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  • Sean Young

Turkey’s Democratic Decline: the End of Kemalish Turkey and the Rise of Authoritarianism

Turkey has been shifting further away from democracy for the past twenty years. Today, the World Freedom Index ranks Turkey 32 out of 100, with 0 being the least democratic country and 100 being the most democratic country. Based on a list of political questions — each scored from least free, 0, to the freest, 4 — political rights in Turkey scored less than half of the maximum points, with a result of 16 out of 40, and civil liberties scored 16 out of 60, less than a third. For civil liberties — freedoms of speech, religion, education, assembly, movement, economic opportunity, equality under the law, and criminal and judiciary rights — Turkey was given a freedom score of 1 in almost all sections delineated by the World Freedom Index. Though Turkish elections appear to reflect public opinion and certain rights and resources have been provided by the government, the Turkish people are suppressed in many other ways: a fact which is expressly seen by the lack of independent media coverage, further raising the question of whether or not Turkey can still be considered a democracy.

The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the election of its creator and leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as President of Turkey in 2014 brought an end to “Kemalish Turkey”: the secularized, democratic state established nearly a century ago. Kemalish Turkey, or Kemalism, refers to the ideology of the Republic of Turkey that was established in the 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of Turkey’s Democratic Party and the country’s first president. With the secularization and westernization of Turkish law, education, governance, and identity, his presidency demolished the religious Ottoman Empire and transformed Turkey. Turkey’s constitution, created in 1924, thus emphasized the state's secularism, the separation of power in government, and the country’s central power—which rested in the Grand Assembly rather than the president. The creation of the Grand Assembly, a parliamentary team elected by the people, also included the position of the Prime Minister, both of which oversaw the regulation and execution of Turkish laws and the role of the President. However, in the past 20 years, the rise of populism and the growing power of the AKP have gradually diminished the democratic progress made in Kemalish Turkey. Their policy reforms and restrictions on democratic freedoms are reverting Turkey’s government to a religious authoritarian state. Erdogan has been a prominent politician in Turkey since 2003, when he became Prime Minister, but his election in 2014 to the presidency officially ended the country’s successful democracy.

The country used to have a stable democratic election system and a balance of powers in government. However, Erdogan’s rise to power brought about a significant amount of corruption and manipulation in state elections, appointments, and regulation of laws. Historically, in Turkey, a president can be directly elected for up to two terms every five years. However, they can be eligible for a third term if parliament calls for an early election during the president’s initial term. This exception has allowed Erdogan to retain his role as president and for his party to keep a strong majority in parliament—if elected again in 2023, he could hold power until 2028.

Decline of Democracy

Erdogan has put many anti-democratic systems into place, which have acted as tools to bypass the traditional checks and balances within the government and to sway public opinion toward his party’s platforms. Two major events he used to achieve these ends were (1) establishing a state of emergency throughout the country after a failed coup d'etat in 2016 and (2) instituting constitutional reform in 2017 that changed 117 out of 172 articles.

The coup d'etat was a turning point for the people of Turkey. In a bloody attempt to seize control of major cities like Ankara and Istanbul, the Peace At Home Council members perpetrated these acts of violence and were later identified as a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces. The motive behind the coup was said to be a response to Turkey’s “erosion of secularism, elimination of democratic rule, disregard for human rights, and Turkey’s loss of [international] credibility.” The ruling government allegedly linked the leaders of the coup to a terrorist organization and to the US, despite a lack of evidence and denial from top officials. More than 300 people were killed and 2,100 injured, and major buildings like the Turkish Parliament and Presidential Palace were bombed from the air. Despite the death and destruction, Erdogan’s government received backlash for imposing a three-month state of emergency. The constitution allows a state of emergency during serious danger and acts of violence toward the country and is able to last up to six months. The power of lifting the state, however, lies in the president, who rules largely by decree during a state of emergency. During these periods of unrest, media can be restricted, curfews imposed, protests banned, and the president can bypass many democratic processes. Erdogan reassured Turkish citizens that his actions were necessary and brought no harm to their everyday lives, but his intentions continued to contrast against this promise. The state of emergency was not ended until 2019, three years later, and his actions since have continued to drift toward an increasingly repressive regime.

The constitutional reforms expanded executive powers significantly and contributed greatly to the rise of a populist, dictatorial system. Some of the changes to the constitution include allowing the president to shape the executive office, reduced parliamentary power—including the implementation of checks and balances on a party’s majority— and the severance of electoral ties between government and legislature, among others. With these new reforms and the state of emergency, Erdogan was easily able to push the 2019 elections to 2020, subsequently resulting in Erdogan’s second term as president.

Erdogan’s presidency is not new to electoral deceit: when his party lost its majority in the 2015 parliamentary elections, Erdogan used executive powers to call for early elections. After assuming the role of president, he elevated his party’s powers and took it upon himself to appoint members of his party to several governmental and noon governmental positions. Further, in 2019, the parliament limited media freedom with the High Council for Broadcasting (RTUK): an online video surveillance system that required third parties to acquire licenses to broadcast in the country. Most of RTUK’s members support the AKP or its political ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), election observers reported that the ruling party AKP and state-run media favored the party and its president and that Erdogan also accused his opponents of terrorism during their campaigns: misinformation which succeeded in swaying public opinion. OSCE also found that during 2019’s legislative elections, the AKP took advantage of state resources to gain electoral advantages and pursue an intimidation campaign against opposition parties and candidates. He has also strategically removed CHP members from Parliament and Executive branches gradually closed down five pro-Kurdish parties and labeled the People’s Democratic Party as a political party of separatism and terrorism.

Restriction on Freedoms

Despite the freedoms in Turkey’s Constitution, freedom of expression has also decreased in recent years. The Constitution explicitly states in its Preamble that sovereignty is “vested fully and unconditionally in the Turkish Nation…no individual or body empowered to exercise it on behalf of the nation shall deviate from democracy based on freedom.” However, restrictions on freedom of expression have gradually increased under Erdogan. Along with targeting opposition parties, the government has targeted minorities that go against his party’s pro-Islamic ideal, especially against those who identify as women or LGBTQ+.

The LGBTQ+ community has faced serious discrimination by the ruling party and its supporters. Erdogan has demonized youth who identify with LGBTQ+ by pushing a central message which holds that individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ act in direct opposition to Islamic culture and tradition and describing the minority community as a “disgrace” and “dirty” in public and social media platforms. His supporters, including Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, called members of the LGBTQ+ community “perverts” on Twitter. Before Erdogan was elected, LGBTQ+ rights were protected by the Constitution and Turkey’s highest Supreme Court against hate speeches; even as late as 2012, a newspaper describing LGBTQ+ as perverts was fined around 4,000 Turkish Lira.

In January 2021, a student-led protest at Istanbul’s Bogazici University marked a major increase in President Erdogan’s crackdown on LGBTQ+ youth. The protest was a result of the president’s sudden nomination of party loyalist Melih Bulu as the university’s new rector. Though the University normally employed a democratic electoral system to choose its president, Erdogan skipped the process entirely. Therefore, the University’s new presidential elections became a tipping point for many of Turkey’s liberal leaning students and professors: most of whom were worried about the future of their freedoms to education and of expression, assembly, and association. Their attempt to protest is just one example of the threat to free assembly, speech, and expression: when students marched out of classes, Erdogan sent the Turkish military to the University, equipped with tanks full of high pressure water, which can be life-threatening. Though she did not attend, Mercan Ulutas, a second year international student at Boston University, described the scene as “horrible” as she watched on TV at her home in Istanbul. She said she had never seen anything like it before. “For the first time ever, the military has intervened on the grounds of a university, arresting students, and even sending them to jail,” she said.

The crackdown on the community prompted ILGA, the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, to issue a statement in February 2021 highlighting the attacks of the Turkish government on the LGBTQ+ community and calling on Erdogan to uphold the minority community’s constitutional rights. COVID-19 also resulted in increased hateful rhetoric toward the community when the President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs blamed homosexuals for the spread of the coronavirus through “adultery,” equating it to the spread of HIV. The annual Pride Parade in Istanbul, which was banned for the fifth consecutive year in 2019, will have the theme of ‘Resistance’ this year.

Rise of Authoritarianism

Erdogan’s controversial reforms are collectively transforming Turkey back into a traditionalist Islamic state, with a concentration of powers in the hands of an authoritarian leader. His constitutional reforms and crackdown on opposition parties and minorities are evidence of his attack on democracy. He is “targeting any institution or part of society that stands in the way of his wide-ranging effort to reshape Turkey’s society,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. As of now, Turkish citizens are bracing for the next elections, as recent opinion polls for the AKP continue to decline and instead favor the opposition party, the CHP. If Erdogan and his party continue to remove democratic freedoms and bypass the popular will in elections, Turkey will truly become authoritarian. As Andreas Schedler, a Professor of Political Science in Mexico City, states: Erdogan and the AKP’s vision for a nationalist, Islamic Turkey and their contribution to “‘institutionalized’ populism” have created a “fertile soil for electoral authoritarianism.”


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