Turkish Democracy Can’t Die, Because It Never Lived

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan leaves the voting booth at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The country’s political system doesn't deserve the laments it’s recently received.

Last updated May 22, 2019

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan leaves the voting booth at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This article first appeared here on ForeignPolicy.com on May 13, 2019. 

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Last week, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council annulled Istanbul’s recent mayoral election, triggering many analysts and journalists to declare the end of Turkish democracy. But these pronouncements fail to reckon with a basic historical question: How could something end that never was?

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Over the years, it has become an accepted fact that the founding of Turkey’s Democratic Party in 1946 not only ushered in the country’s era of multiparty politics but also began its democratic transition. The Democrats swept into power in 1950 without resistance from the defeated Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the mythology of Turkish democracy was born. Since then, elections have been held on time, are believed to have been free and fair, and produced a dizzying array of coalition governments, especially in the 1970s and 1990s.

Of course, there were also four coups between 1960 and 1997 that upended these same freely elected governments. That’s why many observers considered the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which first took office in 2002, a critical step toward Turkey’s democratization. Its leaders vowed to reform or abolish institutions that the military had created to protect the state from the individual (mostly at the expense of parties like the AKP and their constituents). Toward that end, the AKP used its parliamentary majority to pass constitutional reform packages that, for example, reined in the National Security Council, made it harder to close political parties and ban politicians, abolished mixed civilian and military state security courts, and changed the penal code.

Yet, 17 years later, the AKP’s leaders have become what they once claimed to abhor. The party has not resurrected the military as the arbiter of Turkish politics, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is engaged in a familiar pattern of leveraging and reengineering Turkey’s political and legal institutions to ensure that he and the AKP remain in power. Take, for example, the Supreme Election Council. The body’s membership is drawn from the judges of Court of Cassation and the Council of State, and its role is to ensure the integrity of Turkey’s elections. The election council has, however, ceased to function as a neutral arbiter of the electoral process. Instead, through appointments to the judiciary, it has become an instrument of the AKP and Erdogan.

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In April 2017, Turks went to the polls to vote on a raft of constitutional amendments designed to enhance the power of the presidency. When exit polls indicated that approval of the amendments was in jeopardy, the AKP pressured the Supreme Election Council to accept ballots that were missing the proper validation, thereby awarding Erdogan the victory he needed to establish what Turks call the “executive presidency.”

More recently, the election council’s AKP-appointed members voted to nullify the outcome of the Istanbul mayoral contest on the grounds that those administering the vote were not civil servants, a violation of electoral laws. But—and this is a big but—the election of the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu to be mayor of Istanbul was the only voided election in the city. The election council certified the results in Istanbul’s district elections that AKP candidates won, even though the same people tallied the results of these contests and the mayoral election. For good measure, ahead of the election council’s decision to overturn Imamoglu’s victory, Turkish prosecutors declared that the very same officials who could not count the CHP’s candidate vote but could count the vote of AKP candidates had links to FETO, the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, a one-size-fits-all accusation used to purge hundreds of thousands of people since the failed July 2016 coup.

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Despite the effort to situate the Supreme Election Council’s questionable decision in law, it was fundamentally a political act. Because Erdogan, his party, and their supporters have been so thuggish in their approach to politics for more than a decade, it is hard not to think of Turkey’s democracy deficit as an AKP problem. This was in part the reason for the endless references a number years ago to “Turkey’s authoritarian turn,” but as bad as the AKP has become, Erdogan is not the first Turkish leader to leverage the institutions of the state to shut out or repress his opponents.

Followers of Fethullah Gulen are aggrieved over a crackdown that has been going on for years and has resulted in the arrests of journalists, academics, and judges. Setting aside for a moment that Erdogan’s purge has been nothing sort of obscene, the Gulenists had little to say when they were aligned with the AKP and an entirely different set of journalists, academics, and judges were being purged. It was not just their silence that made them complicit, however. Gulenist-linked prosecutors were involved in manufacturing evidence against defendants, and Gulen-supporting judges oversaw questionable convictions. Some of those whom the AKP and the Gulenists put behind bars in the 2000s were involved in or supported the “February 28 Process”—the Orwellian name for the slow-rolling coup of 1997 that ended Turkey’s first experiment with Islamist-led government.

This process was intended to push the government from office and force a new government to modify legal and political institutions to head off what the General Staff feared would be the Islamization of the country. Before the February 28 Process, the 1982 constitution made democratic practices, political outcomes, education, broadcasting, and a range of individual rights contingent on the approval of unelected men in uniform. The 1971 “coup by memorandum” demanded that the Turkish prime minister tighten up aspects of the then-constitution that the military command deemed too liberal. In the 1950s, the Democratic Party may have ushered in an enduring multiparty era, but it too resorted to leveraging the state’s institutions to advance its political interests at the expense of democracy.

The moves and countermoves of Turkish politics belie the notion that the country was a democracy or was democratizing until the AKP won its first election in 2002. Turkey, like a host of other countries, became proficient in some democratic practices, and its constitutions established what resembled democratic institutions, but few of its leaders ever demonstrated a commitment to democratic norms. Without it, cynicism and authoritarianism flourished alongside of, and even with the help of, democratic practices.

If there is little reason to credit Turkish leaders, the millions of Turkish citizens are different. At critical moments, they have infused Turkey’s pseudo-democratic institutions with meaning, defying the military’s call to maintain a ban on politicians in the mid-1980s and defying the officers again in 2007 when the General Staff tried to block Abdullah Gul from becoming Turkey’s president. Many Turks countenanced the electoral chicanery of the AKP since 2014 because the party delivered prosperity and the unfortunate state of the opposition combined with the government’s coercion left them with little choice.

Yet the institutional manipulation in order to nullify the Istanbul election may have gone too far. The AKP candidate is now the odds-on favorite to win. Erdogan would not go to the trouble of overturning the election only to lose again. But it does not seem that Istanbul’s people are going down without a fight. The rerun election is likely a lost cause. But maybe, just maybe, it can be the prelude to the birth of a true Turkish democracy.

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