Turkey's Democratic Mirage

The Powerbrokers Ankara Back

Shadows of protesters fall on a Turkish flag, October 28, 2006.
Shadows of protesters fall on a Turkish flag, October 28, 2006. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

In 1996, Ergun Ozbudun, a well-known and well-regarded Turkish academic, published an article in the Journal of Democracy called “Turkey: How Far from Consolidation?” Jumping off from the work of the political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell, Adam Przeworski, and Samuel Huntington, Ozbudun sought to examine the challenges to the development of consolidated democracy in Turkey. At the time Ozbudun was writing, Turkey had enjoyed multiparty politics since 1946 and had conducted 12 consecutive free and fair elections, and Turks had internalized democratic norms. But the country could still not be considered a consolidated democracy, a state of affairs in which democracy, has, in Przeworski’s words, “become the only game in town, when no one can imagine acting outside the democratic institutions, when all the losers want to do is to try again within the same institutions under which they have lost.” Ozbudun and other analysts of the era identified four primary obstacles: the fragmentation of party politics, the influential role of the military, Islamism and the lack of elite convergence between Islamist politicians and their secular counterparts, and Kurdish nationalism.

When, six years after Ozbudun’s article appeared, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power and launched a program of wide-ranging political reforms, observers held out hope that Turkey would overcome its problems. Yet for all the change that has come to the country in the decade since -- including to the normalization of the military’s role, the stabilization of party politics, and improvements in Kurds’ political, economic, and social status -- the Turkish political system remains precisely where it was when Ozbudun put pen to paper. The recent corruption scandal engulfing the AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is merely the most prominent and sensational manifestation of that reality. As in the 1990s, Turkey’s transition remains stuck between authoritarian breakdown and the consolidation of a democratic political order. Yet, if anything, Turkey’s problems are now more profound.

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