The State of Democracy in Turkey

Is Turkey still a democracy? Was it ever? How many jailed journalists and canisters of tear gas does it take to get to authoritarian rule?

The best statement I’ve seen so far on what Turkey’s ongoing crisis says about the state of its national political regime comes from Steven A. Cook and Michael Koplow. For Foreign Policy, they write:

Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the [ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP] was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union’s requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state… Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.

Cook and Koplow’s piece is titled “How democratic is Turkey? Not as democratic as Washington thinks it is.” What that title and the essay that follows implicitly acknowledge is that the questions I posed at the start of this post are sometimes impossible to resolve with confidence.


I know this challenge well because as part of my work for the Political Instability Task Force, I used to have to make binary calls like that every year for all countries of the world with populations larger than half a million. To make those calls, I would apply a checklist I had developed to an assemblage of newspaper articles and reports from election observers and human-right groups and decide whether or not a country deserved to be called a democracy. My checklist was based on standard procedural definitions of democracy, and countries that failed to satisfy any one of the conditions established therein was labeled an autocracy. Either you’re in the club or you’re out.

That process and the data it produced made sense for certain research tasks, but they also swept under the rug the ambiguity and uncertainty that makes cases like Turkey right now so important for our understanding of what democracy is, and how it really emerges and recedes. Many regimes are easy to tag as democracies or autocracies, but there’s a sizable bloc that defies this bifurcation, and this bloc has only gotten larger in the past 25 years. As more and more states that long eschewed democratic procedures have adopted them, they have often done so in bits and pieces. What one hand has given in formal rules, the other has often taken away with informal practices and outright subterfuge that are meant to preserve the power distribution “real” democracy would threaten to overturn.

To understand what’s happening in these situations, I think Charles Tilly’s process-oriented approach to democracy is more useful. As Tilly says on page 24 of—what else?—Democracy, “Democratization and de-democratization occur continuously, with no guarantee of an end point in either direction.” To structure our thinking about what those processes entail, he asserts that

A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation.

Elections are the most obvious form that consultation takes, but they aren’t the only form, and states can hold free elections while screwing up the protection and mutually binding parts.

So is Turkey a democracy? Who knows, but as Cook and Koplow argue, it’s almost certainly less democratic than it was a few years ago. As Erdogan and his supporters keep pointing out, Turkey under the AKP seems to be doing fine on the most obvious version of broad and equal consultation, namely, elections. Where it’s plainly slipped is on the “protected and mutually binding consultation” part. The disturbingly frequent arrests of journalists and alleged coup plotters, and now the state’s overreaction to nonviolent protests on matters of routine public policy, give the lie to the claim the Turkish state gives all citizens equal treatment and due process. Instead, we see a regime in which (paraphrasing Tilly) state agents increasingly use their power to punish their perceived enemies and reward their friends.

On this point, a couple of comments Prime Minister Erdogan made in a speech on Saturday speak volumes. Live-tweeting that speech, Turkish journalist Mahir Zeynalov spotlighted these choice remarks:

What those remarks reveal is a state that is happy to appeal to the citizens who reliably support it but closes off consultation with, and even bullies, the ones who don’t. The resulting regime may still be recognizable as a variation on the theme of democracy, but the discordant notes of authoritarianism are plainly audible and keep growing louder.

Leave a comment


  1. “Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and [the common elite view of democracy] has failed spectacularly in this regard.”

    With a minor revision, this statement applies to nearly every western democracy I can think of. Of Course this is all a matter of scale, but I believe it is still an interesting parallel that many US based observers refuse to look at.

    • Jonas

       /  June 16, 2013

      It’s the “End of History” as Fukuyama put it. Because democracy has won, there’s no reason to implement it fully anymore. People are optimizing away the consultation.

  2. Oral Hazard

     /  June 3, 2013

    Over the weekend, Erdogan was reported to have summarized his political position in terms of his party’s strong plurality over the next contender, with two other parties essentially as irrelevantly marginal. This seeming “bullying” as you aptly label it, smacks of the worst kind of populism from an aspirational “democratic” standpoint. Modern Turkey has had a spotty history, to put it very mildly, in its handling of ethic minorities (cf. Armenians, Kurds). The term “Tyranny of the Majority” comes to mind, a throwback to Ancient Greek “pure” democracy, as opposed to republican and/or representative variants.

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