- The release of two journalists critical of Erdoğan following a Constitutional Court decision. In many respects, this fits the pattern. The Erdoğan/AKP government uses the state apparatus to suppress domestic opponents. But--and this is competitive authoritarianism--Turkey retains formally autonomous but badly corrupted (via legal changes and "packing" with AKP loyalists) institutions that serve as a check on the president/government's power. That happened in this instance, but only after the journalists had a nice stay in jail. In other cases, those institutions fail to protect citizens.
- There are growing rumors that the government may soon launch legal proceedings to close the Kurdish-oriented Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) on the grounds of affiliation with the terrorist PKK. Needless to say, that would be a big test for Turkey's judiciary as well as a massive development in Turkish politics.
- Meanwhile, the far-right MHP is in disorder, as eternal party leader Devlet Bahçeli is attempting to fight off a leadership challenge. This is fueling its own set of rumors that AKP could be tempted to call snap elections while MHP is in disarray--hoping to steal away a portion of its voters and drive MHP under the 10% electoral threshold, which would give AKP the parliamentary supermajority necessary to amend the constitution and create Erdoğan's desired "presidential" system.
Turkey Continues Its Descent into Competitive Authoritarianism
In recent weeks, the government has investigated and detained academics who signed an online petition calling for peace in the heavily Kurdish southeast. After the bombing in Ankara on 17 February, the government imposed what has now become a routine ban on media coverage, while its subsequent response has been puzzling.
Up until the 2011-13 period, the government of then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish initials) was celebrated as a modernizing and democratizing force by the Western media. In recent years, that coverage has belatedly turned negative. However, it has not stopped commentators from hoping (or, more appropriately, engaging in wishful thinking) after each recent electoral victory that the government would turn away from authoritarianism. It has not. Rather, the government has only increased the pressure on opposition journalists and civil society.
Why has the situation unraveled in Turkey? The broader answer is that recent events are actually just a continuation of repeated patterns in Turkish political history. Like many developing states throughout the world, Turkey began the process of democratization in the early-mid 20th century with weak state institutions. These weak institutions were quickly overwhelmed—by growing demands from society for services or inclusion, rapid urbanization, by elected leaders willing to abuse the law to enhance their own power, and by state and non-state actors willing to use violent or extra-constitutional means to get their way. The result has been a pattern of careening between elective dictatorship, military interventions, civil unrest, economic crises, and unstable governing coalitions. Turkey’s recent political history is not so different than that of many countries in Latin America and Asia.
When AKP came to power in 2002, observers hoped that this would mark a turning point—where an Islamist-rooted party with a stable parliamentary mandate would engage in serious and democratic reform. Despite the promise of the early years, Erdoğan and AKP have fallen into the same pattern: centralizing its hold over state institutions while attempting to undermine and repress opposition. Since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Turkey has entered an intensified pattern of repression, combined with a renewal of the civil conflict in the southeast.
While Erdoğan and AKP have been able to centralize their control over state institutions, nothing that has occurred since 2013 has substantially altered the broader social strength of either the government or opposition. Turkey remains a ’50-50’ country. In each parliamentary election since 2007, the AKP vote share has ranged from 40-50% nationally. Erdoğan received almost 52% of the national vote in the 2014 presidential elections. After consolidating the electoral support of the older center-right and Islamist parties of the 1990s in its early years, AKP has been unable to gain further electoral support. Its share of almost half the vote give it comfortable governing majorities, but the opposition of the other half of society lead to continued criticism, protests, and attempted repression by the government.
While AKP has been unable to make further inroads into the electorate, nor has any of the opposition parties been able to change this ’50-50’ dynamic either. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is stuck at around 25% of the vote, and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is not a credible governing alternative. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has consolidated enough support among the Kurdish population to pass the 10% electoral threshold in the past two elections, but there is no evidence yet that the party can go beyond that. In short, half the country supports Erdoğan and AKP; half the country does not. And there is no sign that this will change anytime soon.
So Turkey remains stuck in an unstable balance. AKP maintains a grip on political power, with no challenge from the opposition parties, so it can continue to increase its control over the state. But it is unable to widen its appeal, leading to a continued cycle of criticism, repression, and resistance.
What will need to change? In an ideal world, Erdoğan and AKP would come to grips with the fact that their roughly 50% electoral support does not justify consolidation of power or a claim to represent the ‘national will’ (a favorite phrase of Erdoğan). That will not happen. Instead, a likelier (though not necessarily likely) outcome is an eventual crisis within AKP that splits the party and undermines its control of the state. A less likely, but possible, outcome is that one of the two potentially viable opposition parties (CHP or HDP) finds a way to expand their electoral reach—or a new opposition party forms that can do the same. For this to happen, the opposition must find a way to capture a share of AKP’s predominantly lower-income, pious electoral base. Crucially, whatever leaders eventually succeed Erdoğan must be committed to genuine democratic and institutional reforms.
Until then, Turkey will remain stuck in competitive authoritarianism, a ’50-50’ country whose leaders to represent the ‘national will’ and govern as though they do, but who in fact can hardly claim the support of half the electorate.