Turkey was once the beacon of democratic liberalism in the East, outside of the Western powers. However, under its current leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party, Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey became the prime example of democratic backsliding in the modern state. In the early days of Erdogan in office as Prime Minister, he was actually known for being progressive. Although he came from a religious background, he advocated for freedom of press and speech and also the admission of Turkey to joining the European Union. He was making reforms in Turkey’s justice system and the military’s role in the government to meet the Western criteria.
During the time period between the 2000s and the early 2010s, Turkey saw a seemingly economic boom, effectively pulling Turkey out of its prior economic crisis. The economy saw a growth of 7.2% and interest rates were falling. At the same time, unemployment rates also decreased while education rates and life expectancy raised. The future was looking bright for Turkey until the crackdowns in 2013. Following the investigation of Erdogan’s party for corruption, millions of citizens took to the streets to protest against Ergodan, calling for his resignation. In response, the government led a brutal crackdown on any dissenting opinions on Erdogan’s rule. Many protestors and journalists were jailed and punished for criticizing Erdogan’s party.
His consolidation of power came in the 2017 referendum, which institutionalized Turkey’s government into a one-man system. It subsumes the role of the Prime Minister into that of a President, effectively allowing Erdogan to monopolize executive power while also having large influences over the legislature and the judiciary. While it becomes clear that Turkey has become more and more authoritarian, Erdogan still has a 41% approval rate as of January 2022. His approval rate has obviously dropped since the failed 2016 coup, however, 41% is still a very sizable population.
The popularity behind Erdogan even though Turkey is no longer considered a free country according to the Freedom House, is also at the core of the rise of populism and populist leaders such as Erdogan himself. The modern state of Turkey was built under leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who created a secular nation for the Muslim majority. Secularism allowed Turkey to break from its imperial past, creating a new national identity for Turkish citizens. This meant that Islam would no longer play a significant role in the policies and laws of the new modern state. While the goal of secularism was intended to modernize Turkey, it also created a division between religious opposition within the population.
Then came Erdogan, a charismatic politician who appealed to the conservative population of Turkey. Using the deep division between those who supported a secular Turkey and those who supported an Islam State, liberalist and conservatives, and different groups of nationalists, Erdogan was able to emerge himself as the “voice and hope of the people.” He targeted the secular elites and blamed them for the failures of the state and for failing to represent the people. The economic boom during his time in office has also greatly contributed to his popularity. As said by Baris Unlu, a former political science professor, “Many people supported the APK Party even though they weren’t supporters per-se because they were sick of pre-2002 Turkey.”
In the 2016 attempted coup, Erdogan strategically used social media to appeal to the citizens. Appearing on people’s FaceTime, he urged people to “take to the streets and defend democracy.” On Twitter, his staff was putting out tweets on both his official account and public account calling for the public to rally. By using social media, Erdogan successfully manipulated the event to work in his favor to delegitimize his opposition. Images on his Twitter showed pictures of the rally as people defending democracy, rather than a revolt against his regime.
The rise of Erdogan is a clear example of how states with deep divisions are prone to the rise of democratically elected populist leaders. Turkey is not the only state experiencing democratic backsliding as many states who have previously been enjoying democracy, such as Poland, Hungary, and even the United States, experienced some form of threat to democracy. According to Freedom House, Turkey’s freedom ratings have been declining across all boards. Back in 2015, Turkey received a score of 58 out of 100, making it partly free. In more recent years, between 2016 and 2022, the score has been around 30. The fate of Turkey’s democracy will be upon the upcoming 2023 elections, which either can see the continuation of Erdogan’s power or the beginning of a new chapter.
Kabouche, Leo. “Explaining Erdogan’s persistent popularity.” Global Risk Insights, February 14, 2018, https://globalriskinsights.com/2018/02/erdogan-popular-support-turkey/.
Lucas, Scott. “How Turkey’s President used social media to save himself.” University of Birmingham, https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/turkey-coup.aspx.
Massicard, Elise. “Populism in Turkey: Towards the Demise of Democracy?” SciencesPo, May 17, 2021, https://www.sciencespo.fr/research/cogito/home/populism-in-turkey-towards-the-demise-of-democracy/?lang=en.
Wilks, Andrew. “What keeps Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power?” Aljazeera, June 8, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/6/8/what-keeps-recep-tayyip-erdogan-in-power.