Although Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (JDP) would strongly deny it, impartial observers would see Turkish politics as currently evolving toward electoral authoritarianism, a system of institutions under which those elected abuse it to their advantage to prolong their tenure – if possible indefinitely. For more than half a century Turkey has been a liberal democracy, though a defective one, with some military intervals. The ratification of major changes in Turkey’s constitution on April 16, moving the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system in a referendum riddled with allegations of electoral irregularities, constitutes yet another important step away from that democracy.
Turkey’s evolution toward electoral authoritarianism may appear surprising since the JDP, the governing party behind the drive, won power in 2002 as a moderately conservative party promising to bring an end to the country’s divided politics, set it on a course of prosperity and improve the quality of its democracy. What went wrong? Did the party change, or did it always aim to use political competition as a means to winning and holding onto power? To answer, we need to take a historical perspective: where is liberal democracy in the vision of the parties that have ruled Turkey?
The tradition of military authoritarianism
Turkey made a transition to competitive party politics in 1946, but authoritarian interludes have not been rare. The first breakdown came in 1960 when a junta, the National Unity Committee, deposed the Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and assumed power. The Democratic Party, which in 1950 had defeated the Republican People’s Party, the founding party of the republic, had grown increasingly authoritarian as its base of popular support gradually eroded. Hence, the intervention was justified on grounds of returning Turkey to the path of democracy, and competitive politics was restored in 1961.
Only ten years later an indirect military intervention took place, this time forcing the resignation of the Justice Party government under Süleyman Demirel and installing a national unity government with the task of placing limits on the liberties given to citizens in the 1961 constitution. The generals felt that only in this way could the erosion of public order be brought under control. Although the legislature was obliged to amend the constitution in return for restoring civilian-dominated politics in 1973, continued disorder created the conditions for a new intervention in 1980 that was to last three years. In this last direct intervention, the military leadership attempted, ultimately without success, to depoliticize society and restructure the party system. It was more successful, however, in developing a number of mechanisms through which the military could not only maintain its autonomy vis-à-vis elected governments but also function as a veto group, imposing limits on the scope of civilian politics.
Beginning with the 1960–61 intervention, the autonomy of the military constituted a problem for elected governments. Initially, the military was the leading partner in a tacit alliance of institutions including the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the universities and semipublic organizations like the bar associations, that perceived their duty as being to preserve the achievements of the Atatürk Revolution, most notably secularism. As political competition expanded and the economy developed, this alliance broke down, leaving the military along with the courts as the major guardian of the secular republican tradition.
On other issues, attitudes changed over the years. For example, when governments opted for industrialization based on import substitution, a choice dear to the hearts of military officers, the military came to support the industrial establishment, restraining labour unions and in the process evolving into a conservative force. But this changed when the 1980 military rulers helped suppress both labour and the middle classes as the country made a painful shift from autarky to export-led growth and integration with the global economy.
Nevertheless, the military’s commitment to secularism remained unchanged and indeed became less flexible over time. In 1997, the military imposed the closing of the middle school sections of secondary schools offering preacher training on a government in which the religious Welfare Party was the main coalition partner. Later that year, it went further, forcing the same government, led by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, to resign. Then in 1998, the Constitutional Court closed down the Welfare Party for having used religion for political ends.
This was a familiar pattern, initially established in 1971: a religiously oriented party forms, achieves some electoral success and is then closed by the court for unconstitutionally exploiting religion for political ends. In line with tradition, the closing of the Welfare Party led to the opening of the Felicity Party, “under new management” but with Erbakan, as usual, wielding power behind the scenes.
Yet, far from the eyes of external observers, a rebellion had been brewing among young party cadres against a leader who had persistently led his party down this blocked road. Having failed to capture the leadership of the party, the young rebels in 2001 formed their own party, the Justice and Development Party. Appearing more moderate, calling itself conservative rather than religious, the JDP quickly developed into a major political force and won power in the 2002 election. It has maintained its parliamentary majority in every national election since, except briefly after the June 2015 election.
The Justice and Development Party in power
The military’s interventionist proclivities and its antagonistic relationship with religiously oriented parties constitutes one of the keys to understanding a dilemma built into Turkey’s democracy. The military and associated institutions, products of defensive Westernization policies dating back to the Ottoman Empire, entertained no doubt that they possessed a set of superior values that entitled them to guide society in the “right direction.” They tended to see the majority which did not subscribe to the same set of values as ignorant, rather than themselves as unable to persuade the people as to why they should adopt a different set of values and change their ways. But being in power, they judged, gave them the right to make binding decisions for society.
The JDP came to power articulating a more traditional set of values, and has, understandably, justified its actions as representing the will of the people. As such, it views arguments that the will of the majority can be circumscribed by the rules and principles of liberal democracy with scepticism.
When the JDP first took power, despite concerns among the secularist segments of the electorate and the political elite, its initial domestic and external policies did not signal major changes. Rather, it promised to enhance democracy, while maintaining the secular nature of the system. True to its word, it sought to widen relations with the European Union and take steps to open the way to accession negotiations for full membership.1
Critically, some of the institutional mechanisms through which the military continued to exercise “oversight” on the operation of Turkish politics were removed from the constitution. For example, the representation of the National Security Council on the Council on Higher Education and on the governing board of the Turkish National Broadcasting Company was ended and the State Security Courts were abolished in 2004. Such efforts to reduce the political role of the military continued after Turkey was invited to begin accession negotiations with the EU in 2005.
In 2007, when the nonrenewable term of Turkey’s president expired and the parliament had to elect a new president, there was a serious clash between the JDP and the secular establishment. The military, in designing the 1982 constitution, had envisioned a nonpartisan presidency with significant powers of appointment to state institutions which themselves should be kept out of everyday politics. These positions included, among others, judges of the Constitutional Court and the rectors of state universities.
In addition, it was assumed that the president would not come from among the ranks of politicians but from among retired commanders or high-ranking civil servants.2 Yet, after the restoration of ordinary politics, the next two presidents (1989–2000) were politicians who had been serving as prime ministers when elected. They were followed by A. N. Sezer, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court.
In 2007, when Sezer’s term was ending, it seemed natural that the candidate of the JDP, which enjoyed a majority in the parliament, would emerge as the new president after the initial two rounds of voting under a qualified majority. The candidate of the governing party was Abdullah Gül, who had been prime minister and was foreign minister at the time. He was opposed by the secular establishment because of what his wife, who dressed conservatively and covered her head, represented. Using a legal technicality, the main opposition party successfully challenged his election in court.
Rather than change its candidate, the JDP passed a constitutional amendment, subject to ratification in a public referendum, that the president be elected by popular vote. Before the vote on the constitutional referendum could be held, however, a national election gave the JDP an astounding victory, allowing the parliament to elect Gül president. It might have been possible at that time to rescind the vote on constitutional change, but the government decided to go ahead with the referendum and the change was approved. In retrospect, the change appears to have constituted a critical step toward a transition to a presidential system.
An interplay of domestic and international forces constituted the background against which the JDP began, at first gradually and then more rapidly, to take an authoritarian turn away from its moderate course. The difficulties encountered in the 2007 presidential election as well as a ruling by the Constitutional Court that the JDP had used religion for political ends (it imposed a fine, rather than closing the party as had been done in the past) were important developments on the domestic front. On the international front, the JDP’s hopes that the ban on students and public employees wearing headscarves would be rejected by the European Court of Human Rights were dashed. And progress on accession to the EU halted as France under Nicolas Sarkozy put negotiations on a number of chapters on hold, arguing that Turkey did not belong in Europe.3 More diplomatically, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she favoured a special relationship, but would honour Germany’s commitments.
As a result, the government became doubtful that Turkey could win the place it deserved in Europe or count on the EU as a credible partner. Meanwhile, it retained extensive support among the voters, with no sign of a significant opposition to challenge its position. And despite worsening relations with the EU, it managed to establish good relations with all actors in its region, leading to aspirations of becoming a regional and, eventually, a global leader. In this context, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other JDP leaders regularly made statements critical of the prevailing world order.
An event that triggered policy change came in 2010 with the outbreak of the “Arab Spring.” Seeing that one of the major exponents of change was the Muslim Brotherhood, to which it felt close, the government perceived an opportunity to assume the leadership of societies in the region in which Sunni Islam prevailed. In Egypt, the Brotherhood achieved power and was happy to receive Turkish backing and support.
The government wrongly assumed that the Assad regime in Syria would also soon fall. Mediation efforts soon gave way to military support to the opposition, and, as more moderate forces failed, increasingly to more radical religious groups that were more capable of carrying on the fight. Such involvement meant not only new problems of domestic security but also departing from the tradition of keeping an equal distance from all countries in the region and distancing Turkey’s policy from those of its Western allies. The outpouring of refugees from Syria to Turkey seeking to reach Western Europe added further complications to the difficult Turkey-EU relationship.
The Gülenist conspiracy
In mid-December 2013, the Turkish public was shocked to learn that four ministers had been arrested on charges of corruption. Simultaneously, some taped recordings began to circulate on the internet implicating Prime Minister Erdoğan in the affair. While the ministers were asked to resign, the Prime Minister launched a campaign against the Gülenist group, which he claimed had colluded with foreign powers to bring his government down and establish a parallel state. Mass arrests of alleged Gülenist conspirators, many of them people in government service, followed.
The Gülenists are followers of a meagrely educated preacher, Fethullah Gülen, who had attracted a significant following among the rising merchant classes in the provinces. Gülen used this support to develop an elaborate network of high schools and remedial training centres to prepare high school graduates for university admission exams. The network also reached into many countries in Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, and even the United States. These schools provided good-quality, inexpensive education to the children of local elites, and paved the way for small and medium-sized Turkish businesses to reach these new markets.
When the JDP came to power in 2002, the Gülenists, who had not extended support to its predecessors, saw an opportunity for themselves in the JDP’s impressive success. The Gülenist movement provided well-educated cadres that the new government needed and its adherents were placed in important positions in the bureaucracy.
This mutually beneficial relationship continued until December 2013. The Gülenists, while supporting the JDP, apparently maintained their separate identity. As the recent trials have shown, they had penetrated all agencies of government, especially the judiciary, the police and the military.
An earlier series of trials beginning in late 2008 brought many former and current military commanders and officers to court for alleged coup plotting. Despite flimsy and circumstantial evidence and inadequate respect for the defendants’ rights, many were convicted and went to prison. As a result, the military’s morale and combat effectiveness was reduced. This brought to an end the army’s status as an autonomous centre of political power, an outcome welcomed by the government which refused to intervene “in the administration of justice.” Later investigations revealed what most careful observers had already suspected in 2008: that the cases were fabricated not only to curb the political power of the military by humiliating top generals but also to weed out the opponents of Gülenists in its ranks.
The current efforts under emergency rule to remove Gülenists from the institutions of government focus on the military, but also target their sources of financial support from segments of the business community and the schools, including universities, that they developed to train their followers. The imminence of the Gülenist threat has been used both to justify emergency rule and to dispense with standard judicial procedures in cleansing public institutions and civil society of Gülenists.
The presidential system and electoral authoritarianism
When President Gül’s term ended in 2014, Erdoğan offered his candidacy and won in the first round. He immediately announced that “he could not be expected to behave as if he were elected by the parliament,” since he had a popular mandate. He attacked the current arrangement with (presumably) two centres of power as unstable and ineffective. Ahmet Davutoğlu, whom he appointed as Prime Minister, not only had his own ideas but was not favourably disposed toward transforming the Turkish system into a presidential one.
In 2015, there were two parliamentary elections. In the first held in June the JDP failed to achieve a majority, but it recovered in the second in November. President Erdoğan then forced Davutoğlu’s resignation and gave the job to a loyal ally, Binali Yıldırım. To achieve the qualified majority for constitutional change to a presidential system, Yıldırım and Erdoğan secured the cooperation of the jingoistic Nationalist Movement Party (NMP). On January 22, 2017, a bill proposing changing 18 articles of the Turkish constitution was adopted by the Turkish Grand National Assembly. The changes were ratified by a narrow majority in a referendum held on April 16.
The proposed changes will bring, in Erdoğan’s words, “a Turkish-type” presidential system. This system places the executive in a far superior position to the legislative and judicial branches but lacks the checks and balances generally found in the more conventional democratic presidential system.
In reality, authoritarianism in the form of an all-powerful president had already emerged without being constitutionally entrenched after Erdogan was elected President. Erdoğan had made the Gülenists who had tried to bring him down with allegations of corruption his primary target. Fighting a battle for their existence, the Gülenists made a final move to prevent their decimation on the night of July 15, 2016. Their failed military takeover gave the government a justification for enacting a state of emergency to arbitrarily dismiss public servants, restrict freedom of expression, have the courts take opponents into custody and bring charges of aiding terrorist organizations.
The government has branded as a terrorist organization a large community consisting of concentric circles of active Gülenist militants, supporters, sympathizers and the many people who have had relations with them. Rather indiscriminate dismissals, arrests and imprisonments have generated fears that anyone can be accused of being Gülenist and suffer the consequences without recourse to the protection of the law. EU criticisms that the antiterror legislation should be revised with a view to protecting individual liberties have fallen on deaf ears.
There is also yet another organization, this one accurately branded as terrorist: the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish separatist PKK that has continually challenged the government’s authority in rural southeastern Turkey since 1984. After many years of antiterror campaigns, the JDP government changed course and chose to work for a negotiated settlement. The PDP, a Kurdish party strongly suspected of having PKK connections, initially lent its support to the process. After the November 2015 election, the PDP was the third largest party in the legislature, with some 60 deputies.
However, differences within the PKK, the change of attitude among both the PKK and the PDP toward supporting the development of autonomous regions inspired by the Kobane experience in Syria4 and the recognition by the JDP that the agreement undermined its own standing in southeastern Turkey brought an end to the so called “Peace Process.” Terrorist activity resumed and has now also moved into urban centres. Unable to count on PDP support to change to a presidential system, the JDP turned to the NMP, a party that had rejected a negotiated settlement and called for suppression of any assertions of Kurdish ethnicity.
The government has since portrayed all terrorist movements as cooperating with one another and with external powers to destroy Turkey. All types of opposition activity are branded as terrorism-related and suppressed under the state of emergency legislation. Two cases stand out. First, many of the columnists of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet have been arrested for being members, or helping the activities of, terrorist organizations, some for sending “subliminal” messages through their columns. As of this writing, they have been in prison for more than four months without trial. Second, a counterterrorism decree has given the President power to appoint directly the rectors of state universities from among those who petition him, replacing the law that directed the President to choose from a list of three candidates proposed by the Council on Higher Education.
To ensure the ratification of the proposed presidential system in the recently concluded referendum, President Erdoğan, the government and the NMP agreed on branding those who would vote No as traitors, supporters of Gülen or the PKK or both who were out to destroy the country. The police manhandled people trying to distribute leaflets against the proposal. The various institutions of government, the bureaucracy and the state broadcasting company among others were all involved in promoting a Yes vote. The government wanted to confirm by popular vote a system that has the features of elected government but lends itself to authoritarian rule, lacking in checks and balances.
The referendum and beyond
The constitutional change was approved in the April 16 referendum with a narrow majority of 51.4 per cent and strong indications of electoral irregularities. This outcome came after a bitter and highly polarized campaign in which the activities of the opposition were often stymied by official interference and the government used all instruments of the state to promote a Yes vote. Although a Yes has been secured, the government is facing questions of legitimacy both domestically and in the international arena.
This outcome is producing contradictory pressures on the government, particularly on the President. On the one hand, he wants the changed system to become the new normal, which would suggest a policy of conciliation, moderate rhetoric and reaching across the aisle to the opposition and international critics. On the other hand, however, recognizing the precarious position the referendum outcome has put him in, he wants to keep the momentum of electoral mobilization to consolidate his powers, a feat that will be easier to achieve if domestic and international tensions are kept high and a sense of siege is sustained. Currently, the second path, consolidation of power through domestically polarized and internationally confrontational politics, appears to have been chosen over reducing tensions.
Will the President succeed in his strategy, and will he continue to move in the direction of more authoritarian politics? The constitutional changes grant him exceptional powers. He can appoint vice presidents and ministers without parliamentary approval; these officials may not be questioned in the parliament. He can issue decrees in many domains which in liberal democracies are generally the prerogative of lawmakers. He appoints most of the judges to the constitutional court and the high board of judges, as well as public prosecutors. He can dismiss civil servants. He can now return to his party and, not surprisingly, is expected to become its leader. This new position will enhance his powers and give him a determining role in the designation of candidates for parliamentary seats, enabling him to shape a highly obedient parliamentary group. He can also dissolve the parliament, though in this case he has to leave his position and run for office in the following election.
Two important criticisms have been levelled against the changes. First, the constitution does not contain an effective system of checks and balances. Second, the President’s powers will enable him to convert the system into a party state. The question is: will these powers be used in an authoritarian fashion? The President has often expressed his majoritarian proclivities, arguing that he has the national will behind him and he should not be constrained by the courts, the bureaucracy and perhaps even the laws. This has already led him into an authoritarian path, and it would not be surprising if he chooses to continue along that path.
But there are countervailing pressures. The referendum has stimulated a lively civil society and a strengthened opposition that may continuously challenge him. Turkey’s international connections may constitute a source of restraint as well. Finally, there may be those in the governing party whose pangs of conscience or political interests will guide them to drag their feet. It is too soon to venture reliable predictions. Unhappily, authoritarian tendencies are becoming manifest in many systems in which citizens had earlier been enjoying a liberal democratic system. Turkey could be on its way to being an early manifestation of this development.
1 After being excluded from the list of invitees for membership in 1997, Turkey was invited to become a member of the EU at the Council’s Helsinki meeting in 1999, but had to go through a preparatory stage until 2005 during which, among other expectations, it was to enact measures to further democratize its political system.
2 From 1960 until 1989 all presidents were in fact retired generals or admirals.
3 The “Greek” Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU, had already put many chapters on hold as a result of its conflict with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
4 Kobane is a region of Syria bordering on Turkey with a mostly Kurdish population. The local Marxist-Leninist Party, PYD (Democratic Union Party), took advantage of the weakness of Assad’s government to form an autonomous government in the region, force Arab-origin populations to move out and protect towns through digging street trenches. Its military wing is now being trained and supplied by the United States in the fight to liberate Rakka and Idlib from the Islamic State.