Erdogan: The Savior-Turned-Destroyer of Turkish Democracy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

by Derek Davison

Turkey’s political landscape wasn’t supposed to look like this.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won almost two-thirds of the seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly in 2002, it looked like a positive sign for the state of Turkish democracy. The AKP grew out of the remnants of the religiously conservative Welfare Party (RP), which led the Turkish government for one year, from June 1996 through June 1997, before its leaders were forced to resign under threat of a military coup to remove them from office. The RP was then disbanded in 1998 by Turkey’s Constitutional Court for allegedly violating the constitutional requirement that all Turkish political parties adhere to a policy of secularism.

The RP’s ouster in 1997, often referred to as a “post-modern coup,” was one in a long string of military and/or judicial interventions into Turkish politics since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey following World War I. The Turkish military establishment and the republic’s constitutional court—which together make up part of Turkey’s so-called “deep state”—has traditionally viewed themselves as the republic’s last line of defense against any perceived threat to Turkey’s secular order. One or the other has intervened in civilian politics to shut down Islamist political parties on multiple occasions, undermining elected governments that had, by the deep state’s standards, moved too far away from strict Kemalist ideology. But every time the military or the court eliminated an Islamist party, a new one arose to take its place.

A democratic republic whose military and high court take it upon themselves to overturn election results for ideological reasons may struggle to maintain its democracy. The election of the AKP, formed from among the Islamist Welfare Party’s remnants and led by Erdogan, a former RP member, was a new test of the Turkish political system and its ability to withstand the interference of the deep state. And, for a while at least, everybody seemed to pass the test. The AKP shifted from outright Islamism to a broader conservative platform, which made it less threatening to the deep-state establishment. Under new Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership, it strengthened the Turkish economy, improved social welfare programs, and began to make peace with Turkey’s Kurdish minority after decades of armed conflict. On the occasions when the deep state made moves to counter the AKP’s growing power, the party was able to face down those threats largely by virtue of its considerable popular support. Finally it appeared that Turkey’s political system had grown to accept all points of view, free from ideological suppression.

Erdogan’s Pivot

But a funny thing happened: Tayyip Erdogan saved Turkish democracy from the deep state only to destroy it on his own terms. The turn toward a harder-edged authoritarian style of governance by Erdogan and the AKP began after Turkey’s 2011 parliamentary elections, when the AKP won its third straight majority. Two developments coincided with those elections that seem to have contributed to Erdogan’s shifting politics. First, Erdogan had a falling out with former ally Fethullah Gulen, a spiritual leader whose popular Hizmet movement had fueled the AKP’s rise to power. This confrontation, allegedly engineered by prosecutors with ties to Gulen’s movement, reached its apex in a 2013 corruption investigation that targeted several of Erdogan’s closest supporters within the AKP. The suspicion with which Erdogan had treated the deep state grew into something approaching paranoia once he had reason to believe that his former compatriot Gulen was also working against him.

Second, Erdogan found himself facing the AKP’s internally imposed three-term limit on legislators. Rather than buck his party’s rules, Erdogan opted to run for president in 2014 in Turkey’s first popular presidential election, and he won. Turkey’s presidency is largely ceremonial, however. So, as early as 2012, Erdogan began working to transition Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, in which the president would wield considerably more power. So Erdogan’s efforts have failed to sway enough legislators to change Turkey’s constitution (though he continues to pursue constitutional change), but the president has already surpassed his office’s constitutional limitations simply due to his personal authority within the AKP and the looming shadow he casts over all of Turkish politics.

Simmering tensions inside Turkey over Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism erupted into violence in 2013 during the Gezi Park protests. Thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul, ostensibly over Erdogan’s plans to develop a small park in the city’s Taksim Square. But their grievances reflected fears that Erdogan was even then trying to govern Turkey as a dictator. Erdogan’s security forces responded to the protests with brutal violence, and the display of popular anger seems to have further deepened Erdogan’s paranoia. He took steps to stifle press freedoms, assume direct control over the Turkish judiciary, and suppress the use of social media by the Turkish public.

Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial style of governance claimed another victim. On March 4, supported by a ruling from Erdogan’s courts, Turkish authorities forcibly seized the offices of Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, and then attacked those protesting the seizure with tear gas. Zaman had ties with Gulen’s Hizmet movement and was often critical of Erdogan and the AKP—it has now been reopened as a thoroughly pro-government outlet. It is hard to see the Zaman seizure as anything other than the final end of any semblance of press freedom in Turkey, the act of a government that will no longer tolerate dissent.

Erdogan may have felt emboldened to take action against Zaman by the political events of the past year. After the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in elections last June, it failed to reach agreement with any of Turkey’s other political parties on forming a coalition, which meant that new elections had to be held in November. In that do-over, Turkish voters—likely concerned over the growing threat of Islamic State and Kurdish terrorism—resoundingly returned the AKP to the majority. Certainly, Erdogan and his defenders would point to these elections as a sign that Turkish democracy is alive and well and that the AKP, and Erdogan, remain popular throughout Turkey. But a government that doesn’t recognize basic press freedoms, reacts violently to peaceful protests, and prevents its citizens from accessing social media in times of crisis is not a government that can claim to be “democratic” in any real sense, regardless of its participation in elections.

Foreign Policy Transformed

This suppression of internal criticism has implications that go beyond the damage it does to Turkey’s democratic roots. Since civil war broke out in neighboring Syria in 2011, Erdogan has been focused on doing whatever he could to prevent the formation of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria—at one point, during the siege of Kobani in 2014, Turkish security forces took actions that, intentionally or not, materially aided the Islamic State as it attempted to wrest the city from the Kurdish YPG forces who were defending it. Ankara’s repeated attacks on Kurdish positions in northern Syria have angered the United States, which sees Syria’s Kurds as one of the few military forces in Syria that is both capable of defeating IS and willing to act as an American proxy force in the war against the insurgent/terrorist group. Erdogan, for his part, has been angry at Washington’s refusal to consider stronger measures in Syria designed to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to stifle the Kurds’ ambitions for autonomy.

Turkey has also seen its relationship with Russia collapse over Syria, partly over the Kurdish situation but primarily in the aftermath of November’s downing, by Turkish F-16s, of a Russian aircraft that Ankara claimed had violated Turkish airspace. The European Union has maintained good relations with Turkey despite Ankara’s violence toward Syrian Kurds, or Erdogan’s attacks on free speech and freedom of the press, for one simple reason: the EU is counting on Turkey to continue absorbing Syrian refugees and to take additional steps to prevent them from flowing into Europe.

Erdogan’s opposition to Syria’s Kurds has reignited the war between the Turkish government and its own Kurdish population, led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Erdogan had previously done so much to bring to a peaceful resolution. The escalation of that conflict, which—intentionally or not—has undoubtedly served Erdogan’s political ends, has brought violence back to the streets of Turkey’s largest cities, as Sunday’s car bombing in Ankara, which killed at least 37 people and which the Turkish government claims was perpetrated by the PKK, made all too clear. Entire cities in the Kurdish region of southwest Turkey lie in ruins, amid accusations that Turkish forces are killing PKK fighters and civilians indiscriminately. In short, Erdogan’s Kurdish policy, which has become the most important issue in Turkish politics, has been disastrous for Turkey’s international relations and its internal stability, but there’s now almost no independent media left in Turkey willing to criticize him for it.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



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