Turkey’s Democratic Tipping Point
Erdogan’s resounding victory could mean he’s ready to set aside the politics of division and fear and govern the country again. Or it could mean just the opposite.
Purely by coincidence, I was in Istanbul when Turkey’s latest national elections were held. Not surprisingly, it was one of the main topics of conversation during my visit there, and my Turkish friends had lots of interesting things to say about the AKP’s victory and its implications. What did I hear, and what do I think it means?
Let’s start with some truth in advertising: I am most definitely not an expert on Turkey. I wrote about the 1919 revolution in one of my books, and I analyzed Turkish alliance policy in one article back in the 1980s. That’s the extent of my scholarly expertise on this subject.
Moreover, like a number of other people in the United States, my views on contemporary Turkey and the AKP have changed sharply over the past decade. I began to take a growing interest in Turkey around 2004, back when its economy was soaring and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed to offer a model for a genuinely democratic Islamist party. It was also a well-organized and modern political machine, and its successful effort to sideline the Turkish military was itself a remarkable political achievement.
I was also intrigued by the AKP’s foreign policy strategy, and especially the “zero problems with neighbors” approach associated with then-foreign minister (and now prime minister) Ahmet Davutoglu. In particular, I thought this approach was a creative attempt to take advantage of Turkey’s unusual geopolitical position and that it had a good chance of maximizing Turkey’s regional influence. By having good relations with (nearly) everyone, Ankara sought to position itself as a crucial intermediary in a deeply divided region. I had several meetings with Turkish officials during this period, and came away impressed by their sophistication, ambition, and deep historical knowledge. And some Turkish acquaintances of a decidedly leftist or liberal bent were enthusiastic defenders of the AKP at the time — albeit with occasional reservations.
The bottom line: I was pretty favorably disposed to Turkey under the AKP. But like a number of other observers, my enthusiasm began to wane as the less savory features of its rule became more apparent. Partly it was the AKP’s hardnosed campaign against press freedom, which is why it now ranks 149th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index. Partly it was the bizarre allegations of the so-called “Sledgehammer” conspiracy (an alleged military plot to overthrow the government), which my colleague Dani Rodrik and others showed were fabrications. Partly it was then-Prime Minister (and now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thin-skinned sensitivity to any sort of criticism, and his tendency to blame problems on secret foreign conspiracies.
Given all of these problems, I thought the June elections — when the AKP lost its majority in parliament — were a potential watershed moment for modern Turkish democracy. Had the AKP been replaced by a coalition and gone into opposition, the result might have been a less stable and efficient government but it would also have set a valuable precedent. For any democracy to function well over the long term, different groups have to be willing to relinquish power when defeated, confident that they will be able to win at some point down the road. When a single party dominates year after year and the opposition comes to believe it has no chance of ever gaining power, the temptation to contemplate other means of gaining power is almost certain to grow. For this reason, a peaceful transfer of power back in June would have been a healthy sign.
But this was not to be, because the AKP’s rivals were unable to form a coalition (no doubt to Erdogan’s great satisfaction). So he called for another election, and this time the AKP regained its parliamentary majority, thereby securing Erdogan’s position for another four years. As president, Erdogan’s formal powers are limited, but he remains the dominant force in Turkish politics and hopes to revise the constitution to create a more powerful executive presidency.
Here’s what worries me: All human beings are fallible, and no politician or ruling elite gets everything right. Democracy’s main virtue is that it allows the rest of society to identify, debate, and criticize what government officials are doing wrong, which in turn makes it easier to avoid mistakes and to correct them when they do occur.
Over the past decade, unfortunately, Erdogan and the AKP have tried to stack the deck in their favor in a number of ways, and especially to limit criticism or open displays of dissent. These and other tactics were all at work in the most recent election on Nov. 1: Pro-AKP mobs attacked several media organizations, the government blamed the recent terrorist bombings in Ankara on a wholly unlikely “terror cocktail” of Islamic State and Kurdish groups, and the government TV station gave the AKP a vastly disproportionate share of coverage in the days before the voting. As Max Hoffman and Michael Werz at the Center for American Progress put it, the election was “mostly free but deeply unfair.”
This outcome is worrisome because Turkey faces major challenges for which there are no easy solutions. The “zero problems with neighbors” policy is a failure and Turkey is now at odds with Israel, deeply opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria (once a very close friend), and facing new challenges from Kurdish groups both inside Turkey and in Iraq and Syria. It is also deeply hostile to the Islamic State and its relations with Iran — another former friend and key trading partner — have been badly strained by Tehran’s support for Assad. These problems have hit Turkey’s economy hard and it has struggled in recent years, with the lira declining sharply against the dollar and its dependence on continued foreign investment granting it a prominent place on Morgan Stanley’s “Fragile Five.”
Ironically, concerns about these problems probably helped the AKP to victory, as it went to great lengths to portray itself as the party that would provide stability and order. Yet meeting these challenges is going to be harder if the AKP believes it has been vindicated, if its leaders continue to regard themselves as infallible, and if they opt to rule without regard for critical voices.
As several of my Turkish colleagues emphasized, the AKP’s victory could be grounds for optimism. According to this version of events, Erdogan and the AKP were genuinely startled by the results in June, and they sought to regain their parliamentary majority by abandoning the earlier peace effort towards the Kurds, by maximizing perceptions of foreign dangers, and by heightening the polarization in Turkish society while presenting themselves as the best guarantors of stability. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and former U.S. President George W. Bush, Erdogan & Co. sought to win support by exploiting public fears.
With its position now solidified, however, the “half-full” interpretation predicts the AKP will now start to reach out to liberals who have been alarmed by some of its earlier policies, begin overdue structural reforms (greater central bank independence, export promotion, efforts to increase human capital, etc.), and resume efforts at making peace with the Kurds. This optimistic interpretation may help explain why the Turkish stock market jumped more than 5 percent the day after the election.
But there is a darker possibility too. Erdogan and the AKP may view this victory as a sign that they have been on the right track all along. He may continue to maneuver to revise the constitution (as these early statements suggest), continue to hinder press freedom, put more pressure on academic institutions deemed unfriendly to the government, and do little to reduce the deepening political polarization within Turkey. This approach will make many Europeans and Americans uneasy, but neither Washington nor any European governments are likely to do much about it given Turkey’s strategic importance regarding the tangled events in Syria and the struggle against the Islamic State (and the migrant crisis they’ve spawned). Washington and Brussels looked the other way when Turkey’s generals trampled human rights during the 20th century; they are unlikely to act differently now.
Which of these two scenarios is most likely? I have no idea, but I do believe Turkey is at a crossroads and the direction it takes will have lasting consequences. Its future will depend in part on how its economy fares, and that depends in part on forces the government cannot fully control. But it also depends on whether its current leaders pursue the short-term goal of maximizing their own power and glory, or the longer-term goal of building institutions that seek to profit from constructive dissent, and recognize that transfers of power are ultimately a strength and not a weakness.
Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.