The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turkish democracy might be dead — and things could soon get a lot worse

A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag as he delivers a speech in Ankara, Turkey, on Monday.(Associated Press)

Nicholas Danforth is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Project.

The ongoing crackdown on dissidents, journalists and alleged coup plotters in Turkey seems to confirm what many observers have long concluded: Turkish democracy is dead, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more in control than ever.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey’s fate will now be a stifling but stable form of civilian authoritarianism. The fragmentation of institutions such as the military, coupled with the erosion of Erdogan’s democratic legitimacy and the ongoing assault on Turkey’s veneer of parliamentary democracy, have left the country unprepared for the shocks it is likely to face in the year ahead. If the situation in the country spirals out of control, the result could easily be violence and chaos rather than a resurgence of democracy.

Until recently, the Turkish state, for all of its problems, enjoyed a strong institutional foundation. And Erdogan, for all his problems, enjoyed a strong electoral mandate. But in April, a referendum marked by widespread allegations of fraud approved a package of proposals that dramatically increases Erdogan’s powers. This has coincided with the imprisonment of many in the country’s opposition, including leading Kurdish parliamentarians. Erdogan has even threatened to jail Turkey’s main opposition leader and used the threat of arrest to fend off challengers within his own base. This raises the question of what will happen when the pretense of democracy becomes harder to sustain. If political grievances and popular frustration can no longer be aired or addressed in parliament, they could quickly spill out onto the streets.

Meanwhile, sweeping post-coup-attempt purges have left the military increasingly distrustful and paranoid, exacerbating fissures that already existed within its ranks. Erdogan has also been working to create a variety of new organizations that are well-armed and personally loyal to him, elevating the possibility of civil conflict. Among other steps, the government has provided better weapons to special forces within the police and intelligence service in case they come into conflict with the military, as some did on the night of the failed coup. Erdogan has also worked to arm and organize private citizens, ranging from party members to newly formed civil-defense groups and existing youth movements such as the Ottoman Hearths. In a future crisis, or even in the face of widespread protests like those of 2013, this proliferation of armed actors increases the odds of a growing conflict with no cohesive national force that could quickly stem it.

As a result of this institutional collapse, Turkey’s government, state and society are ill-prepared to respond to the many threats the country is facing.

First, there is the economy. Despite numerous warnings and a dramatic drop in the value of the Turkish lira, the Turkish economy has so far avoided a long-predicted crisis. But this does not mean that the warnings are baseless. Economic growth has long fueled the popularity of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In its absence, Erdogan would need new scapegoats and new ways to prop up his supporters. As part of its post-coup purges, the government has already distributed more than $11 billion in seized assets to pro-Erdogan business people. If the economy falters and the government intensifies these efforts, it could create a vicious cycle of cascading investor confidence.

Turkey also faces a multifaceted terrorist threat that is likely to grow. The Islamic State has carried out a series of bombings in Turkey and has shown a consistent desire to strike targets that will exacerbate Turkey’s existing social divisions. As the Islamic State loses territory in Syria and Iraq, many fear it could fall back on its well-entrenched network within Turkey to spread instability and remain politically relevant. More recently, the possibility that Turkey could find itself at war with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, only intensifies the risk.

Finally, there is also reason to fear that Turkey’s long-running conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) could worsen. A particularly violent Kurdish faction recently threatened to launch a new wave of suicide attacks in western Turkey, while Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack PKK-linked Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Even if both sides avoid escalation, the government appears unready to seek out a political settlement — in part because this would generate a wave of anger among nationalists, the army and Erdogan’s base. As a result, the government is now forced to walk a narrow path between finding a politically unpopular compromise and continuing a destabilizing war.

The political, military and economic threats facing Turkey are not all of the government’s making. But the government’s response has consistently succeeded in making them worse. Paradoxically, as Erdogan continues to destabilize the country, he will increasingly come to appear as the only person capable of holding it together. Erdogan’s followers already believe that he alone can hold back the array of hostile forces tearing their country apart. The worst-case scenario is that Erdogan will push the country to the point where even he is no longer capable of maintaining stability.