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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?
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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