For years, Turkey was hailed as being an exemplary case of a rare, developing, and withstanding secular democracy in a Muslim-majority society. However, under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party, Turkey has undergone a significant democratic breakdown, is degenerating into an autocracy, and now ranks as one of the most polarized countries in the world. This transformation, facilitated by Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s deliberate polarization, is what Murat Somer describes as “an example of the broader phenomenon of democratic erosion under new elites and dominant groups” (Somer 2019).
Initially, polarization was presented as reformist and was deemed to have democratizing potential. However, down the line, these reformist polarizations transformed into revolutionary polarizations, precipitating destructive and refractory consequences for democracy in Turkey. The same polarizing tactics deployed by the AKP to mobilize a winning majority, undermine the opposition, and overcome any civil and institutional push back against its transformative policies (i.e. the redistribution of power, status, and resources to the AKP) triggered changes that transformed the AKP itself, as well as the Turkish polity as a whole. Polarization trapped both the AKP and its opposers “in a web of intended, unintended, and mutually reinforcing policies and discourses, which were anti-democratic or had democracy-destroying consequences” (Somer 2019).
During their rise to power, the AKP presented themselves as being “new” political actors that had been marginalized by mainstream politics because of their political Islamist values. Turkey’s “center” (what were – at the time – secular laws, institutions, and elites) were criticized by the AKP for having treated them “with suspicion and some disdain” (Somer 2019). While they had not been barred from participating in the political system, the AKP had periodically been punished with legal and political sanctions. Yet, these “political outsiders” came to dominate Turkish politics, society, and economy by successfully mobilizing a winning coalition from a cross-class and cross-ideological base of elites and constituents. This broad and diverse support group, as well as other factors such as a financial crisis in 2001, presented opportunities for the AKP to utilize polarizing politics in order to consolidate their power through the structural and institutional changes they made in politics and the economy. As the years progressed and polarization was magnified, this partisan bloc became increasingly personified in Erdoğan, lending enough strength to challenge Turkey’s already well-established institutions.
The severe polarization present in Turkish politics and society – magnified by long standing formative rifts – has played a large and detrimental role. Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partially free” to “unfree” in 2018 – the first time since the 1980-83 military regime. Since November 2015, the three elections and one referendum that the AKP has won have not been free and fair, largely due to the severe decline in media freedoms as well as the consolidation of a party-state that is increasingly unchallengeable.
One of the main tools employed by Erdoğan and his regime to intensify polarization is the control of the media. In 2008, Turkey’s most influential media corporation (of the time), the secular and liberal Doğan Media Group, covered news of corruption that was linked to the AKP. In retaliation, Erdoğan (still the Prime Minister), launched a campaign against the Doğan Media Group, accusing them of spreading false news and blackmailing his government in exchange for financial favors, ultimately encouraging people to boycott the corporation. A few months later, the Doğan Media Group was charged a penalty of 500 million dollars for alleged tax evasion.
Not only did Erdoğan retaliate against whistleblowers by curtailing free speech, but in acting as a polarizing politician and presenting the Doğan Media Group as the “rival,” Erdoğan was urging people to interpret political events and to also position themselves politically in a major rivalry. He promoted his own story and invited people to support him and what he claimed would be the “winning side,” while simultaneously discouraging people from taking a middle ground, “warning that they would also be targeted and eventually find themselves to be weak and politically irrelevant” (Somer 2019). This polarizing rhetoric was tactfully employed, as “the power and capacity to determine a friend and an enemy overlaps with the legitimate authority to establish a new legal order” (Kutay 2018). Many people who would consider themselves to be moderates or were still undecided on the issue became divided, pushed to either end of the spectrum (and typically aligned with the AKP). With this “pernicious bipolarization,” the AKP increasingly became a hegemonic actor in which they recognized the potential for a revolutionary movement “to unilaterally rebuild both the state and civil society” (Somer 2019).
The Doğan Media Group case is not a unique incident: Sabah, Akşam, Hürriyet, Milliyet, and many other large media sources who criticized the government have since been taken over by pro-AKP businessmen. Furthermore, laws – such as those making it illegal to insult the president – are often employed to jail opposition forces or anyone with an opposing opinion. In Turkey, fake news comes from the top-down, with Erdoğan and his regime actively disseminating fake news in order to discredit any opposition, bolster the AKP, and achieve unchecked and unrestrained control. Moreover, after the failed coup in 2016, the AKP has doubled-down on censoring and repressing the media. During the coup, 132,000 people were detained, around 200 media outlets were shut down, and more than 300 journalists were arrested.
As such, the AKP successfully prompted structural changes in the media and economy in order to sustain and grow the polarization from which they derive legitimacy. In fact, ten years after Erdoğan’s attack, the Doğan Media Group was bought by a “progovernment mogul, using a state bank loan with highly favorable conditions,” completing a process that had begun in 2008 of placing most of the media under the control of pro-government outlets and cronies, creating an “unfree” Turkish media (Somer 2019). With these outlets, polarization was once more magnified, as common ground disappeared and media became highly controlled and monitored by the government. Those who did not want to take sides, as Erdoğan had proclaimed in his attack against the Doğan Media Group in 2008, were “left behind.” Liberal writers, public intellectuals, independent and semi-independent journalists, and even AKP politicians who refused to become Erdoğan loyalists were marginalized.
Serious media censorship and the purging of opposition groups, intellectuals, and journalists makes Turkey centralized control and restrictions over the media very dangerous for democracy. The AKP has achieved almost a full monopoly of all Turkish media, while numerous social media platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia, have been blocked by the government. Nancy Bermeo cites executive aggrandizement as a sign of democratic backsliding. As Bermeo defines it, executive aggrandizement allows for the “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 and lack of privacy laws, and the reducing autonomy of the judiciary (Bermeo 2016). Erdoğan’s actions limiting social media and internet access, decreasing the power of the judiciary and increasing his own influence, imprisoning journalists, intellectuals, opposition forces, etc. all highlight the executive aggrandizement and democratic backsliding occuring in Turkey under his regime.
Polarization has effectively transformed the media, public discourse, social relations, and the culture of politics in Turkey. Erdoğan and the AKP have successfully and methodically dismantled democratic norms under the guise of reform, modernization, nationalism, and Islamization. Moreover, they have stayed in power by eroding institutions like the media, allowing for the electoral playing field to favor the AKP and further solidify its power. This cycle of polarization, which extends to the media, further perpetuates the echo chambers in which polarized individuals turn to media sources that align with and bolster their partisan attachments, further consolidating and magnifying the polarization tactfully – and successfully – weaponized by Erdoğan and the AKP.
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