Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk
Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk | Article 3

Turkey: Erdoğan’s Authoritarian Turn

Reading time: 5 min

It is often observed with Schadenfreude these days that Turkey’s old authoritarian demons have returned to haunt it. And Europe feels a cowardly relief that it is finally rid of the vitriolic issue of EU enlargement into Anatolia.

This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. PlatoThe diplomatic and strategic price to pay for leaving Turkey to its own devices, alone to play a game of free rider in service of what it believes to be its national interests, remains to be seen. Already, it is eyeing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the club bringing together continental Asia’s authoritarian powers under the umbrella of Russia and China. It goes shopping for antiballistic missiles in Beijing, and then in Moscow, to the great displeasure of NATO. And it is moving closer to Tehran on the Iraq-Syria issue. This was the blind spot of those who were against Turkey joining the European Union: quick to complain about the cost that this would supposedly entail, they never wondered about the cost of Turkey not joining. We have reached this point, and European democracy – as well as its security – will be the great loser from this mess.

Erdoğan’s “Putinisation”

People protesting imprisonment of journalists from Cumhuriyet in Şişli, İstanbul.
By Hilmi Hacaloğlu. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons

For Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey joined the club of “illiberal democracies” once Nicolas Sarkozy’s election to the French Presidency in 2007 destroyed any illusion of EU membership. Brussels had no means left for dealing with Ankara: neither carrots nor sticks. The result was Erdoğan’s – increasingly personal – authoritarian shift. Within several years, he had broken the backbone of the army, of the media, of his ally Fethullah Gülen’s neobrotherhood, which had provided him with the leaders the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was lacking in its electoral victory in 2002, of the parliamentary representation of the Kurdish regionalists (or nationalists), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and of the civil, liberal and environmental opposition that had emerged across the country during the events at Gezi Park in 2013. Ahmet Insel was the first to refer to Erdoğan’s “Putinisation” or “Orbanisation”.

Until the June 2015 parliamentary elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could claim to have the support of the electorate. But he then lost an absolute parliamentary majority and embarked upon a risky leap forwards. He manoeuvred behind the scenes – at the cost of a new outbreak of the civil war in the South East – to call new elections in November, and to win them. After the attempted coup in July 2016, he lost all restraint. He custom-made a Presidential Constitution to suit his own immoderation. The AKP was under his thumb. Press freedom was de facto abolished. The November 2015 parliamentary elections and April 2017 constitutional referendum took place in a climate of police and judicial intimidation. For perhaps the first time since 1950, they were marred by suspicions of fraud. Mass purges swept through the police, the army, the judiciary, the universities, the entire civil service, and the opposition parties, condemning tens of thousands of people and their families to social death, deprived of their papers and their jobs. Elected representatives, journalists, writers, judges, lawyers, officers and civil servants languish in prison. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, alone at the commands, President of both the Republic and his party, suggests to the crowd that it should ask him to reintroduce the death penalty.

a DARING reversal

This authoritarian flashback is all the more impressive given that during his first five years in power, Erdoğan’s democratic record was not insignificant. No other Turkish leader had gone so far in recognising – culturally and politically – the Kurdish reality, or opened negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). No other leader had so clearly questioned the ethno-religious understanding of citizenship, and so publically declared themselves in favour of a “Republic of Turkey” rather than the “Turkish Republic” dear to the Kemalists. Finally, his accession to power symbolised a turn in favour of the “black Turks” that had been marginalised by the secularist “white Turks” since the 1920s. It had a social and cultural dimension that bears recall, just as it overturned the constraints of the constitutional order inherited from the 1980 military coup.

How can this reversal be explained? Only disciples of “transitology” should be surprised. The development of democracy has never been linear. The hypothesis of a hidden antidemocratic agenda that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cherished all along does not stand up to scrutiny. Whatever his secret intentions may have been, the real issue is the power dynamic established between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of democracy. Yet Europe refrained from supporting the latter, while shedding crocodile tears over the slow speed of the “reforms”. As in the Cold War period, at heart, it prefers the certitudes of authoritarianism to the vagaries of democracy, leaving the dirty work to Turkey: then, the fight against communism; today, containment of the migrants. This is how in 2015 it granted Erdoğan The Authoritarian what it had refused Erdoğan The Democrat several years earlier. The PKK didn’t play the liberal card either, oscillating between bullets and the negotiation of little authoritarian deals with the president. One can well imagine its historical leader Abdullah Öcalan bartering from his prison cell his tacit support for the move to a presidential regime against the liquidation of the HDP, whose parliamentary rise threatened his own charismatic leadership. The reaction of the two opposition parties, one ultranationalist, the other neo-Kemalist, has been inept and at odds with the new Turkey, born from ten years of AKP power, but also from far-reaching economic and social transformation. Finally, the trap of the war in Iraq and Syria has closed around Ankara, dramatising the Kurdish issue as well as the issue of public security.

authoritarianism revisited

It would be a mistake to lay the responsibility for the return of authoritarian rule in Turkey on Islam. Many had doubted the compatibility of the Islamic parties with democracy at the time of their electoral success in the 1990s.It would be a mistake to lay the responsibility for the return of authoritarian rule in Turkey on Islam.  However, even if he draws on the resources of Muslim conservatism to underpin his legitimacy, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan relies above all on the old methods of the Kemalist regime. His conflict with the Fethullahci shows that he, too, asserts the primacy of the state over religious pluralism. His instrumentalisation of the coup attempt and Kurdish dissidence to eliminate all forms of opposition recalls the great purges that followed Sheikh Said’s revolt in 1925, in which the net was already cast wide. His repertoire is that of nationalism, or rather a national-liberalism that seeks to ensure political control of neoliberalism, as in China, Russia, Hungary or Poland. What we are witnessing is the resurgence of an authoritarian situation whose origins go back to the absolutism of Abdul Hamid II, the Committee of Union and Progress, the single party of the interwar period, and the military regimes of the 1960s to 1980s.These historical precedents are also, paradoxically, an indication of the entrenchment of the democratic idea in Turkey. 

In this context, the Turkish state is not so much, as is often said, strong and autonomous in relation to society, as it is porous and penetrated by political and social forces, as illustrated by the conflict between Fethullah Gülen and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan within the administration itself. These historical precedents are also, paradoxically, an indication of the entrenchment of the democratic idea in Turkey. It has been rehabilitated on a regular basis by the exercise of the universal right to vote. From this standpoint, the result of the last referendum was incontrovertible: despite the bombardment by the AKP propaganda machine, the “no” vote prevailed in the large cities that Erdoğan had once counted on, including Istanbul, his stronghold since the 1990s.

By Prof. Jean-François Bayart
Department of Anthropology and Sociology
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: People wave Turkish national flags as they gather on at Kizilay Democracy Square in Ankara during a rally against the failed military coup of 15 July 2016. 10 August 2016.

Mohammad-Reza Djalili | La démocratie au Moyen-Orient

The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Turkish authorities most controlling of Twitter Content (July – December 2014)

Source: Statista.com

Definitions of Democracy

Basic definition

Democracy can be defined as, literally, the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the 5th century BCE. At heart, democracy is based on three principles: popular sovereignty, political participation and political contestation. Democracies may take on different constitutional forms (constitutional monarchy, republic) and modes of territorial organisation (unitary, federal).

Thin vs. thick description of democracy

The ballot box (free, fair and regular elections) defines democracy at its most basic. This minimalist or “thin” conception of democracy can be opposed to a more substantial or “thick” definition holding that in addition to elections, democracy needs to satisfy a series of further constitutional, liberal and/or social criteria.

Direct democracy

In a direct democracy the people govern sovereignly by congregating in popular assemblies and taking decisions by popular vote (usually by show of hands, as in the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus). There is no political representation. For thousands of years direct democracy remained the principal model of democracy as exerted in city-states or other small-scale polities.

Example: ancient Athens.

Representative democracy

A representative or electoral democracy is a type of democracy where the people govern indirectly through elected representatives. It requires a set of political institutions different from those of direct democracy such as parliaments and regular elections. Representative democracy became prevalent in the 19th century with the emergence of large nation-states.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a subgenre of representative democracy defined not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers and the protection of basic civil liberties (freedom of speech, assembly and religion). Liberal democracies limit the exercise of executive power and majority rule through constitutions ensuring independent courts, the protection of minorities, and basic human rights.

Semidirect democracy

Semidirect democracy is a mixed form of democracy where elected representatives govern and legislate but the citizens remain sovereign through referenda, initiatives and recalls. Even though today only Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy in the formal sense, many democracies have institutionalised elements of expression of popular will such as referenda.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch of government depends on the support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence. The party that wins the largest number of congressional seats selects the prime minister, who controls the legislative process. The executive is divided into a head of government and a ceremonial head of state.

Examples: Australia, Germany, India, Spain.

Presidential democracy

Presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch. The parliament controls the budget, legislates, approves appointments to cabinet positions and ratifies foreign treaties. The president appoints cabinet members, commands the army and serves as the head of state and the head of government.

Examples: Argentina, Indonesia, United States, Venezuela.

Semi-presidential democracy

Semi-presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where a president exists alongside a prime minister and a cabinet. It differs from the parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected head of state, who is more than a purely ceremonial figurehead, and from the presidential system in that the cabinet, although named by the president, is responsible to the legislature, who can move a motion of no confidence.

Examples: France, Russia, Tunisia.

Participatory democracy

Participatory democracy refers to a regime where citizens participate actively in public decision-making. Instruments to broaden citizen participation include e-democracy and e-voting.

Deliberative democracy

In a deliberative democracy authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy. Jürgen Habermas has made a fundamental contribution to deliberative democracy through his work on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

Voting systems: proportional, plurality and majority

In a proportional system parties obtain seats proportionally to the votes they win. In a plurality system, candidates who win most votes in an electoral district are elected. In a majority system, candidates who win more votes than all others combined in an electoral district are elected. Proportional representation usually leads to a multiparty system whereas plurality and majority election favour bipartisanism.

United States






This table shows the evolution of democracy in the USRussiaUgandaHungaryTurkeyVenezuela over 10 years. Arrows indicate the improvement (↗) or deterioration (↘) of a given indicator between 2006 and 2016. One arrow per 0.4 variance on a scale of 10.

Aspects of democracy Trend
Legislative constraints on the executive ↘↘
Judicial constraints on the executive = ↘↘
Government censorship (internet) ↘↘ = ↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Government censorship (media) ↘↘ = ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Freedom of association
Freedom house rule of law =
Freedom of academic and cultural expression ↘↘ ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Source: V-Dem Website provides 350 indicators and indices on democracy.
Caricature de @Chappatte - www.chappatte.com Caricature de Beatriz Tirado

Source: Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU)

What Is Illiberal Democracy?


In his 1997 contribution to Foreign Affairs, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracies as “democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, [but] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms”.

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is an Indian American journalist and author with a BA from Yale College and a PhD in Government from Harvard University. He worked as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and as managing editor of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2000 (a post he was appointed to at only 28 years old). Zakaria has also been a columnist and editor for Newsweek, Time Magazine and The Atlantic. Currently he hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS – CNN’s flagship international affairs programme – and writes columns for The Washington Post. Foreign Policy named Zakaria one of its top 100 global thinkers. He is the author of five books, including The Future of Freedom (2003), The Post-American World (2008) and In Defense of a Liberal Education (2016).

15 characteristics
  • Consolidation of power in the executive
  • Charismatic leader
  • Erosion of the independence of the judiciary
  • Weakening status of the parliament
  • Recourse to direct democracy (plebiscites/referenda)
  • Populist rhetoric/propaganda
  • Discrimination of minorities
  • Monitoring and moulding of civil society
  • Media and internet censorship
  • Curbs on academia and educational curricula
  • Targeted repression of opponents
  • Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly
  • Disregard for rule of law and human rights
  • Misuse of state resources (cronyism)
  • Emasculation of the electoral process
  • Forging of external enemies
Academic criticism

Illiberal democracy as a concept has been criticised for its diffuse meaning and close proximity to related, almost synonymous terms, such as: limited democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regimes, dysfunctional democracy, deconsolidating democracy, defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism. According to Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, the concept does not distinguish sharply enough democracies which have, in fact, never been truly democratic but claim to be so, from regimes that actually have successfully become or transitioned toward genuine democracy but are backsliding toward autocracy. Others, such as Jørgen Møller, have argued that electoral democracy is, if measured adequately, a better measure than illiberal democracy since truly competitive elections only take place in liberal democracies. Finally, it has also been contended that illiberal democracy is an unfortunate and potentially noxious misnomer since it offers the opportunity to populists and autocrats to promote illiberalism while preserving the veil of democracy.

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