As a horde of passionate supporters gathered outside the presidential palace in Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chanted, “bye-bye Kemal” in the wake of his victory in the Turkish runoff elections. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, his defeated rival, declared that this election was “the most unjust ever” and that he would continue “to be at the forefront of this struggle until real democracy comes to our country.” These statements illuminate the thorny terrain of Turkish politics, as Erdogan heralds a dark period of democratic backsliding and a major shift in the international order.
Erdogan, who represents the Justice and Development Party and is entering his third term in office, has been credited with fueling infrastructure development, expanding access to healthcare, and growing the ranks of the Turkish middle class by making credit more widely accessible. Still, his political legacy of over 20 years is shadowed by corruption and repression. Erdogan’s second term entailed economic upheaval, a disastrous earthquake which killed over 40,000 Turks due to poor building controls, the weakening of Turkey’s relationship with the West, and increasingly authoritarian modes of governance.
In light of these developments, over 25 million Turks voted for Kilicdaroglu, who represented a coalition of six opposition parties and offered a refreshing advocacy for restoring “true democracy,” repairing the flagging economy, and rethinking Turkey’s role on the international stage. Overall, while Erdogan amassed 52.18% of the vote, Kilicdaroglu achieved a close 47.82%, illustrating the Turkish people’s growing frustration with Erdogan.
Turkey’s disappointing democratic deterioration tilted the playing field in Erdogan’s favor. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Turkish government and its cronies own approximately 90% of the nation’s media. Biased, limited media coverage harmed Kilicdaroglu’s campaign greatly; while Erdogan received 32 hours of airtime on the primary state-run TV station, Kilicdaroglu received a mere 32 minutes. Erdogan has also ruthlessly targeted members of the press; his government closed 180 media outlets and imprisoned over 120 journalists following the 2016 coup attempt against him. In the year 2020 alone, the Turkish government also initiated over 30,000 civil cases on account of “insulting the president.”
Erdogan’s authoritarian reach extends far beyond his attack on the press. As the political scientist Soner Cagaptay argues in his book “The New Sultan,” Erdogan has played the “authoritarian underdog” by highlighting the persecution that Islamists faced under Turkey’s former secularist system to justify his ongoing efforts to suppress opposition. Erdogan has seized control of courts and the organizations that oversee elections, passed laws to limit criticism circulating on social media platforms, seized the assets of political opponents, and in the aftermath of the abortive 2016 coup, arrested over 40,000 dissenters. Most notably, with narrow approval in a referendum marred by allegations of election fraud, Erdogan shifted the nation’s parliamentary system to a presidential system, thus placing all three branches of government under his iron fist. Erdogan’s illiberal innovations are derived straight from the playbook of today’s growing cohort of illiberal democracies, which include Hungary, Poland, India, and Mexico.
Erdogan owes his success, in part, to Turkey’s tumultuous political history, which predisposed the nation to authoritarian leadership. As a consequence of Turkey’s pattern of violent coups and anarchic political instability, Turkey has long accepted “big man” rule. Finding refuge in the security guaranteed by a strong state, the Turkish people have historically supported bold, nationalistic leaders from Ataturk to Erdogan, who are hailed as political heroes despite their corruption and their Napoleonic tendencies to greedily seize power. Many Turks are willing to relinquish, in a distinctly Hobbesian exchange, certain civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, to avoid anarchy. In recent years, a substantial minority of Turkish voters have turned against Erdogan, mainly due to economic woes. In the face of this growing opposition, Erdogan’s thorough assault on democracy has been instrumental in securing his political position.
The West has also had a hand in Turkey’s democratic demise. 20 years ago, international alliances incentivized Turkey’s liberal reforms. In the hopes of eventually joining the EU and gaining access to European markets, Erdogan remained moderate and kickstarted the process of democratization. Turkey eliminated the death penalty, placed the military under civilian control, and abolished state security courts, which were infamous for perpetuating massive miscarriages of justice.
Turkey’s dreams of EU accession were soon crushed. Reticence amongst Christian EU leaders and tensions in the Mediterranean with Cyprus served as significant barriers to entry. Many EU members proposed that Turkey instead be granted a “privileged partnership,” which entails increased cooperation between the EU and non-member states, as an alternative to full-time membership; Turkey immediately rejected this proposal. The EU then further alienated Turkey in two ways: first, by disinviting the leaders of candidate countries to EU bi-annual summits and second, by eliminating the requirement on these nations to present reports every six months on the liberal reforms they had enacted in the hopes of eventual accession.
From 2015 to 2016, Turkey briefly gained political leverage over the EU by accepting Syrian and Afghan refugees that otherwise would have flooded Europe. In 2016, though, the coup attempt in Turkey disheartened European leaders. Turkey and the EU drifted further, crushing Erdogan’s hope of Turkey’s accession being completed by 2023 to align with the Republic’s 100th anniversary. The failure of the EU to offer Turkey an enduring and realistic hope of EU accession has incentivized Erdogan to abandon the democratic project, which he viewed solely as “a means to an end” — an entrance ticket to the elite club of European countries taunting Turkey with the hope of acceptance.
Similarly, the United States failed to use its powerful pull to raise Turkey to new democratic heights. Erdogan shrewdly observed that the Obama administration did not credibly intervene during Egypt’s military coup or Bahrain’s sectarian oppression. It logically followed that Turkey, an ally that the United States relied on to address conflicts in Syria and Iraq, could easily skirt pressure to protect human rights and democracy. Trump also made no meaningful efforts to promote liberal values in Turkey, instead assisting Erdogan’s interventions in Syria and Libya and bringing the two leaders’ families together to craft mutually beneficial business deals.
In the face of Western weakness and exclusion, Erdogan has now become a thorn in NATO’s side. He has previously wielded his veto to block Finland and Sweden from joining the alliance despite their security concerns following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After finally backing Finland’s NATO bid, he maintained reservations about Sweden. On July 10, 2023, on the eve of a NATO summit in Lithuania, Erdogan argued that Turkey’s admission to the EU should be a prerequisite to Sweden’s admission to NATO. “First, let’s clear Turkey’s way in the European Union, then let’s clear the way for Sweden,” Erdogan declared. “Turkey has been waiting at the gate of the European Union for over 50 years now,” he noted. Still, he ultimately backed Sweden’s NATO bid after receiving assurances that Stockholm would enhance counter-terrorism cooperation against the PKK, a long-running Kurdish militant nationalist group that seeks the creation of an independent Kurdish state.
During his time in office, Erdogan has also formed relationships with other authoritarian leaders, such as Vladimir Putin. Erdogan purchased Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems despite strong objections by the US, which then kicked Turkey out of NATO’s F-35 program. He also formed bilateral energy and economic ties with Russia through cooperation on the construction of the $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant.
In the mid-1990s, Erdogan reportedly stated: “Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” Now, not only has Erdogan stepped off, but the tram has fallen off the tracks and into a ravine. The next five years should be a wake-up call for the West. It is vital that the United States and the EU incentivize democratic development in Turkey and foster a more productive partnership with this now authoritarian nation to safeguard democracy and liberal values on the international stage.
Source : HarvardPoliticalReview