On January 1, 2021 a new university President arrived at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. Despite decades of tradition in which the university community voiced support for a candidate they felt represented their needs most, Professor Melih Bulu was appointed by decree of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an effort of the government to gain influence over educational institutions across the country. In a sign of the tensions building throughout Turkish society, the appointment of Bulu, a long-time loyalist of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), triggered widespread protests among students, faculty, and civic allies. In response, government forces cracked down on demonstrations, detained hundreds of students, and dismantled campus advocacy groups such as the LGBTQ+ alliance.
The incident at Boğaziçi showcases the crisis facing Turkish governance. Despite decades of democratic gains, Turkey is faced with a new reality- political development has not just stalled but is being actively dismantled. Today, the country is not even identifiable as a democracy and continues to show the erosion of institutions and rights- scoring just 32/100 on measures of political rights and civil liberties, a 6 point drop from 2017 according to Freedom House. At the source of it all is the Justice and Development Party led by President Erdoğan.
How did Erdoğan’s AKP gain power?
In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power with the promise of democratic and constitutional reform. This was a popular position held by most parties, the Turkish Constitution was drafted by a military government in 1982 and held deeply illiberal provisions that would be amended over 20 times to support further democratization in the following 3 decades. The AKP had long been on political margins because of the concerns secularist voters held on its Islamist roots, but the party and its leader promised a rapidly developing and disillusioned electorate that it was the party that could bring change by pledging to further democratize the country.
By publicly committing to reform, the AKP was able to build towards a system of government that greatly favored its own interests under the guise of democratic consolidation. Chief among these initiatives for the party was the pursuit of accession into the European Union, which necessitated an extensive slate of constitutional reforms that were broadly praised by Turkish and European officials. At the same time, some of the goals of these reforms served to strengthen the AKP’s control over the government.
A slate of judicial reforms in 2010 were tasked with increasing judicial autonomy and granting more power to the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HCJP). In 2013, the HCJP used this new power to open an investigation within their constitutional right into growing accusations of corruption by AKP Cabinet members. The government used this as proof of the Judiciary’s efforts to undermine the Turkish government and passed legislation that drastically increased oversight of the HCJP and removed hundreds of judges seen as government critics.
In the years to come the AKP continued this strategy of concealing a project of eroding institutional barriers to political dominance behind constitutional reforms seen as necessary and justified by the electorate and international observers such as those in the EU.
The 2016 Coup: A Gift from God?
Following a failed 2016 coup by members of the country’s military, Erdoğan announced a state of emergency that would suspend the rule of law for a period of 2 years. The AKP launched an extensive retaliation against critics– many of whom had no connection to the coup attempt. In the months following the failed coup saw a massive purge of opposition figures from all fields, including sitting Members of Parliament and Constitutional Court Judges, scaled up conflict with the Kurdish independence movement, and stifled dissent by curtailing press freedom and closing down over 200 outlets.
Praised as a “gift from god” by Erdoğan, the failed 2016 coup only emboldened the leader’s burgeoning sense of power and served as a catalyst for autocratic consolidation. While millions took to the streets during the coup in defense of civilian government and Turkish democracy, these same institutions were systematically targeted in the aftermath (Freedomhouse.org).
A 2017 Constitutional referendum envisioned a complete reconstruction of the Turkish government, modifying 50 provisions and repealing 21. The changes were narrowly passed and resulted in the elimination of almost all existing checks on power, the dissolution of judicial independence, and a permanent end to the role of the military in protecting secularist governance. The most drastic change was the replacement of the parliamentary system with an executive presidency. The proposal was initially a piece of the AKP’s 2015 election campaign on Erdoğan’s demand, but was scrapped because of its unpopularity. The state of emergency allowed to largely bypass electoral opinion by presenting the proposed changes as a single yes/no vote with little public information on each provision and minimal campaigning permitted for opponents of the changes. Essentially, the referendum was seen as a vote for or against Erdoğan amidst high tensions over expression of opposition and media independence.
Following the results of the Constitutional referendum, Erdoğan called a snap election for June 2018 in order to implement the new presidential system. The election exhibited levels of competitiveness that surprised outside observers, registering an 86% turnout rate despite concerns over electoral integrity. Erdoğan won the presidency with 53% of the vote and the AKP returned to power in coalition with the far-right ultra-nationalist National Action Party in the newly weakened Parliament.
Where will he take Turkey?
Currently marred in the social, economic, and political repercussions of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is hard to see the path that Erdoğan is most likely to take. With a faltering economy, migrant crisis, and conflict with Kurdish separatists revealing vulnerabilities to the President’s grip on power- polling for the 2023 elections already promises a competitive race- it can only be assumed that Erdoğan will continue consolidating power and using his authority to weaken opposition forces to ensure he maintains his pathway to power.