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

Turkey's Democratic Mirage

The Powerbrokers Ankara Back

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.

That story begins with AKP’s first term, which lasted from 2002 through 2007. In those days, pragmatism and consensus marked Turkish politics. There were controversies, of course, but Erdogan seemed determined not to do anything that would unnecessarily aggravate opponents and jeopardize his ambitious agenda. The first outward signs that something was amiss -- that the AKP and others sought both to use the institutions of the state and to circumvent them -- came with the Ergenekon conspiracy. In June 2007, Istanbul police uncovered an alleged plot between military officers, intelligence operatives, and organized crime figures to overthrow the government. The investigation brought relief and a certain amount of good cheer to many Turks, who had long lived in fear of what is commonly referred to as the deep state.

After Ergenekon came the Sledgehammer investigation in 2010, which ensnared large numbers of senior military commanders in another suspected effort to bring down the government. Given Turkey’s history of coups d’état -- there were four such military interventions between 1960 and 1997 -- the alleged schemes seemed entirely plausible. And, again, there was reason for the Turkish public to take comfort in the investigations. In time, however, it came to light that significant portions of the evidence in both cases were flimsy or even fabricated. Ergenekon, in particular, became a conspiracy within a conspiracy, used to go after both people who could very well have been plotting to overthrow the elected government and outspoken but otherwise peaceful critics of the AKP. Also a target were those who criticized the party’s allies at the time, the followers of Fethullah Gulen -- a Turkish cleric in self-imposed exile in the United States whose followers are believed to be heavily represented in the Turkish bureaucracy, particularly among the police and prosecutors.

None of this is to suggest that everyone caught up in Ergenekon and the related investigations was innocent, but in the prosecutors’ zeal to protect the rule of law by razing Turkey’s robust and quite often repressive national security state, they did the opposite. Their case failed to meet even minimum legal standards and became little more than a witch-hunt. Turkey is not unique in this regard, of course, but the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer episodes were clearly as much about using the institutions of the state for retribution and political intimidation as they were about seeking justice for wrongdoing.

No episode reveals more clearly Turkish political elites’ desire to manipulate the country’s political institutions than the AKP’s 2010 referendum on constitutional amendments. The vote, which was trumpeted as another step in the AKP’s drive to forge a more democratic Turkey, included a little more than two dozen changes, among which were innocuous provisions for the protection of children’s rights, freedom of residence and movement, and the right to petition, acquire information, and appeal. At the heart of the referendum, though, was an effort to alter the political complexion of a judiciary that had proved hostile to the AKP. Almost exactly two years prior, Turkey’s constitutional court found evidence supporting a charge that AKP aimed to undermine the secular nature of the Turkish republic. The justices of the country’s highest court fell just one vote short of the seven (out of 11) needed to shut down the party. Instead, it was forced to pay a fine of $20 million. Determined never to allow the AKP to meet the same fate as its predecessors, which had all been dismantled by either coup or court order, Erdogan set out to remake the judiciary.

Few objective observers of Turkish politics would argue that Turkey’s judicial system is not in need of reform. The courts do not meet international standards, and Kemalism -- a world-view associated with the Turkish republic’s founder, Ataturk, that is implicitly hostile to pluralism and inclusivity -- tends to dominate within the ranks of justices. Erdogan’s proposed constitutional amendments to revamp the judicial system did little to resolve either problem. Rather, they gave the government greater ability to appoint new judges and fill vacancies with justices whose views align with those of the AKP. It is true that such court packing is often one of the spoils that go to electoral winners. The practice has some history in the United States, where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court in order to ensure the integrity of his New Deal. Yet the Turkish and American cases are comparable only in the abstract. Prime Minister Erdogan’s thinly veiled effort to use the courts to empower the AKP is hardly the equivalent of Roosevelt’s effort to confront the massive social dislocation of the Great Depression.

Beyond packing the courts, Erdogan has sought to leverage Turkey’s very need for a new constitution to his own political ends. The 1982 constitution, which was written at the behest of the military junta that took over the country in 1980, is not -- despite the many amendments to it -- democratic. Turks have long acknowledged that the country needs a civil constitution geared more toward safeguarding citizens’ rights than protecting the state from citizens. In October 2011, Erdogan announced with much fanfare that Turkey would get that new constitution within a year. But, unsurprisingly, the 12-month timeline proved to be too ambitious. Constitution drafting is never easy; although the documents ultimately reflect the interests of those who hold power, they are also the product of heated political struggle and compromise. Turkey’s is no different.

As a result of what was turning out to be a long delay, in the spring of 2013, Erdogan floated the idea of going around the commission charged with drafting the constitution and taking the AKP’s own version directly to the people in a referendum. The Turkish leader, who according to AKP bylaws cannot serve another term in his current position as prime minister, had ulterior motives. He sought a constitution that vastly increased the power of Turkey’s apolitical presidency so that he could continue to rule the country in that role. After protests this spring, which made clear that, given the profound public anger at Erdogan, an executive presidency was too much weight for the Turkish political system to bear, the AKP let the entire constitutional enterprise die. This rare defeat brought into sharp relief the fact that the AKP was intent on writing a constitution for Erdogan rather than for Turkey.

If Ergenekon, the September 2010 referendum, and the now-failed constitution gambit showcase how Turkey’s political leaders have sought to use democratic political institutions for their own non-democratic ends, the spectacular corruption scandal that is shaking the country highlights the willingness of the players to go beyond the bounds of democratic institutions to achieve their goals. Confronted with mounting corruption charges, the prime minister and his party are ready to interfere with the investigation. Within a week of the initial police raids on high-profile AKP affiliated businessmen, politicians, and their kin, Erdogan sacked more than 50 police commanders and investigators, declared the inquiry a “dirty operation,” and --just as he did during the Gezi Park protests in the spring of 2013 -- blamed foreigners jealous of Turkey’s success for the upheaval. There have also been signals that Erdogan and the AKP would be willing to come to an accommodation with the military if gave them an advantage against their now common adversaries within the Gulen movement, which is widely suspected of breaking the corruption scandal.

In one fell swoop, Erdogan politicized the investigation, undermined the constitutional prerogatives of police and prosecutors, and ensured that his core constituency would never accept the outcome of the inquiry because of their wariness of foreign meddling. In addition, by floating the idea of freeing military officers under the pretense of prosecutorial (i.e., Gulenist) misconduct, Erdogan has raised the prospect that the Turkish military could once again play a role in politics, this time in collaboration with the AKP. This would violate both a set of norms and formal institutions concerned with the proper place of the military in a democracy that Erdogan and his colleagues within the party have worked hard to embed in the Turkish political system during the past decade. None of this matters to the prime minister and to party leaders, whose fealty to democratic change extends only so far as it advances their interests. Confronted with the most serious political threat of the AKP era, the party’s leaders have demonstrated a total disregard for the rule of law and Turkey’s existing democratic institutions.

Much of the reporting and commentary on the scandal has drawn the followers of Fethullah Gulen among the police and the prosecutors as white hats. This should not be much of a surprise given the AKP’s thuggish approach to politics, but the Gulenists are not above reproach. They too have resorted to non-democratic measures for political advantage. Much of the paranoia that gripped Turkey between roughly 2007 and 2010 at the height of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations was a function of -- as many suspected at the time and the current corruption scandal seems to confirm -- Gulenists within the police force and prosecutor’s office spying on people they regarded as opponents of their movement. Various recordings that have come to light as part of the graft and corruption probe and incriminate the AKP only reinforce the idea that, although Gulen’s followers might be making credible claims about upholding the law, they -- like a fictionalized crime family -- have been seeking insurance against their onetime allies for some time. It may very well be that those AKP figures and their associates are guilty of the crimes for which they have been accused, but this does not diminish the fact Gulenists have gone well beyond the bounds of law. In the abstract, their behavior is not altogether different from the AKP’s.

Observers of Turkish politics have come to lament the illiberal turn in Turkish politics over the last few years, but the current scandal illuminates another way of looking at the AKP decade. There have, no doubt, been important changes in Turkish politics, in particular the participation of new and different groups. At the same time, it is fair to say that it is still far -- as far as it was in the 1990s -- from democracy.

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