Turkey: A Strikingly Familiar Tale of a Democracy in Decline

Late last year Turkey’s Chief Prosecutor issued a warrant for former CIA officer, Graham Fuller, alleging links between Fuller and Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen marking the latest chapter of the disintegration of liberal democracy in a nation that just a few years ago appeared to be a democratic success story. The modern nation of Turkey transformed itself from an Ottoman monarchy into a multi-party elected government in 1923, paving the way for a free, secular system of governance. Under Mustafa Kemal, or “Ataturk” as he is commonly known, Turkey underwent a series of substantial reforms that eventually led to an election-based political system. Despite this shift, however, Turkey has continued to undergo cycles of political unrest which have resulted in violent military coups and instability in the nation’s political and social standards. The latest series of threats to Turkish democracy has come about under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has consolidated power into what is becoming an increasingly authoritarian regime. 

Turkey has enjoyed a multi-party electoral system since 1950 when the opposition Democrat Party won its first election. Since then, more than ten political parties have formed and gained recognition in democratic races for political office. Despite these free elections, however, Turkey has suffered three military coups between 1960 and 1980 – all of which proved unsuccessful in bringing about long-term regime change. In 1997, a “post-modern coup” was facilitated to oust the Islamic-controlled government under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, effectively ending his coalition government. A few years later in 2002, founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected Prime Minister, effectively launching Turkey back into autocratic and theocratic governance. Erdogan then went on to assume the presidency in 2014, campaigning on a platform of traditional Islamic values. His ties to a more traditional form of the religion go back as far as the 1970s when he took part in Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party. He was also jailed in 1999 for reading a controversial nationalist poem and multiple statements on why men and women cannot be treated equally. The promotion of this more traditional and radical form of Islam has led to a gradual dismantling of the secularism advanced by Ataturk. 

The most recent outbreak of violence took place on July 15, 2016. Just over a year ago, Turkey witnessed the death of 265 people and the injury of more than 2,000.  This clash between Turkey’s military and its government points to a larger overall issue of stability in their democratic system. But what caused the sudden conflict? Since his election, Erdogan had begun to take steps to consolidate his own power at the expense of rule of law by arresting opposing journalists, closing down newspapers and deposing his own Prime Minister in favor of a more obedient follower. Further, Erdogan has proven to be a supporter of a theocratic state, going as far as to close down secular schools and expand alcohol prohibitions, undermining the separation between religion and state that Ataturk put in place almost 100 years before. This blatant disregard for the principles upon which modern Turkey was founded led to substantial unrest among both civilians and military, eventually erupting in an attempted coup d’état. President Erdogan was quick to blame religious leader and staunch opponent Fethullah Gulen for causing the military’s revolt. However, Foreign Policy reports that [The Turkish military leaders] blame Erdogan and his AKP followers for dismantling Ataturk’s secular republic; for having built up the murderous Sunni extremists of Syria who are now spilling back into Turkey to conduct suicide bombings; and for deliberately restarting the war against the country’s Kurds in 2015 for political reasons — a war that is costing soldiers’ lives every day and threatens the survival of Turkey itself within its present borders. (Kurds are a net majority in the eastern provinces.)” Despite the failure of the military’s coup due to dissension in the ranks of the plotters, the conflict illustrated the controversial nature of Erdogan’s move towards authoritarian rule.

Following the attempted coup, President Erdogan enacted a massive purge of citizens with any connection to Fethullah Gulen’s movement, resulting in more than 50,000 people imprisoned and the seizure of more than $10 billion of assets from private companies.

Despite the 2016 coup’s threats to Erdogan’s support, he has continued to take active measures to seize greater control of Turkey’s government. On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum vote deciding whether to do away with the parliamentary system, abolish the prime minister’s role and expand the powers of the President. Winning by a close margin, Erdogan’s proposal to create an executive presidency spurred widespread protests by the opposition which suspected the election had been won through voter fraud. Inconsistencies within the vote led European monitors to believe that international election standards had not been upheld, prompting global criticism from the Council of Europe and other organizations.

Turkey’s move toward authoritarian rule has dire economic consequences as an erosion of rule of law generally does not create a climate hospitable to free markets. Immediately following the 2016 attacks, Turkey’s tourism industry found itself in a state of decline with the overall economy slowing to 3.5 percent for the year.  Turkey’s vanishing prospects to join the European Union are another casualty of the country’s authoritarian turn – the European Parliament decided in November 2016 to suspend talks on the matter until further notice. The April 2017 referendum vote further solidified the end of Turkish accession discussions, confirming the threat that Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism poses to its economy.

Irrespective of whether the referendum’s results are enacted or not, these recent developments reveal a Turkey plagued by a steady erosion of democratic rule of law and of secular government. As we have seen with countries like Poland, the Philippines, Cambodia and Venezuela, new challenges to liberal democracy are rising globally. The West’s reliance on Turkey as a stabilizing force within the Middle East makes these recent developments particularly alarming.

In Depth: Federalism

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