The Death of Democracy in Turkey
On the History of Erdoğan’s Reign of Repression
By Molly O’Connor
Since the age of Atatürk, Turkey has become a major player in the international political landscape. Moreover, in the past 50 years, its location, as the buffer between Europe and the Middle East, has made it an important ally of the United States and Western European countries.
With this increasingly important role as a mediator between nations, Turkey’s prominence grew; in 1999 Turkey was given formal candidacy status by the European Union. As the nation became increasingly invested in becoming a member of the European Union the potential for consolidated liberal democracy grew. Not only did the people support it, but the politicians seemed truly dedicated to making the necessary changes, even if it meant sacrificing political power. Turkish citizens would later find that this supposed commitment was shallow at best.
When the current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (JDP), took control of the parliament in 2002 they lead a vigorous effort to meet the political, economic and social requirements of the European Union. However, when Turkey began to make noticeable progress, Western nations voiced their concerns about actually letting the country join the community. This gave JDP politicians the excuse they needed to halt their pursuit of membership.
The current Turkish government rose to power by promising democracy and stayed in power for the last 12 years by practicing authoritarianism.
Turkey’s bid for European Union membership is the perfect example of the trend that has emerged in Turkish politics since the ascension of the JDP: the party promises to pass progressive, democratic policies in order to win elections, breaks these promises in favor of more conservative options once they have taken office, and then uses their newfound political power to suppress opposition and consolidate power. In short, the current Turkish government rose to power by promising democracy and stayed in power for the last 12 years by practicing authoritarianism.
It is important to understand that when the JDP took power in 2002 they did so through a tradition of grassroots political activism. During the previous half decade, Turkish politics had been dominated by the Republican People’s Party (RPP)—the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923—which had lost sight of its founding principles in the wake of unchallenged political power. The RPP was out of touch with the needs of the Turkish citizens. Furthermore, the party came under intense scrutiny when corruption allegations were filed against leadership and rank and file members alike.
The loss of credibility was fatal for the RPP, which suffered a monumental loss to the JDP in the 2002 elections. The level of success that the JDP saw in just their second year as a political party in Turkey was the result of a specific set of circumstances. The country had grown tired of the RPP, as the party was not responding to their needs. This made them skeptical of their ability to effectively govern the country. As faith in the RPP was at an all time low, rumors of corruption emerged all over Turkey. This allowed opposition parties to paint the RPP as an out of touch party that claimed a right to rule through its long history in government rather than through the will of the people.
Additionally, the JDP rose to power by supporting small, conservative Islamic communities in need. The party promised to support conservative democracy. This dual natured promise appealed to a wide section of Turkish society: on the one hand, their promise to carry out responsible and conservative government appealed to many right-wing Islamic voters who were ignored under the RPP government, and on the other hand, their dedication to democracy and its principles attracted many left-wing voters and recent RPP deserters.
It would be unreasonable to assume that the JDP campaigned on a platform they did not believe in at all. However, it is impossible to deny that, as their tenure in government has continued, they have abandoned these principles in favor of power-centralizing policies and authoritarian maneuvers. The steps away from democracy can be seen in three areas: elections, equal opportunity for political opposition, and civil liberties and individual rights.
In 2002 the JDP won the general elections fairly, taking two-thirds of the seats in the legislature. However, in 2008 the JDP government changed the voting system from a voluntary registration system to an address based system. In effect, voting was no longer a choice but a requirement. Complaints surfaced that the JDP was registering voters at addresses that did not exist and then using that vote as support for their candidates. The government quickly dealt with the allegations by destroying all public records used for the address-based system—political accountability at its best.
Not only has the voting system been jeopardized by sketchy JDP policy, but the purpose of elections has been severely distorted under the rule of current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In democratic regimes elections are opportunities for the governed to make their voices heard. But in this twisted so-called democracy, elections are used by the JDP and Erdoğan to reassert their right to rule unchecked. The party has undertaken a project of rigging the elections and then using their landslide victories to claim legitimate authority as sole representatives of the national will. This role, they argue, gives them the right to rule as they see fit without restraint.
In a fully functioning democracy this would never occur. However, the checks and balances that flourish in consolidated democratic regimes are absent in Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government. Voters do not have the opportunity to voice their discontent with JDP government in any arena of life. There is no loyal opposition party because Erdoğan has eliminated all viable opposition parties by consolidating political resources and manipulating the laws of political competition. Additionally, the JDP has a monopoly on state resources including media, which increases their visibility and instills the sense that they are only party capable of winning elections in Turkey.
Although the right to assembly, freedom of religion and freedom of expression are individual rights guaranteed in the Turkish constitution, the realization of these rights has yet to occur within the country. The right to assembly is routinely violated in the country; last year’s protest in Gezi park, İstanbul’s central Taksim area, was met with extreme police brutality. Police violence as the primary response to peaceful protest has increased over the past 5 years in Turkey, especially in urban centers such as İstanbul and Ankara.
The checks and balances that flourish in consolidated democratic regimes are absent in Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government.
Furthermore, freedom of expression has been severely curtailed by the current regime. Not only has the government forcibly shut down media outlets that report contradictory opinions or information, but also ruling elites have acquired controlling majority shares of the top media companies in the country and used this role to control content.
Turkey has always suffered from a fragmented, even confrontational, civil society. The country was formed post-WWII, and when the allied powers were drawing up Turkey’s borders, they made no considerations of ethnic, religious, or national differences. The result was a country that contained diverse ethnic and religious groups with a history of deep-seated conflict. For example, the borders broke the Kurdish ethnic group between three countries, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. The Kurds, previously one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East, became a minority in all three countries. The conflict between the minority Kurds and the majority Turks within the Turkish Republic escalated over the years and is still a major problem in the country today.
The JDP played on these divisions in society to win the 2002 election. Under the RPP, religion was relegated to the background. Atatürk pursued a policy of assertive secularism, in which everyone had the freedom to practice their religion, but public displays of religiosity were strictly prohibited. As a result of this secularism, Muslims felt that their rights were violated. This is a serious problem, as Turkey is 98% Muslim. The RPP continued to support Atatürk’s policies, which left a religious vacuum on which the JDP could capitalize. Erdoğan and his followers campaigned by promising to pursue Islamic democracy—a regime that would pursue democratic ideals but under an Islamic morality.
These ideas seemed reasonable in the early 2000s, and the government even pursued democracy and democratic policies through 2005. However, when it became clear that Turkey would not be allowed to continue its bid for European Union membership in 2006, the party quickly abandoned its attempts and turned inwards. As Erdoğan and the JDP became less concerned with fulfilling the democratic requirements of the European Union and maintaining a positive image outside its borders, the government devolved into authoritarian practices.
Today, Turkish politics is defined by the anti-democratic decisions and absurd statements made by Erdoğan. In 2013 he responded violently to the peaceful protest of a few dozen environmentalists in Gezi Park. His extreme and despotic response caused thousands of people to join the protests. The ensuing event lasted weeks and brought together segments of the Turkish population which had previously spent decades bitterly feuding. Erdoğan’s response was to dispatch thousands of police officers equipped with tear gas and riot gear to break up the peaceful proceedings. He used his mass media machine to paint the protesters as terrorists and criminals. The international population was not fooled by Erdoğan’s political manipulation, and the blow to Turkish democratic legitimacy was considerable.
More recently the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister said that women should “not laugh in public.” The comment was met with considerable backlash from the international community and from secular Turks alike. The JDP has been criticized for its not-so-subtly religious agenda, but these complaints have been voiced to no avail.
As long as the Justice and Development Party and Recep Tayip Erdoğan are in power it is likely that Turkey will never see true democracy. They have thus far consolidated their power and isolated themselves from criticism so much so that there exists no incentive to change their authoritarian ways.