Turkey has a lengthy and turbulent history with democratization. Modern day Turkey was founded on October 29th, 1923, shortly after the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman Empire had long been on the decline, coming to be known as the sick man of Europe, but the first World War sealed its fate. The empire fought on the side of the Central Powers, and after their defeat much Ottoman territory was partitioned amongst the Allies. This Allied encroachment spurred a strong resistance movement against the Ottoman establishment who mostly capitulated to the Allies’ demands. After a protracted conflict with Greece, the Ottoman Army, headed by Mustafa Kemal (a prominent resistance figure), won back its previously held territory. This was a turning point for the resistance movement. The sultanate was soon abolished, and in 1923 the Turkish Republic was officially established with Ankara as its capital and Mustafa Kemal (taking on the moniker Ataturk) as its president.
Ataturk’s regime took on sweeping reforms in the hopes of distancing themselves from the antiquity of the Ottoman Empire. His ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP), ended the caliphate, adopted egalitarian measures to bolster women’s role in society, and closed religious schools in the favor of a more secularized education. Even the Turkish language was modernized, Atatürk shed the Arabic alphabet in favor of Latin, and many Persian and Arabic words were dropped from the nation’s lexicon. Kasim Gülek, writing for Foreign Affairs in his article Democracy Takes Root in Turkey, describes these reforms, “The age-old theocratic concepts of the state were abandoned and the principle of a secular republic accepted. All these reforms were sanctioned by laws voted by the assembly” (Gülek 1951, 137). In 1950 Turkey had its first free and fair election, with judicial supervision and meaningful competition from opposition parties. The Democratic Party won a majority, ending almost half a century of Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party single party rule.
Democracy as defined by Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy is “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Schumpeter 1942, 269). Using Schumpeter’s definition of democracy, Turkey was well on its way to a stable democracy by 1950; with free and fair elections, including meaningful competition for votes in the way of opposition parties, as well as people being able to freely voice their criticism of the government. Lauren McLaren and Burak Cop elucidate on post 1950 Turkish democracy in their essay The Failure of Democracy in Turkey: A Comparative Analysis “Other than brief interruptions in 1960-61 and 1980-83, Turkey has, in fact, met the most basic democratic requirement of holding free and fair elections since 1950. That is, parties have generally been able to compete freely in Turkish elections” (McLaren-Cop 2013, 3).
As McLaren and Cop explained, Turkey has historically had the barebones elements of a democracy. However, the sweeping victory of the Development Justice Party (also known as the AKP) in the 2002 parliamentary elections along with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ascent into leadership put Turkey’s fledgling democratization project in danger. It is difficult to pinpoint a single event as a turning point for democratic backsliding, the party and its leadership have been slowly eroding Turkey’s democratic institutions since coming into power. For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on one instance: Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum, which switched the nation from a parliamentary to a presidential system.
This switch may seem trivial, but it’s a clear-cut instance of executive aggrandizement. Nancy Burmeo defines this concept in her book On Democratic Backsliding, “Executive aggrandizement contrasts with all forms of coupmaking in that it takes place without executive replacement and at a slower pace. This more common form of backsliding occurs when elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences” (Burmeo 2016, 3). The switch was part of a variety of amendments to the constitution that Turks were voting on, with one clear goal: to augment Erdogan and the AKP’s political power. The change got rid of the role of Prime Minister, consolidating even more power in the President as the sole executive. Under the new system Erdogan could potentially remain in the presidency until 2029. Part of the shift to a presidential republic meant that the executive was now directly elected through a popular vote, whereas before MP’s elected the prime minister to head the government. This switch favors the incumbent AKP, and largely strips the parliament of its power, turning the body into little more than a rubber stamp. There are obviously many instances of countries with functioning, democratic presidential systems, the United States being one of them. Turkey, however, lacks the checks and balances necessary for this kind of system to function free of autocratic encroachment. The BBC explains in their report, Why did Turkey hold a referendum, “in Turkey, where judicial independence has plummeted and which now ranks 151 of 180 countries in the press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders, an all-powerful president would spell the death knell of democracy” (BBC 2017) Additionally, the amendments passed narrowly, and there were questions about the validity of votes, arising from the Supreme Election Council’s decision (at AKP’s behest) to accept potentially fraudulent ballots that weren’t properly stamped. International observers raised concern too. In a report, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe expressed their worry that, “Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform” (OSCE 2017)
Overall, the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum was nothing but a fraudulent, thinly veiled power grab by Erdogan. The blatant executive aggrandizement puts Turkey’s already strained system of checks and balances in even more peril and undermines any hope for democratization.