Erdogan's Coup

The True State of Turkish Democracy

Supporters hold up a portrait of Erdogan during an election rally in Istanbul, March 23, 2014.
Supporters hold up a portrait of Erdogan during an election rally in Istanbul, March 23, 2014. (Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters)

Western depictions of Turkish politics have finally begun to catch up with the authoritarian reality. As late as May 2012, Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, could state confidently that “the Justice and Development Party has done everything that it can” to forge “a more democratic, open country.” A year-and-a-half later, Cook would bemoan Turkey’s “democratic mirage,” citing Erdogan’s penchant for “using the institutions of the state for retribution and political intimidation” and manipulating the judiciary for “his own political ends.”

Given Erdogan’s behavior, the course correction is fully justified. But unfortunately, the West’s new narrative suffers from several weaknesses and omissions of its own. Turkey’s authoritarian turn is typically portrayed as a recent one, following on the heels of what are commonly described as significant democratic reforms in the last decade under Erdogan. With the latest turnaround blamed squarely on Erdogan, it is a relatively short jump from there to optimism about democracy’s prospects after him. That is the sentiment reflected in the MIT economist Daron Acemoglu’s recent article for Foreign Affairs, “The Failed Autocrat.”

We agree with many of Acemoglu’s points, especially with regard to the potential of a populace that seems ever “thirstier for political participation and democracy.” But his account conflates democratization with what was essentially a power shift away from the secular elite. It also underplays institutional decline under Erdogan, which will leave a problematic legacy for any successor. Furthermore, it neglects the contributions of many other actors to this legacy, including Erdogan’s one-time allies, the Gülenists. When these factors are taken into account, a different picture of the democratic challenges Turkey faces, with or without Erdogan, emerges.

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