies a former, more democratic state of affairs that is giving way to its corruptions. For this reason, the Turkish case is of much import, as the high rate of backsliding, the fairly recent and even ongoing regressive processes allow for a closer examination of democratic crises on, in this case, primarily strict religious and nationalist grounds.
At the head of the government is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who first appeared on the Turkish political fray as the elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Despite affiliations with Islamist political entities, Erdogan’s term as mayor passed largely unremarkable from an ideological standpoint, that is until a read of a controversial poem by a pan-Turkish activist of the early 1900s landed him a charge on the grounds of incitement of violence and religious or racial hatred. The ten month sentence, which was reduced to four after an appeal, was served in 1999 and effectively removed him from the mayoral post. He returned to politics after his imprisonment and won a landslide victory in the 2003 elections as the head of the newly formed Justice and Development Party (AKP), becoming the new prime-minister of Turkey. Along with significant infrastructure reform, Erdogan started inflating the role of religious ethics in Turkish policy-making. His embrace of the religious conservative sentiments has manifested itself in the extension of religious schooling access to children aged 10-14, as well as a sharp rise in the number of Islamic schools across the country from around 500 in 2012 to more than 4,000 by the end of 2017, with the size of the religious student body rising five-fold to 1.3 million in the same period. Beyond schooling, the prime-minister’s 2012 inflammatory comments on morality of abortions and caesarian births, which have been legal in Turkey since 1983, and the plan to ban the procedure were met with protests on the streets of Istanbul. The prime indication of Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, however, has to be the 2013 violent repression of the Gezi Park sit-in protest against an urban reconstruction project approved by AKP. After the Gezi protests the increasingly authoritarian slant of the Erdogan regime became arguably more explicit, with a series of amendments introduced in early 2014 granting the authority to restrict access to internet content subject to court’s approval, as well as a significant rise in the numbers of persons indicted and prosecuted for violations of Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code that criminalizes insulting the president of the republic, immediately following Erdogan’s victory in the 2014 presidential elections in contrast with the number of arrests during the Gul administration.
The tolerance among a significant enough part of the military for Erdogan’s now presidential capacity to author the decline of the state into a theocratic authoritarianism, as voiced by a state channel news anchor, had apparently come to an end in 2016, when the attempt to take over the government in July 2016. After the recognition of the failure of the coup set in, close to 40,000 arrests followed, including government and military officials, judges, journalists, and political activists, whose treatment in places of their detention was inclusive of harassment, assault, rape, torture and intimidation.
Following the uprising, in the 2017 national constitutional referendum introduced dramatic changes into the political composition of the republic, solidifying the role of the presidency as an executive rather than a ceremonial post, granting the president the power to introduce executive decrees, dissolve the parliament, extend term limits, dissolving the position of the prime-minister, allowing the president to appoint a quarter of the judges on the highest judiciary in the state, allows for presidential party affiliations, etc.
Furthermore, the most recent municipal and mayoral elections in Turkey have called for the criticism from opposition and EU leaderships as the electoral authorities have not appeared to be impartial and as the AKP does not recognize the legitimacy of regional victories by the opposing CHP.
All of the above cited are indicative of a democratic regression, with Erdogan’s disregard for Turkey’s secular foundations and rejection of constitutionally valid polling outcomes, willingness to deploy violent means to suppress dissent at Gezi and even in Washington D.C. in 2017, as well as the number of incarcerations immediately post his 2014 election and even more so after the 2016 coup attempt on grounds of insulting the presidency or the state, respectively fulfill all four of the prerequisites for authoritarian establishment defined by Ziblatt and Levitsky in How Democracies Die, Ch.1. His regime has also been called as such by his contemporaries as the AKP majority has been legislating a state mandated moral, lifestyle and value system, which in Turkey’s case just happened to “coincide” with Erdogan’s personal convictions as well as those of the majority rural conservative Muslims in the country that comprise the AKP base. Erdogan’s use of his executive powers to approve of the 2017 referendum to inflate the significance of the presidency through major constitutional reform is an invalid exploitation of existing democratic institutions, which as outlined by Waldner and Lust in Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding is indicative of a backsliding, justified by the necessity to counter Kurdish separatist movements and extremist groups in the South-West of the country, but is an apparent attempt to insure maintenance of power through executive aggrandizement.
Erdogan’s power grab might have some legal validity within a vacuum, but the gradual push towards tighter constraints on press coverage and intolerance of peaceful dissent, use of violent means and inflammatory rhetoric even in the dealings on the international arena,as well as the multitude of other violations of democratic principles noted above satisfy any doubt as to the intent and the direction of Turkish authoritarianism today.
Photo by Getti Images.