Turkey blocked Twitter late at night on March 20. This was a culmination of a series of authoritarian moves since last summer. In summer 2013, the government harshly responded to the popular protests that grew after a group of people organised demonstrations to prevent Istanbul city government from constructing a shopping mall in a popular city park.
In the last few months, the government has limited media freedoms, amended the law on the judicial system to increase executive control over the judiciary, closed down private tutoring centres to strengthen the state monopoly over education, passed a law to control the Internet, and blocked access to Twitter. Erdoğan also hinted that the government might ban Facebook and Youtube after local elections on March 30.
All this is surprising to many. When the Arab uprisings started in 2011, a question many asked was if Turkish democracy could be a model for the Muslim world. Under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP, Turkey offered the prospect of a successful model where Islam, secularism and democracy could coexist. With its remarkable economic growth and increased profile in global politics, Turkey appealed to the Arab masses in particular and the Muslim world in general.
What happened to ‘the Turkish model’ and why did Turkey revert from its commitment to democratic reforms?
The Turkish model
The AKP came to power in November 2002 after an authoritarian period under the military-guided governments. The repressive environment dominated by the military left no option to Islamic actors but to devise strategies through which they could enhance political space at the expense of an authoritarian bureaucracy.
The AKP denounced Islamism, broke from the Welfare Party and pursued a reformist and democratic political strategy. In an effort to pursue democratic policies, the AKP, with the support of the liberals, minorities, and other Islamic groups such as the Gülen movement, strongly supported Turkey’s membership to the EU. It is this democratic coalition that weakened the military influence and strengthened Turkish democracy in the 2000s.
The rise of an independent bourgeoisie, emerging with economic liberalisation in the 1980s and 1990s, constituted the engine of liberal change in Turkey. The conservative businesses, marginalised by the state after the 1997 military intervention, developed a democratic and market-friendly position. The EU provided external support for this transformation. The decision of the EU to declare Turkey a candidate country gave the AKP an opportunity to introduce reforms to comply with EU conditionality.
In short, ‘the Turkish model’ of democratisation was based on three legs: the formation of a broad democratic coalition against state control over society; the emergence of a new bourgeoisie independent from the state; and the AKP’s instrumentalisation of external pressure from the EU for further democratisation.
The shattering of the model
After Turkey weakened the authoritarian bureaucracy, hopes for a more democratic Turkey were high. However, the reverse of the same dynamics that created ‘the Turkish model’ contributed to its demise.
First, the authoritarian moves of the AKP since 2012 have led to the dissolution of the democratic coalition. Instead of completing a democratic consolidation, the AKP government sought to dominate the Turkish political system. Prime minister Erdoğan pushed for changing the parliamentary system to a presidential system to secure complete control over the political domain. Many liberals withdrew their support from the party after the government harshly suppressed popular protests in the summer of 2013.
After the judiciary initiated a corruption probe against Erdoğan’s four ministers and their relatives in December 2013, the Government quickly tightened control over the judiciary through reassigning police officers, prosecutors, and judges, and enacting new laws to increase the influence of the minister of justice over the judiciary. The Gülen movement took a strong position against the Government as Erdoğan accused the movement of infiltrating the state and collaborating with external powers, such as the US and Israel, to plot against the government through the corruption probe.
Second, throughout the decade that the AKP ruled the country, a new crony capitalist class emerged. The AKP created a state-supported bourgeoisie through distributing state resources to their cronies. The recent allegations against the party include cases of clientelism and corruption in which politicians, bureaucrats and state-supported businesses have been involved.
Third, AKP enthusiasm for Turkey’s EU membership has decreased because the party no longer needs external support to survive in the Turkish political sphere. Furthermore, the recent economic crisis in Europe also shifted the EU’s attention from expansion to domestic issues.
What can we say about the future of democracy in Turkey?
The only guarantee of a consolidated democracy in Turkey is the emergence of a new coalition to balance the increasing power of the government vis-à-vis society. Turkey still has a dynamic business class that is independent from the state. Political patronage and increasing state dominance over the economy can stimulate a new coalition against the government. It is difficult to have strong international pressure as Turkey had in the early 2000s but there is still a lot that the west could lose if Turkey turns to authoritarianism.
Ramazan Kılınç is an assistant professor of Political Science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Follow him on Twitter at @KilincRamazan.