In just over a decade, the Republic of Turkey has gone from a period of promising political liberalization to fast-approaching one-man rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, notes a new report. If Erdoğan’s proposed new powerful executive presidency is approved by voters in the April 16 referendum, meaningful limits on his rule may disappear, writes Howard Eissenstat, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
Turkey’s failure of democratization does not lie primarily in the ruling AKP’s ties to political Islam, as two other factors were more important in making the AKP a flawed vessel for democratization, he contends in “Erdoğan As Autocrat: A Very Turkish Tragedy”:
- First, the party was unable to cut its ties to a deeply illiberal Turkish state tradition: an obsession with centralized control, an overly politicized bureaucracy, weak rule of law, and a jealous blend of religion and nationalism honed by Turkey’s military rulers after the 1980 coup. The path to a truly democratic Turkey would have required a clearer break from this past than the AKP leadership was willing to make.
- Second, the AKP’s domination of the political system—and Erdoğan’s domination of the AKP—have centralized political power to a degree that is unprecedented since the death of the founder of the Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1938. The state has become largely an extension of the ruling party and of Erdoğan’s power.
With all the resources the state has put behind a vote held during a state of emergency in which dissenting media have been literally taken over by police, some two-fifths of the country is still not buying what Erdoğan is selling, notes Nate Schenkkan, Project Director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House:
This should say something about the “stability” that the referendum will bring. Turkey is a large and diverse country—ethnically, religiously, and politically. Governing this complex polity demands the opposite of what the constitutional changes entail: more powers for local representatives, protection of minority rights, a lower electoral threshold for entering parliament, and room for political experimentation. Stability through force has not worked before, and it is not going to work now.
“Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the damage done to Turkey’s institutions, economy, and social fabric by the breakdown of rule of law and rights protections will not be repaired easily; further instability is likely,” Eissenstat concludes. RTWT
POMED is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.