This article was originally published here in the Atlantic on Thursday, July 21, 2016.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In October 2004, the European Commission offered Turkey a formal invitation to begin negotiations for membership in that exclusive club of democracies, the European Union. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had been in power for just two years at the time, hailed the commission’s offer as validation of its self-described Muslim Democrat worldview.
Yet only a few years after that triumphant moment, Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who was prime minister for 11 years before becoming president in 2014—began to veer away from the political reforms that were a condition of the EU’s offer, and away from the promise of a democratic transition in Turkey. The authoritarian approach to politics that Erdogan has pursued for the better part of the last decade seems destined to accelerate after last week’s failed coup d’état, as the president directs a widespread crackdown against his enemies, both real and perceived. Turkey today looks less like a liberal European democracy and more like the kind of one-man autocracy commonly found in the Middle East. How did this country, which so many journalists, government officials, and analysts had once believed to be a model for the Arab world, become a case study in “re-authoritarianization”?
The story begins 53 years ago, in 1963, when Turkey signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community in the hopes of becoming a member of Europe. For Turkey’s leaders at the time, the prospect of joining Europe represented the fulfillment of the secularizing and modernizing reforms of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
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