Welcome to demokrasi: Turkey’s ‘new form’ of illiberal democracy


After a decade in power, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presides over a new form of democracy that the west neither likes nor understands: an authoritarian regime that exalts the will of the majority, argues analyst Christopher de Bellaigue.

Erdoğan is less an aberration than the vanguard of a global trend: the dissolution of the supposedly universal democratic ideal into many indigenised “versions” of democracy, he writes for The Guardian:

The world’s growing ranks of elected authoritarians may be refashioning democracy in their own image, but they still face considerable obstacles to out-and-out despotism. These regimes are defined in part by their proud disregard for the views of the minority – but an unrelenting majoritarianism hardens the opposition of the excluded.

Erdoğan still operates under significant political constraints. The country’s Kurdish, Alevi, and secularist communities, who distrust him intensely, add up to roughly half of Turkey’s population of 75 million. For all the AKP’s status as Turkey’s unrivalled party of government, under Erdoğan’s unquestioned dominance, he has not been able to compel parliament to give him the enhanced powers of the executive presidency he covets. Nor does Erdoğan’s authority as an embodiment of Turkish Sunni conservatism mean that he is about to turn on those who do not embrace this identity; it is doubtful that he would have the support of his base to do so.

“Many would argue that Turkey was already in the throes of a slow-motion coup d’état, not by the military, but by Erdogan himself. For the last three years, he has been moving, and methodically… to take over the nodes of power,”  adds Andrew Finkel, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and the author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.

While Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia has promoted speculation about an authoritarian international, other analysts suggest that relationship is more instrumental than ideological.

The Russia-Turkey rapprochement is part of a process of geopolitical entropy, writes Carnegie analyst Thomas de Waal:

Both Putin and Erdoğan see a world in which alliances like NATO or transnational organizations like the EU are weaker and mean less. The two leaders are more comfortable with a world in which alliances are transient and transactional and traditional great powers set the agenda and reserve the right to change their minds at a moment’s notice if they choose to, while smaller countries have to fall in line.

The reign of Erdoğan and other leaders in his mould is a clear sign that there is no longer a single model of democracy, stamped with EU or US approval, to which all countries aspire, de Bellaigue contends:

It has long been common to contrast the emphasis laid by emerging non-western democracies on the will of the majority with the care taken by “mature” democracies to protect minority rights. But this flattering distinction may no longer be valid. The picture from France, the United States, and to an extent Britain suggests that a brazen majoritarianism has emerged from the crises and upheavals of the past decade. Erdoğan may not resemble our stated democratic ideals, but he may be their future. Welcome to demokrasi.


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