In June 2014, Mr. Erdogan stepped down as Prime Minister and handed the reigns of his ruling Justice and Development Party to Ahmet Davutoglu, taking up the largely ceremonial position of the presidency instead. Much like the status of Turkey’s democracy, however, this transition of power was in name only.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was Prime Minister, and Turkey was being hailed by international observers as the moderate, democratic bridge between the West and the Islamic world. Like many other emerging economies, Turkey instituted sweeping political and economic liberalization and reaped the benefits. For a time, the country’s economy grew with double digits, and the AKP seemed committed to improving Turkey’s relations with its neighbors and its Kurdish minority. Prime Minister Erdogan fostered inter-party cooperation, broke the military’s hold over Turkish politics, and spoke loftily of democracy and a brighter future. He hugged the E.U. tight so that it might one day return his embrace.
As President, he has chosen a different course. Although the Turkish presidency has traditionally been a ceremonial role above parliamentary politics, or second-in-command, following the example set by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, Erdogan has paid no mind to this technicality. Instead, he manages to retain control of his party from the luxurious $600 million presidential palace he built for himself last year. He has employed his increasingly concentrated power to continue a wide-ranging crackdown beginning in 2007 against all dissenting voices and any threats to his rule, especially those emanating from the secular, military establishment. The AKP manufactured evidence of an elaborate coup against Erdogan and jailed various elements of the opposition, including hundreds of journalists, often without the burden of due process. The party has even used the pretense of its escalating conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to have the state take over media outlet after media outlet, firing or even assaulting journalists critical of Erdogan. The result is that Turkey, whose few institutions capable of obstructing the AKP’s lust for power have been sidelined and derided as enemies of the state, more closely resembles Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China than its NATO counterparts and Western allies.
This is not to say that the AKP’s initial fears of a coup were unfounded. Since 1960, the military, representing the interests of Turkey’s secular establishment and operating through a subterranean apparatus known as the “deep state,” has deposed democratically elected governments on numerous occasions. Furthermore, the AKP’s Islamist bent is antithetical to the secular values on which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk originally founded Turkey, and Erdogan himself spent four months in jail in 1999 on the trumped up charges of “inciting racial and religious strife.” These coups and rejections of the people’s will have consistently degraded Turkey’s institutional framework. Turkey’s current constitution was imposed by the military in 1982 after yet another coup, and the majority of its text has been altered since. Given this history, the plausibility, and perhaps inevitability, of Erdogan’s slow transition to authoritarianism comes into clearer focus.
Turkey’s descent into illiberal majoritarianism or authoritarianism is a troubling trend, and the West seems unable to express anything other than rhetorical “concern” for Turkey’s democracy. Once again, the international system confronts in Turkey the enigmatic conflict between its interests and its values. On one hand, Turkey has been in NATO since 1952, and its role as a bulwark of regional stability and a key ally to the United States has remained a constant, despite its internal political convulsions. On the other hand, Turkey has time and again demonstrated its unwillingness to establish rule of law, democratic processes, and basic civil liberties.
The long-roiling dispute over E.U. membership for Turkey is a revealing flashpoint. The country has been seeking accession to the E.U. for nearly two decades, but the European community repeatedly denied it entry over its lack of substantive political reform. Today, the E.U. once more dangles membership in exchange for close cooperation over the refugees spilling out from the chaos of the Middle East. If the E.U. accepts Turkey now and not in the 2000s, then that would be a clear abdication of its responsibility to uphold the norms it codifies in exchange for short-term political gain. The West needs Turkey’s further cooperation to end the Syrian civil war and stem the tide of refugees at the source. But Turkey is more concerned with tamping down the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, who it believes are in league with the PKK. This has led the country to arm indiscriminately even the most extremist factions of the rebel groups against the Assad regime, including Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, in the hope of emerging as the preeminent force and crushing any chance of Kurdish autonomy. These machinations further exacerbate conditions on the ground in Syria.
During the 1990s, when the United States stood as the unrivaled and sole superpower of a world reshaped by the power of its example, Francis Fukuyama captured the prevailing sentiment of the time in his essay predicting the end of history; the world, he argued, would inevitably accept “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” in the long run. Since then, however, democracy has been in retreat. Turkey is not the only country that has regressed into some form of illiberalism. Far-right parties are gaining ground across Europe, a continent whose security, prosperity, and openness are at the core of the post-WWII international system. Where once the United States and the world saw history as converging on a single point of enlightened democratic governance, now it seems the best we can hope for is patchwork stability and the continued codification of international norms and rules, with the faint hope that they will mostly be respected. The West must continue to speak to democracy and human rights, and it must encourage democracy wherever it may viably take root. But the hard lesson that the 21st century has imposed on us all, with Iraq and Syria in mind, is that the state of nature lurks under the shadow of despots, and that life can quickly become nasty, brutish, and short as chaos festers within the carcass of a deceased regime. Turkey demonstrates that the international community no longer has the luxury of sermonizing. It must settle for a narrow, traditional alignment of interests and not the broad poetry of values, as Erdogan shovels dirt onto the freshly dug grave of Turkey’s democracy.