The night of July 15 marked a distinct moment in Turkish democratic history as hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets to defy a coup attempt. Yet only a few months later, Turkish police moved to detain scores of members of parliament from pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP. In the months since the failed coup, tens of thousands of academics, journalists and civil society activists have been purged from their jobs, with many imprisoned. The government’s war with the PKK has escalated dramatically. A new collection, based on a Project on Middle East Political Science workshop held in collaboration with Rice University’s Baker Institute that included more than a dozen scholars of Turkey, poses a sobering question: Do we now have conclusive evidence that Turkey should no longer be considered a democracy?
The answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. The dramatic post-coup developments may be the political system’s evolution into a hybrid regime: competitive authoritarianism.
As defined by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, in competitive authoritarian regimes, “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.” Such political regimes blend democratic appearance with strong authoritarian features, ruling by “velvet fist.”
While the procedural democratic institutions operate in form, they are entirely devoid of substance. Executive, judicial, legislative, economic and media institutions are contorted in ways that advantage the governing party. Contemporary examples of competitive authoritarianism include Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary, Maduro’s — and formerly Chavez’s — Venezuela, Mohamad’s Malaysia, Sissi’s Egypt and now Erdogan’s Turkey.
Understanding Turkey’s evolution into such a hybrid regime helps reconcile the continuing importance of electoral institutions with the sharp deterioration in public freedoms. Well before the failed coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had begun pushing for constitutional changes to replace the parliamentary system in Turkey with a presidential one, which would centralize power in the presidency and weaken key checks and balances built into the parliamentary system.
Erdogan’s moves toward autocratic rule have little to do with his Islamism and a great deal to do with an utterly normal quest for temporal power. Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies, as revealed during the past half decade, look like those of any leader who has been in power too long and become incapable of imagining a state without him in charge.
Turkey’s democratic deterioration did not begin with this year’s failed coup. After years as a thriving democracy, data from Freedom House show that beginning in 2009, Turkey has experienced a sharply downward trend. Indicators of freedom of expression, pluralism, rule of law, freedom of association suffered the sharpest declines. This trend took a sharply downward turn around the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013 and fell again after the government escalated its confrontation with its Kurdish citizens following the AKP’s weak performance in the June 2015 parliamentary election.
But this does not mean that the failed coup had no impact. Just as the Arab uprisings drove challenged regimes to more extreme forms of repression, the failed coup triggered Erdogan’s extreme sense of threat from domestic enemies. His assault on state and civil society institutions, particularly against the media and academia, goes far beyond the reasonable. Unfortunately, many of the state and societal institutions that he associates with that threat are also the institutions that would traditionally provide structural defense against authoritarian descent. The very real recent coup experience makes it more difficult to parse out what is meant as defensive protection against another putsch and what is an offensive move against political enemies.
One way to determine whether Turkey should be viewed as a democracy or as a hybrid regime is if it is possible for the government to actually change through elections. The intense debate among scholars of Turkey at last month’s POMEPS workshop highlights that the answer is not immediately obvious. Some irregularities notwithstanding, elections are still rated as mostly free and fair. Both the government and the opposition have expressed commitment to upholding the electoral process, rejecting extra-democratic interventions and honoring the people’s will. The military’s influence on the democratic process had already been greatly reduced before the coup, and civilian oversight over the military is established. And only 18 months ago, the AKP did fail to win a parliamentary majority.
But if the June 2015 election proved that the AKP could lose, it also proved the party’s ability to remain in power despite defeat. Erdogan took advantage of the inability of his opponents to form a viable coalition and in August exercised his prerogative to call snap elections after the failure of coalition negotiations. The AKP then regained its majority in the November election. While deeply frustrating to Erdogan’s opponents, these political maneuvers fell well within the bounds of normal parliamentary politics. Less normal, however, was Erdogan’s decision to escalate war with the Kurds in the intervening period, effectively changing the political context to undermine the emergent HDP opposition party.
Since the failed coup, Erdogan has gone significantly further beyond the bounds of normal democratic politics in ways that could permanently change the systemic rules. The AKP has sought to channel the overwhelming outflow of support behind the democratically elected government into a more robust consolidation of power. This has most clearly been seen in the unprecedented purge against non-loyalists in the country. The AKP has accused the Islamist Gulen movement of sponsoring the coup, launching a shockingly wide ranging purge of alleged Gulenists in the bureaucracy and elsewhere. The purge has extended far beyond Gulenists, targeting Kurds, secular and liberal groups, and other political opponents.
The Turkish government’s assault on the infrastructure of democratic political life poses the sharpest challenge to the notion that the country can remain a democracy. In particular, its failure to uphold press freedom and the scale of purges of the opposition and independent civil society suggests an intention to pursue domination.
The state of press freedom and Internet freedom has suffered the most, ultimately bringing Turkey into the league of most repressive regimes around the world. Since the declaration of the State of Emergency on July 20, the number of media outlets shut down by the government soared to more than 170, including newspapers, magazines, radio stations, publishers and TV stations. Currently, 145 journalists are imprisoned, making Turkey the worst jailer of journalists globally. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 151 out of 180 countries worldwide in its 2016 World Press Freedom Index. Similarly, Turkey regularly slows or shuts down the Internet to certain regions, blocks access to social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp, and bars VPN services that help circumvent social media bans. On both press freedom and Internet freedom, Turkey has regressed into the “not free” category in Freedom House ratings.
Suppression of the media and the Internet primarily serves to stifle oppositional discourse and to intimidate critical voices, both of which are vital elements of democratic governance. A society that is ill-informed and collectively manipulated by censorship lacks the means to hold the government accountable for its actions.
A Turkish descent into autocracy has long been restrained not only by a robust democratic culture and strong civil society, but also by international alliances incentivizing democratic practice. Those international restraints have also weakened in recent years. Turkish foreign policy is quickly moving away from the historical anchors of democratization. Erdogan could not have helped but notice that the Obama administration did little in the face of Egypt’s military coup, Bahrain’s brutal sectarian repression, or the autocratic backsliding in most of its other regional allies. To this point, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has shown little interest in promoting democracy. Even if he did, American reliance on Turkey for its wars in Syria and Iraq, along with a rabidly anti-American nationalist discourse that dominates Turkish media, helps deflect any U.S. pressure on human rights or democracy. Meanwhile, the European Union has edged closer to suspending the long moribund European Union-Turkey accession talks. Turkey’s ties to NATO have weakened to historically low levels, while Turkish-Russian security cooperation is picking up pace. The Turkish government has indicated willingness to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Erdogan’s purge of political enemies, arrest of opposition politicians, and assault on political liberties, the media and civil society pose a direct and serious threat to the underpinnings of democracy. Many have also expressed their legitimate concerns about his bid to revise the constitution, concentrating powers in the presidency. Despite all this, the electoral system remains a silver lining, demonstrating the possibility — however distant it appears at this moment — for autocratic ambitions to be checked at the ballot box. As long as that chance exists, Turkey’s slide to authoritarianism will remain partial and potentially reversible. But regional and international trends suggest that any such pushback will have to come from within.
A. Kadir Yildirim is a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is the author of “Muslim Democratic Parties in the Middle East: Economy and Politics of Islamist Moderation,” (Indiana University Press, 2016).