Curbing creeping authoritarianism in Turkey

The victory of Turkish secular opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, in the rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral election in June is a rebuke to the authoritarian tendencies of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his governing Islamist party. Although the election highlights the competitive nature of Turkey’s politics, the country’s democracy is not definitively back on track. Continued authoritarian behaviour by Erdoğan’s government poses challenges for both Turkish society and Western interests.

The veneer of democratic institutions can obscure creeping authoritarianism. In what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call “competitive authoritarian” states, opposition parties contest and occasionally win elections, but incumbent’s like Erdoğan wield state power to detain and harass opponents, control media outlets, and co-opt electoral mechanisms.

Autocrats can and do fall when Western democracies intervene in authoritarian states.  But democratisation post-regime failure is uncommon. More often, new authoritarian regimes emerge in the aftermath or, where the organisational power of state institutions is weak, complete state collapse is entirely possible. Turkey, however, may be a case where Western pressure is both productive and essential to the reestablishment of democracy.

Levitsky and Way’s theory of change in competitive authoritarian contexts is that autocracies are only likely to democratise if 1) internationally they have broad and deep linkages to Western democracies and 2) domestic state institutions have high organisational power. Western linkages and high organisational power developed in Turkey due to imperial legacies and the state formation process.

Led by Mustafa Kemal in the heart of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Turkey resisted colonisation by European powers. The old imperial core’s bureaucratisation provided the institutional foundations for the modern state’s high organisational power. The new Turkish state inherited Ottoman debts, diplomatic relationships and trade partnerships that linked it to Western Europe. Kemal, who later took on the name Atatürk, further Westernised Turkey by using his nationalist mandate to secularise the nation.

Despite a history punctuated by military coups and political turbulence, Western linkages and domestic structural conditions have long incentivised Turkey’s maintenance of free and fair elections, independent media, a robust middle class, active civil society, and a diverse, globally integrated economy. But the failed coup of July 2016 created an opening for Erdoğan to drastically alter these democratic foundations.

Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) accuse the influential preacher Fethullah Gülen of orchestrating the attempt to overthrow the elected government. The struggle within the state between Erdoğan’s elected AKP and the Gülen inspired Hizmet movement in the bureaucracy likely did play a influential role in the coup plotters’ intent to seize power.

Erdoğan effectively rallied the public against the coup attempt, undermining the Gülenist officers’ ability to claim a nationalist mandate to end Erdoğan’s illiberal policies. After declaring a state of emergency, Erdoğan purged the bureaucracy of opposition, arresting or dismissing more than 140,000 state employees. The evidence is clear that there was an organised plot to topple Erdoğan, but there is little to no evidence connecting the majority of the thousands being prosecuted to the coup. The massive extent of the crackdown has been criticised for targeting Gülenists and others for their politics, not real crimes.

The failure of the coup gave Erdoğan an opportunity to radically alter the structure of power in Turkey. To consolidate control, he narrowly passed the 2017 constitutional referendum that changed Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential system that heavily concentrates power in his hands.

The authoritarian capacity inherent in Erdoğan’s enhanced presidential power is evident in the regime’s contestation of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) electoral victories this year. In April, Erdoğan used the High Election Board to annul İmamoğlu’s initial victory in the Istanbul mayoral election despite electoral officials certifying the results.

Turkey’s state apparatus is now packed with Erdoğan’s partisan AKP allies, but it remains a highly organised bureaucracy, an essential ingredient for the consolidation of democracy. Turkey’s international linkages can change over time, but unlike in Iran and Venezuela, the current environment still favours the engagement of Western democracies to promote Turkish democracy. That does not mean concerned states can be complacent or indecisive in their foreign policies towards Turkey.

Despite Erdoğan’s rhetoric, Turkey’s strong middle class and diverse economy are still intimately linked to Western democracies. To take advantage of these favourable conditions, the United States and European states should engage in a coordinated diplomatic campaign that makes beneficial relations with the West contingent on the return of free and fair democracy.

Diplomats must routinely remind Turkey of the devastating impact sanctions and a reduced role in NATO would have on the already weakened Turkish economy. Simultaneously, they must communicate clear incentives for Turkey to remain closely tied to the West. They should highlight the superior business opportunities for Turkish companies afforded by access to Western economies and participation in NATO programmes. Most importantly, Europe must keep EU accession prominent in discussions as a tangible possibility. 

The consequences for continued authoritarian behaviour and the benefits tied to the consolidation of democracy must be communicated frequently not only to the Erdoğan administration, but also to key business leaders and the broader public that can still influence the president through elections and public opinion.

Without the support of a coherent, active diplomatic effort by democratic states, even a majoritarian domestic movement may not be able to check Erdoğan’s authoritarian strategy. He recognises the potency of domestic and international obstacles to his rule and is actively eroding the foundations of Turkish democracy. 

The delivery of Russian S-400 missile components to Turkey poses more than just a threat to the U.S. F-35 programme. It highlights the potential for Erdoğan to further expand military industrial connections outside NATO, presenting significant challenges to the alliance and giving Erdoğan flexibility to manoeuvre between powerful adversaries in international politics. If allowed to continue without international repercussions Erdoğan can, over the long-term, recalibrate structural conditions and consolidate authoritarianism at the expense of Turkey’s population and Western interests.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.