Turkey: from Conservative Democracy to Popular Authoritarianism



On Sunday, November 1, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) regained its majority in the parliament, winning the 49 percent of the votes. The party secured 317 seats in a 550-member parliament to continue its single-party government for another term, after losing it in the June 7 elections.

Despite the party’s polarizing and divisive language, intolerance against dissent, and increasingly repressive stance toward minorities, the AKP was able to win a clear victory. The AKP’s victory officially completes the process of Turkey’s shift from conservative democracy to popular authoritarianism that has been evolving over the last few years.

It was again in November that the AKP first came to power thirteen years ago. Turkey had a democracy crisis on the eve of AKP’s coming to power. Between 1997 and 2002, the military-sanctioned governments implemented authoritarian policies that severely limited media freedoms, civil liberties, and state neutrality toward its citizens, particularly the religiously motivated ones. The state placed strict limitations over religiously-inspired social and political organizations. The Council of Higher Education increased its control over universities and strictly banned the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in universities.

The AKP, an offshoot of banned Islamist political parties, emerged as a promise to defeat military-guided authoritarian rule. The AKP denounced Islamism and pursued a reformist and democratic political strategy. The AKP, in alliance with liberals, minorities, and Islamic groups, strongly supported Turkey’s membership of the European Union. This democratic coalition weakened the military and strengthened Turkish democracy in the 2000s.

Thanks to this democratic transformation and the economic growth with which it went hand in hand, the AKP secured two more electoral victories in 2007 and 2011. This was the conservative democratic moment of the AKP.

The political environment prior to the elections this November was similar to, if not worse than, what it was thirteen years ago. However, this time AKP was not the victim, but the source of authoritarian policies.

The magic started to shatter after the 2011 parliamentary elections. The AKP changed its strategy from reform to the establishment of political domination in Turkey. Emboldened by consecutive electoral victories, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ambitiously sought to establish a Turkish-style presidential system in which he would have expansive powers to overhaul the system.

The 2011 Arab uprisings led the AKP government to contemplate further authoritarianism in two ways. First, the possibility that the groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement ideologically close to the AKP, would come to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, tempted the party into playing a regional role in the Middle East. The party revived its Islamist roots to this end.

Second, increasing instability in the Arab world made the AKP take an increasingly hostile stance toward dissent, under the assumption that the dissenters might overthrow the government. In Summer 2013, the government repressed the peaceful protestors who demonstrated to prevent the city government’s plan to construct a shopping mall in Gezi Park in Istanbul. Since then, Erdoğan’s outright rejection of any criticism of the government has steadily increased.

The corruption probe against four ministers in December 2013 was another turning point for the authoritarian tide. After that incident, the AKP quickly tightened its control over the judiciary through instituting new courts with politically-appointed judges and prosecutors and reassigning state officers. Politically-motivated courts started new investigations against the opposition, particularly the AKP’s former ally, the Gülen movement, accusing the opposition of plotting to overthrow the government.

The state pressure over media reached its zenith recently. Erdoğan sued hundreds of journalists for insulting the President. The courts broadened the definition of insult to include even the slightest criticism against the government and the President. Erdoğan has not only directly targeted Turkish journalists but also alienated foreign media and correspondents. Just a few days before the elections, state-appointed trustees took over the management of 22 companies of the Koza Ipek Holding, a conglomerate affiliated with the Gülen movement and known for its fierce opposition to the government. Through this move, the state indirectly seized control of two television channels and two newspapers very critical of the government.

Since the June 2015 elections, the AKP has drifted away from the negotiations it started with the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organization, to find a political solution to the decades-old Kurdish question. The government instead implemented a military strategy that unleashed a cycle of violence. In doing so, the AKP aimed to persuade the nationalist electorate to vote for the party.

In short, on the eve of the November elections, Turkey was under a strong authoritarian tide defined by the domination of the AKP, high contempt for criticism, a highly politicized judiciary, severely limited media freedoms, and an increasingly militaristic state.

However, as opposed to in 2002, the Turkish public was not so concerned with a bleeding democracy and its constrained freedoms. The AKP was able to gain the support of the half of the Turkish electorate despite its increasing authoritarianism. The electorate voted for a strong government for security and political stability at the expense of civil freedoms.

Prior to 2002, Turkey was experiencing a bureaucratic authoritarian moment which ended with the rise of conservative democracy. Today, Turkey is experiencing a popular authoritarian moment. The Turkish public is behind or at least not against the rising authoritarianism. Among various authoritarianisms, popular authoritarianism is the most difficult to defeat as there is little social resistance to the authoritarian policies.

Defeating popular authoritarianism requires relentless bottom-up work in an increasingly hostile environment toward criticism. The conclusion of the elections is clear: Turkey can expect very difficult days ahead in terms of preserving for itself a democracy that is not solely confined to the occasional vote.

Ramazan Kılınç is an assistant professor of Political Science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Follow him on Twitter at @KilincRamazan.

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