Turkey Regresses Toward the Mean

Like many Turkey watchers, Erik Meyersson and Dani Rodrik argue in the latest Foreign Affairs that Turkey is no longer a democracy. In contrast to many Turkey watchers, they argue that this slide began early in the now-eleven-year rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and has continued apace ever since.

Turkey’s institutional deterioration is not a recent matter. It started long before Erdogan’s manifestly heavy-handed and polarizing responses to the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013 and to the corruption probe in winter 2013. The harsh crackdown on the media over the last year is but the latest phase in an ongoing process of repression of independent press. And Erdogan and the Gülenists have long manipulated the judiciary, using it to harass and jail opponents on charges ranging from the flimsy to the fabricated.

If this is correct—and I believe it is—then Turkey has essentially regressed toward the mean. Most attempts at democracy fail, and in the past 20 years, most of those failures have come in the form of consolidations of incumbent advantage. An authoritarian regime breaks down; competitive elections are held; a party wins those elections; and, finally, that party uses its incumbency to retool the machinery of the state in ways that ensure it stays in power.

Consolidations of incumbent advantage are common, in part, because most political organizations covet power, especially once they attain it. Even when those organizations don’t covet power, though, uncertainty about the willingness of their political rivals and the military to abide by democratic rules gives ruling parties added incentive to tighten their grip on government as a way to avoid their worst-case scenarios involving the re-establishment of authoritarian rule under someone else.

In my book on dilemmas of democratic consolidation, written about five years ago, I used Turkey under the AKP as a example of how, counterintuitively, these pressures could sometimes counterbalance each other and actually help democracy persist. In the Turkish case, it was the military’s traditional role as the guarantor of secular republicanism and final arbiter of political disputes that seemed to be checking democracy’s normal tendencies toward consolidation of incumbent advantage. The threat of a military coup was in a kind of sweet spot: it was still real enough to deter the AKP from trying nakedly to impose authoritarian rule, but it was no longer so strong that AKP would feel compelled to act aggressively in order to protect against its least-preferred outcome.

Apparently, that’s changed. Over the past decade, the risk of a military coup has declined enough that AKP no longer regards it as a credible threat. Of course, AKP helped bring about this shift, and thus the consolidation of its own power, with its dogged prosecution of the the alleged Ergenekon coup plot. As Erik Meyersson pointed out in an email to me, AKP’s sheer electoral power surely helped to deter military intervention as well. Had the military usurped power from Erdogan and his colleagues, the ensuing social and economic upheaval would likely have rendered the coup a poisoned chalice. Ironically, Turkey’s membership in NATO may have played a role, too, by helping to socialize Turkish officers against direct intervention in politics.

Whatever the precise and ultimately unknowable causes of this regression are, the status that still seemed fuzzy to me a year ago is now clear. Turkey has joined the ranks of the world’s electoral authoritarian regimes, full stop. In so doing, it has followed the modal path of attempts at democracy in the post–Cold War period, giving us another reminder that “normal” isn’t necessarily better.

Leave a comment


  1. Great post. Love the historical/trend perspective.

    My only question (and I’m not sure if this is answerable) is what makes the victor of a post-coup/revolution democratic election move towards consolidation as opposed to Ginsburg’s “insurance policy” wherein democratic rules (mainly an independent judiciary with judicial review) are set up based on uncertainty in future elections? Or are we just declaring the insurance policy dead and gone, a relic of the East Asian context in which it was written?


    • Thanks for the nice words about the post, Andrew, and for pointing me toward Ginsburg’s work, which I didn’t know.

      Unburdened by his theory and evidence, though, I would suggest that the establishment and persistence of an independent judiciary is largely endogenous to the consolidation process on which my theoretical model focuses. Ditto for bureaucracies of electoral administration. Once established, these institutions can have independent effects, but those effects are small in comparison to the incentives and commitment problems confronting leading political parties and the military. Consolidation only happens when those organizations either want it to or can no longer do enough to stop it.

      • Andrew Friedman

         /  May 28, 2014

        I appreciate the response. That certainly makes sense, though I would hope (perhaps against hope) that there exists a point where an independent judiciary, and potentially further institutional checks and balances, allow for side by side development of institutions and independence that at least checks against authoritarianism in some way.

        I.E A dominant and unchecked party consolidates power, but competition within that party for power between branches leads to some sort of checks. A sort of immensely idealized “intra-party democracy” in the Chinese model.

        Again, this is perhaps a hope against hope, and would be interesting to analyze, but I am unburdened by an enormous amount of useful facts, at least for now.

        As for the Ginsburg research I mentioned, it’s a great read. http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0521817153?pc_redir=1401163718&robot_redir=1

      • It’s possible that I’m too pessimistic about the marginal effects of these institutions. I have seen well-crafted evidence that the structure of election management bodies, for example, does affect the quality of elections, which directly and indirectly affects prospects for the persistence of democracy (see Robert Pastor 1999 and Sarah Birch 2007). Ditto for international election observation missions, per Susan Hyde’s work. And this is consistent with what my formal model implies. Other things being equal, things that reduce players’ uncertainty about whether or not rivals can cheat and get away with it should help address the commitment problem that can tempt them into defensive coups, and things that reduce players’ capacity to cheat should usually make that branch of the decision tree less appealing.

        Still, there are a few reasons I stick with skepticism. First, the formal model also implies that these effects will be modest in comparison to variations in players’ preferences and other sources of variation in their capacities. Second and maybe more important, the design and production of these institutions is endogenous to the politics that pull societies toward or away from democratic breakdown in the first place, so it’s hard to see how to get to these things in cases that weren’t already headed in that direction. External expertise and pressure do not solve this problem because they don’t solve the politics, and sometimes they even exacerbate it.

        If we stretch our view to the long term (i.e., decades instead of single election cycles), though, then I get a bit more optimistic. At this scale, I can see better how the establishment of certain organizational structures staffed by professionals with certain ideas about their roles can create path dependencies that help societies get stuck on a democratic track as those other pressures diminish.

  2. cem

     /  May 28, 2014

    great analysis of turkey. finally someone from the west of the world made a correct assumption about the fundamentals and real politics we have in our country. congratulations. though, the seculars of the country have long been warning the EU and the USA about the secret agenda of AKP and erdogan, and they somehow willingly or unwillingly disregarded it. In all honesty, EU was much against the turkish army from the start, not because it was a burden for the turkish democracy and civil liberties, but it was keeping this country rather stable and in unity. Most of us in turkey know that, once the secular establishment is completely down and kurdistan is founded on the other side of the country, many policy-makers in the west of europe will have smiles of their faces. they deceived the turkish public by the EU admission bait for years, whilst totally destroying the foundations of Ataturk’s republic from a distance. AKP also profits from this hatred of EU and the western hypocrisy as more and more people drift towards far-right nationalism.

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