Sunday, February 22, 2015

Turkey's Political Situation

The ruling Justice and Development Party (or should we just call it the Erdogan Party?) is in the process of passing a worrisome new security bill. This bill will give the police further legal powers to detain suspected protestors and block anti-government protests. I suggest reading Efe Kerem Sozeri's excellent analysis of the security bill, which he calls "the last exit before the police state."

This security bill is the latest in a pattern of centralization of power. Erdogan seeks to limit the ability of any political opponents to oppose his rule. To that end, he has sough through various means to marginalize the military as a domestic actor (though this was basically a good thing), eliminate opposition media, bring the judiciary under his direct control, "pack" the police and judiciary with loyalists, and extend his personal power over parliament and the cabinet.

In that sense, this new security bill isn't terribly surprising. It should also be noted that this bill seems to legalize formally some behaviors that the police were already doing (illegally)--such as detaining protestors, "marking" protestors with colored water, and so on. There are also various respects in which the new law is probably unconstitutional.

Where does this leave Turkey? Each new development awakens some new voices on social media to the erosion of Turkish democracy, leading them to claim that "this" may be the moment where it collapses. Frankly, such people are several years late to the party.

Turkey is not and has not been a democracy for some time. Turkey is an authoritarian regime. Any talk at this time of Turkey being a "stunted democracy" or "illiberal democracy" fundamentally misses the point.

Turkey is a good example of what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have termed "competitive authoritarianism." The essence of this regime type is a centralizing, authoritarian regime that is thwarted by the continued resistance of a substantial opposition. Nominally democratic institutions exist, but they are routinely violated and corrupted by the government. Neither side is quite able to win the battle of setting the rules of the game: the government cannot fully centralize its power, and the opposition is unable to force democratic concessions.

The point of the security bill is to take one step closer toward eliminating those nominal democratic institutions. This will further shrink the institutional space for opposition to Erdogan's rule. Nonetheless, that opposition remains, and there are still institutional and extra-legal venues for it. Turkey is, and likely to remain, a "50-50" society for some time. Despite his efforts at centralization, Erdogan seems unable to prevent half the population from voting against him, nor is he able to prevent major anti-government protests from occurring every 6-9 months.

In that sense, one of the remaining venues for the opposition--the upcoming parliamentary elections--will be important and fascinating. There are two key numbers in this upcoming election: 330 and 10. The former is the number of seats AKP hope to win, which will give them the supermajority necessary to submit a new constitution for a referendum. The latter is the election threshold that the third-largest opposition party HDP need to surpass in order to gain any seats in parliament. The second is hugely important for the first: if HDP fail to get 10%, then AKP will almost certainly get 330.

The importance of these elections also illustrate the constraints (for now) upon Erdogan's centralizing efforts. As long as he cannot get his new "presidential" constitution, he will need to operate through the legislative process and extralegal methods to centralize his power--leaving open opportunities (however limited) for opposition. The tenuous, competitive authoritarian, nature of his regime will remain. If AKP get its desired 330 seats, then it will be able to formalize its system of governance in the constitution.

What happens in the short-to-medium term depends on various events that are hard to predict: the marginal outcomes in this election, whether anyone in AKP challenges Erdogan (remember: there are plenty of ambitious individuals within that party), how long Erdogan is able to rule (health and mortality being what it is). As the political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi have shown, the event of democratization is often hard to predict because it depends on circumstances such as the death of a leader. Whether a democracy survives (i.e., is consolidated) is more predictable, depending on the level of modernization of a society. This is the reason to be optimistic about Turkey's long-term future. Socially and economically, Turkey is far ahead of Russia, or other repressive states such as Iran or Egypt. When the opportunity for democratic reform arrives (and it will not likely be until Erdogan exits politics), the prospects for democratization are very promising.