The Turkish republic was born a dictatorship in 1923. And there is a good chance that it would have stayed that way had it not been for the United States’ influence as the leading world power since 1945.
To see why, consider the two major democratic turning points in Turkey’s last 90 years. The first came in 1950, when the country’s first free, multiparty elections swept aside the authoritarian Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and brought to power the conservative Democratic Party (DP). Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, wanted Turkey to become Westernized, but the one-party rule that he put in place was deeply anti-liberal and inspired by Western rightist authoritarian political thought. In other words, true democracy did not necessarily figure among the principles that Atatürk wanted Turkey to follow.
The next major democratic transition took place roughly half a century later, in 2002, when the Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The AKP dismantled the system of military oversight over civilian politics that had been in place since 1960, when the military staged the first in a string of four coups that ensured that it always kept its hands on the levers of power. The AKP forced the military to accept civilian rule (and the rule of a civilian party the military disliked) and then pushed through legal changes that limited the military’s political role. Most important, it changed the composition of the National Security Council, the body that the military had used to impose its will on elected governments, by reducing the number of generals in the body and subordinating them to civilian representatives. It also staffed the judiciary with loyal judges and prosecutors, who have subsequently taken up the cases of hundreds of senior military officers accused of having plotted to overthrow the government. Although the AKP’s creeping authoritarianism has become a worry, it is hard to overstate just how important the early reforms that expelled the military from politics