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.