The Nature of Political Regime in Turkey

Turkey’s Drift Away From Democracy: A Background

Time: Erdogan’s Moment

There is an emerging widespread consensus among scholars and journalists over the nature of the political regime in Turkey. One chief assumption rests at the center of countless diverse studies — Turkey is no longer a democracy and there is little space for free speech. Whether Turkey could be identified as a dictatorship still remains a matter of an ensuing academic controversy. The scholarly position oscillates between divergent viewpoints from “smart authoritarianism” to emerging fascism. The debate is not just about semantics or the epistemological dimension, it is about the essence and soul of the living system in Turkey.

“IN TURKEY under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the tweet has been turned into a crime, and a troubled democracy is being turned into a dictatorship. Gradually but inexorably, a nation that once aspired to be an exemplar of enlightened moderation is being transformed by Mr. Erdogan into a dreary totalitarian prison,”
The Washington Post wrote in an editorial last year.

The Post editorial reached its conclusion after a long take on how Erdogan’s government rolled back democratic gains of the recent decades. Certainly, the Post is not alone in its assessment.

The numbers are telling. The U.S. report underlines the statistics released by the Turkish Interior Ministry. The authorities, the report stated, “investigated 631,233 digital materials, monitored 110,000 social media publications, and detained 7,000 individual for social media posts.”

The Turkish president’s gradual power grab did not happen within one year. It rather took place stage by stage in a piecemeal fashion over the past several years. His political machinations chipped away at core elements of Turkey’s fragile democracy.

Not long before its descent into authoritarianism, Turkey aspired to be a model country for the rest of the region. A mixed combination of Islam and democracy, a rising economy with groundbreaking, novel E.U. reforms as part of the negotiations with Brussels for full membership were the hallmarks of Turkey’s inspiring success story.

“... Turkey is viewed as having played the “most constructive” role in the past year’s events and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, emerged as the most admired leader by far in the region, according to the 2011 edition of the annual “Arab Public Opinion Survey” conducted by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution,” Jim Lobe wrote for Institute for Policy Studies in 2011.

“Turkey is the biggest winner of the Arab Spring,” wrote Telhami who led the survey in 2011 to measure the public reaction and expectations across the region swept by a wave of demonstrations toppling long-running autocrats. The scholar noted further:

“In the five countries polled, Turkey is seen to have played the “most constructive” role in the Arab events. Its prime minister, Recep Erdoğan, is the most admired among world leaders, and those who envision a new president for Egypt want the new president to look most like Erdoğan. Egyptians want their country to look more like Turkey than any of the other Muslim, Arab and other choices provided.”

During the first decade of its spell in power, the Islamist-rooted AKP’s displayed commitment to democracy and its reform-driven agenda to acquire E.U. membership for Turkey upended the long-held belief that political Islam and democracy would not coexist peacefully in a properly functioning fashion. Until an illiberal and undemocratic turn in the early 2010s, President Erdogan’s rule proved otherwise, boosting confidence in the belief that conservative and Islamist-oriented parties would reconcile their worldview with the demands and necessities of democratic politics.

But as scholars increasingly came to believe that the Arab Spring was a lost opportunity for the Erdogan administration’s loyalty to democracy. Lured by the emerging geopolitical opportunities during the Arab Spring in the Middle East, Turkey sought to project its power across the region. Ankara employed elements of hard power at the expense of its hard-won soft power, chipping away at the prestige it earned after arduous efforts and making Turkey susceptible and open to the spillover of the regional conflicts. The Syrian civil war and Turkey’s policies have been the most known contours of this embroilment and over-stretch of Ankara’s diplomatic as well as military clout, mostly to the detriment of the country’s interests.

While the Syrian conflict dragged Turkey into uncharted territory with profound diplomatic and military ramifications for Ankara’s regional foreign and security policies, the Turkish domestic politics would not escape unscathed and unaffected from the conflict. The refugee flow, the challenging incorporation of more than 3,5 million Syrians into Turkey’s social fabric, and the emergence of security threats after open border policy created additional pitfalls for the government in Ankara. The social and economic cost of accommodating Syrians also became a politically divisive issue.

Contours of Authoritarianism

These course of events in the internal and external realm appears to have inexorably anchored Turkey in an illiberal political setting. The scale and pace of Turkey’s drift into the grip of full-blown authoritarianism after the failed coup in 2016 is completely a different story. The post-2016 Turkey resembles a different country as it underwent a seismic change in all facets and layers of the body politic.

After praising Turkey’s democratic reforms during the 2000s, Peter S. Goodman, a London-based European economics correspondent for The New York Times, detected a similar collapse over the course of past years. He wrote for The Times last year:

“But that was before Mr. Erdogan began amassing supreme powers, and before his brutal crackdown on dissent following an attempted coup two years ago. It was before Turkey descended into a financial crisis delivered in no small measure by his authoritarian proclivities and unorthodox stewardship of the economy. Whatever was left of the notion that Mr. Erdogan was a liberalizing force has been wholly extinguished.”

“For the West,” he added, “Mr. Erdogan has devolved from a righteous hope — would-be proof that Islam and democracy can peacefully coexist — into another autocrat whose populism, bombast and contempt for the ledger books have yielded calamity.”

The failed coup ushered in a new era and prompted a new form of commentary that increasingly began to use the concept of dictatorship and dictator when they analyzed the transformation of both the political landscape and President Erdogan himself.

David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, likened Erdogan to Stalin. “Erdogan’s “inner Stalin” is unleashed,” he wrote five days after the coup.

Turkey’s authorities launched a massive purge within the public sector and security bureaucracy, with little regard for the purge’s calamitous and pernicious implications for the integrity and functional health of the institutions. The Columbia scholar, who also served at the State Department in the past administrations of Clinton, Bush and Obama, argued that Erdogan was turning Turkey into a giant Gulag.

The Emergence of One-Man Rule

The failed coup against Erdogan, Bloomberg columnist Noah Feldman wrote, “turned out to be a godsend because it allowed him to end the separation of powers.”

Feldman opined that “the only institutions capable of counterbalancing Erdogan were the military and the courts.”

“The failed coup gave Erdogan the opening to purge the judiciary and military of opponents and skeptics, indeed anyone who wasn’t a reliable loyalist. That left no one to balance Erdogan — and no reason for him to stick with democratic rule,” he wrote in a column in May 2017.

The post-coup purge and crackdown have left no doubt about the political trajectory of the government. The declaration of emergency rule, which was extended seven more times after the expiration of its three-month period, allowed the Turkish government to bypass and circumvent constitutional safeguards protecting individual rights and defendants’ rights to a fair trial, legal counsel and etc. The story of the post-coup clampdown was well documented by countless reports by international organizations, therefore there would only be a passing mention here.

As scholars are divided over how to identify the character of the regime in Ankara, there is no doubt about its authoritarian nature.

“Erdoğan’s relentless political chicanery offers a roadmap to today’s populist dictators on how to engineer apparently democratic triumphs on their way to disabling democracy,” the Forbes columnist Melik Kaylan wrote in an article for Politico after a controversial referendum in April 2017.15 The vote was marred by widespread allegations of voter fraud after the Supreme Election Council (YSK), under political pressure, decided to accept more than 1.5 million unstamped ballot papers at last minute. The ruling swayed the vote in favor of the ‘Yes’ camp of President Erdogan whose lifelong push for an executive presidential system materialized with the controversial win the constitutional referendum.

He summarized the authoritarian playbook of the Turkish strongman as follows:

“Erdoğan deliberately provoked chaos then offered himself up as a solution. He allowed ISIS to operate openly in Turkey; he ignited a civil war against the Kurdish population to punish them for voting against him in a crucial national election; he kept the Syrian border porous so the instability there would migrate into Turkey. He persecuted the military until they revolted, accusing outside forces of fomenting the trouble, most recently the Gülenists. With rolling Robespierre-like prosecutions, he warned half the country that opposing him will wreck their lives. He destroyed the economy but subsidized his supporters.”

His analysis reveals the government’s consistent attempts to hollow out Turkey’s once- functioning institutions in a brazen manner. Whatever has the government done since the Gezi protests served to consolidate Erdogan’s position by making the entire political system dependent on one personality with little regard for the institutional degeneration engendered by the whole course of political events.

“The only way Erdoğan has achieved any political success is by using the body politic against itself,” Kaylan wrote. “In essence,” the columnist argued, the Turkish president “has delegitimized governance in order to present himself as the only way to restore it.”

The post-referendum commentary was almost united in their assessment of what the April vote in 2017 meant for the future of Turkey’s political system. The constitutional amendment bestowed enormous powers at the president’s office, undoing the central tenets of the almost century-old parliamentary system of the Republic.

Writing a day after the referendum, Roy Gutman from The Daily Beast contended that “the result will be a system under which there’s no prime minister, where the parliament will be weakened to the point of being a rubber stamp, and the judiciary will become still more subservient than it is already.”

He went on to say: “The path to one-man rule — opponents talk of a “dictatorship” — is the story of a politician with a gut instinct for gaining power who’s seized on every political setback that’s come his way in the past two years and turned it into an opportunity to advance his ambitions.”

Following the presidential election in 2018, the president assumed vast powers normally accrued to a new breed of global strongmen around the world.

A New York Times article summarized the changes introduced as follows:

“The prime minister’s office has been abolished; The military has been brought under firmer civilian control; The president will draft the budget and choose judges and many top officials; The president can dismiss Parliament and call new elections at will; The president appoints the head of the National Intelligence Agency, the Religious Affairs Directorate and the Central Bank, as well as ambassadors, governors and university rectors, among other top bureaucrats; Virtually none of the president’s appointments require a confirmation process.”

One year since the election has confirmed the existence of the one-man rule in Turkey. President Erdogan’s style of governance, however, backfired on March 31 local elections. He lost major cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, as of this report’s publication.

But in between, the president began to dismantle some core institutions of the Republic, while establishing a direct rule over the entire apparatus of the executive branch. Once unthinkable and inconceivable, outside observers and experts no longer shy away from depicting Erdogan’s Turkey as an emerging dictatorship. However contested the academic label it may be, the country moves between authoritarianism and dictatorship with more and more articles calling the Turkish leader as a “dictator.”

In this context and against this backdrop, Turkey’s legal and diplomatic actions on a global scale must be understood and reviewed. Needless to say, the political nature of the regime has direct implications for the ongoing trials in Turkey. Trials against actual coup plotters aside, the majority of the trials against opponents in the post-coup era are politically motivated.

This point is not lost on the international community as well. The U.S. report underlined that “security forces have detained tens of thousands of individuals, including U.S. citizens, for alleged affiliations with terrorist organizations based on scant or secret evidence and grounds that appear to be politically motivated.” The U.S. State Department warned the U.S. citizens over traveling to Turkey, citing the prospect of arbitrary arrests.