Recently, the rise of democratic regimes that began after the 1970s or the Third Wave of Democratization has stopped. This wave was then replaced by a rise in autocratic regimes throughout the World. There have been numerous examples of former democracies turning into autocracies. One of these cases is the one in Turkey which began with the AKP rule. AKP or the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 by winning the general elections and they have been in power ever since. They first emerged as the advocate of small and family-owned businesses in Anatolia but gained popularity quite quickly especially from the support of the urban poor and the collapse of the center right really opened up their way to become this hegemonic party that they are now.
During their first term, there haven’t been any major democratic erosion or backsliding that was noticed. This was due to their efforts on fixing the 2001 Economic Crisis and their somewhat positive relations with the West. There have been talks with European Union, economy was turning back to normal and the regime was stable. They were aiding the poor, creating foundations and charities to distribute various resources and money to various parts of Turkey so their supporters were relatively happy. However, things took a massive turn after the beginning of AKP’s second term in 2007, followed up with 2011 and 2013 in particular. This blog will go over the events that started after 2007 which led to unprecedented levels of democratic erosion and backsliding within Turkey, turning the regime into competitive authoritarian.
After dealing with the economic crisis and increasing their support even more, it was time for AKP to consolidate its rule. They followed 6 steps to become the undisputed hegemonic power of Turkey while significantly damaging its democratic system and institutions. The first step was winning the parliamentary majority, which they did in 2002. Come 2007, they wanted more consolidation so they picked Abdullah Gül, who is a prominent member of AKP, to become the new president of Turkey. This event was massively boycotted by many, especially the military. As a response, the military wrote an e-memorandum and released it for everyone to see, saying that Gül becoming president wouldn’t be approved by them and it is against the secular ways of Turkey. AKP responded by going to elections and winning, so the people chose Abdullah Gül as their new president.
Now that the presidency was in their hands, it was time to suppress the military who threatened them with the e-memorandum. Even though it is not proven, it is also said that the military was planning a coup to overthrow the AKP rule. This alleged coup plan and the e-memorandum were important threats for the AKP leaders so they began to purge important military figures after the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. There have been countless arrests within various ranks of the military so key military positions were now open for replacement. What AKP did was, they replaced these military officers with members of the Gülen movement. The Gülen movement was led by a popular religious leader called Fetullah Gülen who was the former ally of AKP rulers. The Gülenists took over many important military positions so now the military threat was gone as well.
Now, AKP took its eyes on the media. There have been many criticisms towards their rule especially from the opposition media. So, the AKP began purchasing various important media groups like ATV and Sabah, then selling these companies to their allies for increased support and reduced criticism. They also began a massive media censorship resulting in many newspapers and TV channels to not be able to publish and opposition related news. This was a big hit towards the democratic regime since free media and civil liberty rights are some of the most essential factors of a liberal democracy.
One other important step towards consolidation for AKP was to take over the Constitutional Court. After the 2010 referendum, AKP’s demands were approved when the majority of the people said yes to the changes. Prior to the referendum, 3/5 of the majority were needed to change the constitution or close down political parties. However, after the referendum AKP turned it into 2/3 of the majority, which was again a big hit on the levels of democracy.
It is also worth mentioning the suppression of various civil protests, especially the infamous Gezi Protests of 2013. The Gezi Protest had unprecedented levels of resistance by the people of Turkey. It started in Istanbul but spread throughout the country with the use of social media. The government was forced to use very high levels of suppression with the police forces which resulted in countless injuries and even several deaths of the protestors.
All of these resulted in the fall of democracy and the rise of autocracy in Turkey. It was a near flawless process for the AKP to take over every important institution and fully consolidate its authoritarian rule while keeping its high levels of support. There is however, a very important figure who I haven’t mentioned yet. This figure is none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who is the most important actor on all the events that have happened since 2002.
Erdoğan, as a right-wing populist, followed a political course similar to other authoritarian leaders like Orban, Chavez and Vucic. He was always a fan favorite with his personality and effective speeches. These past few years have showed that former AKP supporters had enough of AKP but they may still have positive thoughts towards Erdoğan because they see him as somewhat of a savior who brought them wealth and goods. Now wealthy and satisfied, these people began to feel dislike and hatred towards the opposition and its supporters. This then resulted in high levels of polarization within the society. He also managed to create an uneven playing field, making it easier for him to win elections. Later on, he fully captured the control of AKP even after becoming the president of Turkey. He teamed up with the former opposition party, MHP and created the super-presidential system, giving him increased levels of power. It wouldn’t be right to pinpoint a certain event that caused the democratic breakdown of Turkey but one could argue that this was the final nail in the coffin. As Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü explain in their article, Turkey is unfortunately not a democracy anymore. (Gümüşçü and Esen, 2021). Generally speaking, all of these events that are mentioned above resulted in the collapse of democracy in Turkey, replacing it with a competitive autocracy.
Esen, B., & Gumuscu, S. (2021). Why did Turkish democracy collapse? A political economy account of AKP’s authoritarianism. Party Politics, 27(6), 1075-1091.