The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, Erdogan was not an authoritarian all along

A combination of E.U. mishandling and domestic developments propelled Turkey to where it is now.

A poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hangs above Istanbul’s Taksim Square. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

With last Sunday’s controversial and contested referendum, Turkey’s nondemocratic future is clear. The 18 constitutional amendments that Turks approved promise to set the country firmly in an authoritarian direction that will be difficult to reverse. With broad new powers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can rule with virtual impunity. The conduct of the referendum, which international observers have declared unfair, and its outcome are part of a broader story about Turkey’s transformation from a once-promising candidate for European Union membership to autocracy. How did this happen?

There are a number of competing and hotly debated explanations. For many Turks and Western analysts, the answer is straightforward: Erdogan is, and has always been, an authoritarian. It is a compelling argument. Over the past decade, Erdogan has jailed large numbers of journalists and opponents, decapitated the armed forces, employed force against peaceful protesters, and manipulated Turkey’s political institutions to ensure his and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) dominance of the political arena.

For all its appeal, though, the claim is a little too neat and fails to account for the messy contingencies of politics, missed opportunities and competing worldviews. It is impossible to know what is in people’s hearts and minds, but Turkey’s return to one-man rule may be as much about the dynamic interaction of the country’s domestic political struggles, the choices that Europeans have made, those that Americans did not make and, yes, Erdogan’s worldview.

The idea that Erdogan is nothing more than a power-seeking megalomaniac is hard to reconcile with his first term as prime minister. After he assumed that office in March 2003, he oversaw three rounds of political reforms, including diminishing the role of the military in politics, strengthening the freedom of the press, doing away with state security courts and changing the penal code.

At the time, the country’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, argued that it was Europe’s magnetic pull that had encouraged the government to act with speed to pass and implement the reforms. And the E.U. reciprocated with an invitation for Turkey to begin negotiations to join its exclusive club of democracies. Officials in Brussels reasoned that the membership process would be a powerful incentive for Turkey’s leaders to build on the work they had begun, creating a virtuous cycle of reform and progressive change.

It did not work out that way, leading critics to charge in a subtle but unmistakably conspiratorial way that Erdogan was never much interested in democracy. The reforms were a ruse, they suggested, intended to do just enough to weaken the military in particular — a pillar of Turkey’s secular, republican system — and transform the country in accord with the religious and moral values of the AKP and its core constituency. The idea of Erdogan as an evil genius was sealed with the revelation that he once declared democracy to be like a “streetcar” that one could get on and off as one’s interests dictated. It was a troubling and even revealing statement, but only part of the story.

Erdogan is an extraordinarily shrewd and paranoid politician, character traits that feed off of, and complement, each other. His fears are compounded by the fact that the military high command and the Constitutional Court shuttered four of the AKP’s predecessor parties between 1971 and 2001 for anti-secular activities. Their leaders were also banned from politics for varying periods of time. In the late 1990s, Erdogan himself served prison time for reciting a nationalist poem that was nevertheless regarded as a provocation when he, an Islamist politician, uttered it. And in 2007, the Turkish General Staff attempted to prevent Gul from becoming president because his wife wears a hijab, an indicator of reactionary values for Turkey’s ideologically committed secularists. Gul eventually became president that summer, after Erdogan called early elections and the AKP won 47 percent of the popular vote, forcing the officers to back down.

It is perhaps not surprising that after the Gul episode, Erdogan first availed himself of authoritarian means to undermine his opponents. The military’s unsuccessful effort to prevent Gul’s presidency came about the same time as revelations of an alleged plot among military officers, intellectuals, journalists and others to destabilize the country to trigger a coup. Erdogan and his allies at the time — primarily followers of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is now public enemy No. 1 in Turkey — turned the supposed conspiracy into a conspiracy of their own, using trumped-up charges and forged evidence to arrest their opponents. Then, in 2008, prosecutors brought a case against the AKP in Turkey’s Constitutional Court, charging the party with being a “center for anti-secular activities” and seeking its closure. The party narrowly escaped that fate and was forced to pay a $20 million fine instead.

Taken together, these episodes amounted to victories for Erdogan, but they convinced him that Turkey’s elites would never rest until the AKP was brought low. That helps explain why, in the years that followed, he reined in the military, used state organizations such as the tax authority to intimidate unfriendly members of Turkey’s traditional establishment, and transformed the country’s once-freewheeling but decidedly flawed press into a virtual ministry of information. Of course, this past July’s failed coup attempt further heightened his paranoia, compelling him to intensify the ongoing purge of his opponents.

That’s the Turkish part of the story, but external developments have also played a role. Whereas the promise of E.U. membership once encouraged reforms, Europe’s ambivalence after negotiations began undermined them. This wavering was a result of collective disbelief that the Turks had undertaken enough reforms to start negotiations and, even more central, uncertainty among Europeans about the nature of their union. Was it a club of democracies that were coterminous with predominantly Christian countries, or was it based on shared values, ideals and norms?

The Turks thought they understood the answer when, not long after negotiations began, they stalled over the issue of Cyprus. The Turks were reluctant to open up trade with the Republic of Cyprus until the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots on the island was resolved. E.U. members objected — and they may have been right to do so. But the Turks saw only a pretense to deny them a place in Europe.

Those suspicions were reinforced when the French and Austrian governments declared that they would hold referenda on Turkey’s membership even after the successful completion of negotiations — a measure these governments never contemplated for other E.U. candidates. The Turks felt disrespected by leaders such as then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who greeted Gul in Paris in 2009 while chomping on a piece of gum. With Europe making it clear that a large, overwhelmingly Muslim nation was not welcome, public support in Turkey for the E.U. project, which was as high as 73 percent in 2004, registered as low as 40 percent in 2007, leaving the country with no external anchor for reform.

When the prospects for E.U. membership seemed real, Erdogan pursued consensus and represented diverse constituencies of liberals, Kurds, conservatives, business leaders and average Turks. But without that incentive, compromise fell by the wayside and polarization became a political strategy, as the Turkish leader sought to crush his opponents.

Lest Americans believe they had no role to play in Turkey’s authoritarian direction, Washington has much to answer for as well. Because Turkey is regarded as an ally in so many areas of importance to the United States — including the Middle East, Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, the Caucuses and Central Asia — successive U.S. administrations have been loath to publicly criticize Erdogan and the AKP for their domestic excesses. Regardless of what might have been said in private, Turkey’s ruling party used American reluctance to call it out, especially during the Obama years, as license to continue to repress and intimidate its opponents. This may seem like a good, if cynical, trade-off for Turkish and U.S. interests that are aligned in areas such as fighting the Islamic State, managing the conflict in Syria and containing Iran. And yes, publicly chastising Erdogan may not have changed his behavior. But it would have signaled American support for principles the United States holds dear — and that at least some of the Turkish leader’s opponents share.

Many Turks bristle at the suggestion that Erdogan does not seek power merely for the sake of power. It may be emotionally satisfying for them to believe this. However, as undoubtedly undemocratic as Erdogan’s outlook is, it is important to understand that the circumstances in which Turks now find themselves are a product of their country’s contested political environment, which is often defined in existential terms; European cynicism; and American indifference to anything other than security. The unfortunate result is a country that is both authoritarian and unstable.