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.


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.

The Geology of Democratization

For the past 25 years, when we’ve talked about democratization, we’ve used the lexicon of transitions. As the prevailing narrative would have it, the breakdown of authoritarian rule launches a process of institution-building that leads eventually to democracy. Political democratization is the conjoined twin of social and economic modernization, and any country moving away from an authoritarian regime can usefully be described as “in transition” to a democratic one.

In geological terms, the transitions approach likens democratization to the production of igneous rock. Over time, pressures build under the crust of an existing authoritarian order. When that pressure becomes too intense, an eruption occurs. The old order is shattered, and fresh material pours onto the surface. That fresh material gradually but inexorably cools and hardens into a new, more modern order. The process might take a while, and parts of the new formation might crack and crumble while young, but the basic process is one of unidirectional transformation through disruption, replacement, and consolidation.

I don’t think the transitions metaphor works very well, and I’m not alone in that view. Ten years ago, Thomas Carothers wrote an essay called “The End of the Transitions Paradigm” that nicely showed how the transitions metaphor misrepresented the messier reality of modern regime change, and how that mismatch had often led Western foreign policy and aid astray.

Carothers’ essay was read widely in professional circles, but it doesn’t seem to have produced the gestalt shift to which its title aspired. Twenty years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, we still talk about the states born of that collapse being “lost in transition.” One of the first things the U.S. Department of State did after the Arab Spring hit was to open a Middle East Transitions Office that could coordinate and oversee U.S. policy toward the three “transition countries” of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) still maintains an Office of Transition Initiatives that motivates its existence with a narrative of disruption, opportunity, and consolidation.

I think the biggest problem with the transitions metaphor is that it misrepresents the nature of the underlying change process. Returning to the language of geology, I think democratization is more like the production of sedimentary rock than igneous. Institutions aren’t destroyed, replaced, and consolidated; as Francis Fukuyama masterfully describes in The Origins of Political Order, they are laid down in layers. New and old abut and sometimes comingle at the edges, but the one does not supplant the other. Instead, many layers coexist, and over time the process of layering interacts with other forces, like gravity and erosion, to produce something different from the sum of its parts. The heart of the process is not disruption but accretion. Change does not occur in a sequence; instead, it occurs through the interaction of multiple processes occurring on different time scales.

We can see this kind of accretive process occurring in “transitional” countries like Egypt, where the dramatic changes that have followed Mubarak’s ouster–the establishment of a new ruling council, the emergence of new political parties, and the convocation of a freshly elected parliament–have been poured atop a political economy that does yet not seem to have cracked or shifted.

We can see the interaction between layering and other forces in “consolidating” countries like Turkey, where the military’s role as political overseer wasn’t ended abruptly but instead shifted gradually as military elites became sandwiched between strengthening Islamist forces and the hardening expectations of its NATO allies.

We can even see these complex and cumulative effects at work in authoritarian regimes like China’s, where traditional kinship groups are the organizational form through which some of the most powerful demands for democratization are being expressed. Those demands, in turn, are arising in response to land grabs driven by the interplay of newer forces of globalization and long-standing forms of elite privilege.

Carothers’ 2002 essay might not have transformed the way we talk about democratization, but it’s not because he was wrong. Where the prevailing metaphor sees disruption and displacement, a closer look at the world suggests a more complex process of accumulation and gradual transformation. Maybe intellectual orders work like political ones, and the shift away from teleological metaphors of transition and consolidation will happen gradually and subtly. However it happens, it would be nice to see it happen soon.

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