Erdogan’s path of 'illiberal democracy'

To understand where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking Turkey, look to Latin America.

al-monitor Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his wife Emine Erdogan and Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy Chairman Mehmet Ali Sahin attend a meeting where Erdogan is named as his party's candidate in Ankara, July 1, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.
Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol


Topics covered

turkish politics, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, presidential elections, justice and development party, dictator, democracy

Jul 2, 2014

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his candidacy for the presidency with an impressive address to some 4,000 supporters in a large hall in Ankara. He began with a long prayer, followed by a lengthy account of the oppression of Turkey’s religiously conservative masses, whom he ultimately liberated. Erdogan called himself a mere mortal who serves a larger “cause,” whose previous leaders included Selahaddin Eyyubi, the great Islamic commander from the 12th century, and the founders of the Seljuk and Ottoman empires.

The audience enthusiastically applauded and cheered. A song's repetition of “Recep, Tayyip, Erdogan” filled the air, leaving many in tears. At the center of all this attention stood Erdogan, the only basis of authority, the only source of power.

Erdogan's announcement kicked off his campaign to become Turkey's first directly elected president. In the first round of elections Aug. 10, he has two noteworthy opponents: Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the joint candidate of the two main opposition parties, and Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate favored by Kurdish nationalists. Regardless, many in Turkey believe that Erdogan will win, if not in the first round, then in the second, on Aug. 24, in which the two top candidates from the first round will compete.

The current question in Turkey is what kind of “regime” will emerge after Erdogan's election. He has left no doubt that he wants to remain in office until 2024, at least, and turn the presidency into a powerful position, with full control over the executive, the legislative and, to some extent, even the judicial branch of government. This is why many of Erdogan’s die-hard opponents are already condemning him as a “dictator.” It all sounds like nonsense, however, to Erdogan and his supporters, who emphasize that he is in power because he and his party have been winning free and fair elections. Erdogan himself has said on many occasions, “If I am a dictator, then come beat me at the elections.”

In this, Erdogan is right, and the opposition’s accusations of “dictatorship” are wrong. The kind of “democracy” Erdogan spearheads, however, requires some qualification. One public intellectual who recently commented on this issue is political scientist and professor Mustafa Erdogan, a pillar of classical liberal thought in Turkey. Once a defender of the prime minister, the academic gradually grew more critical and joined the ranks of numerous others who had lost their newspaper columns and political TV shows.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera Turk, Mustafa Erdogan stated: “What Erdogan has in mind is a Latin American style of governance where one single leader controls the totality of political power. Of course, this is a conceptualization that is impossible to be separated from his perception of himself. He seems to think that he has an almost divinely ordained mission for establishing such a leadership.”

The so-called Latin American style that Erdogan speaks of is also what political scientists refer to as illiberal democracy, a system where free and fair elections are held, but civil liberties — such as freedom of the press and assembly — are limited. Illiberal democracies can be ranked as “democratic” if one only considers holding free elections. They typically rank as only “partly free” when civil liberties are measured objectively, such as Freedom House does.

Not all Latin American countries are illiberal democracies, but. according to academics Peter H. Smith and Melissa R. Ziegler, this particular form of democracy was “the most common, pervasive, and visible form of political organization” in Latin America from the late 1970s into the 21st century. Typical examples include Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Argentina under Carlos Menem and Bolivia under Evo Morales. Chavez’s populist democracy is particularly interesting, in the way he was associated with “the people” and the way his references to Christianity implied an almost messianic mission to “save” the people.

Looking at Prime Minister Erdogan, one sees evidence of a clear trajectory toward illiberal democracy as well. He tellingly insists that “democracy is all about the ballot box.” When it comes to civil liberties, however, things get complicated. To his credit, Erdogan has been a liberator of sorts, especially for conservative Muslims, Kurds and Christians — traditionally oppressed by Turkey’s secular nationalist old establishment. He is intolerant, however, toward criticism and protest against his rule and has proven himself willing to silence dissent as much as he can. Erdogan's authoritarian tendency has become more visible as he has assumed more power. Civil liberties, especially freedom of press, have began to shrink, as recently documented by Freedom House.

All this is not to imply that Erdogan has been an unsuccessful leader. Some of his policies are still helping the nation. His economic successes, along with huge improvements in health care, transportation and infrastructure, cannot be overlooked. His peace process with militant Kurdish nationalists and his broader effort to “solve the Kurdish question” should be supported by all liberals, as should his effort toward reconciliation with the Armenians.

One must recognize that illiberal democracy exists in part because the majority of the “the people” like it. Despite its democratic history, Turkey is still a deeply patriarchal society where many admire a strong leader who bangs his fist on the table and singlehandedly leads the nation without the hassle of checks and balances.

In short, one should not be so naive or so partisan as to believe that an Erdogan presidency will make Turkey a haven of democracy, if one means liberal democracy. If elected, Erdogan is likely to become an all-powerful and illiberal president whose authoritarianism will further antagonize already discontented groups, deepening the country’s polarization. The not-so-bad news is that in the long run, this will probably not be the last stop for Turkish democracy, but one along a learning curve that will bring about a more liberal future.

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