Is Turkey A Democracy?

The Turkish elections are finally here. It’s been a while since I’ve addressed Turkiye in a produced video. It’s been so long the country has a new name! But I have been doing a ton of research. My following of Turkish news fades in and out, but over the past couple months I have read three biographies of Turkish president Erdogan, and I think that has helped me produce some pretty solid analysis of what we’re about to see this weekend.

Today’s produced video is brief, but it provides a ton of information. If you want to learn more allow me to suggest the two Turkish election related podcasts that we have also uploaded this week.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

So is Turkiye a democracy? Calling Turkish president Erdogan a dictator, or a sultan is easy, but it also limits our understanding. To grasp the true significance of this election, starting on Sunday May 14th, we need to understand that Erdogan really could lose, and that in some ways Türkiye today is more democratic than it’s ever been.

The first thing to understand about President Erdogan is his outsized significance in Turkish history. Even his enemies concede that he is now the second most important figure in the history of the Modern Turkish Republic. Number one remains, and always will be, the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But Erdogan’s time as President and Prime Minister has already lasted longer than Ataturk’s. If you include Erdogan’s time as Mayor of Istanbul, Turkiye’s largest city, he’s now been a significant political figure for over a quarter of the Republic’s entire history. Ataturk will always be remembered as the founder of his country, but I think it’s likely that Erdogan will be remembered as a great reviser, sort of a Turkish FDR, or even a Lincoln. He has changed his country massively. What is vitally important to notice, and what most US and European news sources miss, is that many of these changes have been positive, or even necessary.

Erdogan’s legacy is mixed, to say the least. I would argue that on issues like the economy and the Kurdish question, his influence has changed over time, from tremendously positive to tremendously negative. He has been in power for a long long time, long enough for his performance in these domains to transition from magnificent to mediocre to depressingly typical for Turkish politicians of the past half century, which is to say disastrous.

But when it comes to Turkish democracy, I hate to admit this, but Erdogan still has a better record than any other Turkish politician, even Ataturk. If Erdogan loses this May 2023 election, and agrees to give up power, he will establish himself as the greatest defender of Turkish democracy, if not it’s founder.

Erdogan is definitely a politician with authoritarian tendencies, and in the second decade of his reign I think it’s fair to say that he is threatening Turkiye’s democratic achievements. But what’s left out of most US commentary is that the Turkish Democratic achievements he is threatening, are largely his own. If he loses on May 14th, which is very possible, and then discards the election and stays in power anyway, dictator will be the only appropriate word to apply to him.

But the golden era of Turkish democracy Erdogan is threatening, didn’t really start until Erdogan’s party was elected. When Erdogan defeated the 2016 coup attempt, and held elections in 2018, he successfully established the Republic of Turkiye’s longest unbroken period of governments chosen by elections.

It’s historically documented that Turkey’s founder Ataturk wanted to establish a functioning Western style democracy, but he died in 1938 without pulling it off. He attempted it a few times, but quickly backed off when the opposition parties developed in ways he saw as too threateningly Islamic. It was only in 1950, when the threat of Stalin’s Soviet Union drove Turkey into the Arms of the United States, that real elections were held. They didn’t take. The Democrat Partisi Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was very successful for a time, but ended up displaced by a military junta in 1960 that hung him a year later. Elections were tried again, but that ended in a less violent but still very undemocratic military coup in 1971. Turkish democracy was tried again in the 1970s just in time for the worldwide oil crisis. Economic woes exacerbated cold war tensions that led to a horrific political environment featuring street battles between right and left wing militias. Many older Turks remain scarred by this bloody decade.

The 1980 military coup managed to stop the violence, but anyone who cares about human rights or civil liberties would have to agree that the cure was worse than the disease. Hundreds of thousands were jailed and tortured. Hundreds of leading political figures were banned from participation, a vast range of civil society organizations were shut down, and the Military institutionalized its role in overseeing politics. In the 1980s, the fascinating political figure Turgut Ozal somehow managed to be both Islam friendly and work well with the generals. Ozal attained a degree of economic success, and even won some fair-ish elections. But after his death in 1993, the wheels came off the bus yet again.

The 1990s, like the 1970s were another period of chaos. Turkiye experienced a perfect storm of hyper inflation, violence over the Kurdish question killing tens of thousands, and corrupt and completely ineffectual governance. These periods of chaos are used by enemies of democracy, whether pro-military or pro-Erdogan, to claim that Turkey needs a firm hand. But those explanations leave out the fact that the 1970s and 1990s were not actually democratic periods. The military heavily limited what could be done on some of the most basic political questions, like the economy, the Kurds and Islam, so of course these governments failed.

In 1996 the Turkish political system finally developed a stable post-Ozal coalition under Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But the fanatically secular military forced him out in 1997, sending the country into another five years of chaos.

The happiest, most productive periods in Turkish history were the most democratic ones. The 1950s, and the 2000s Erdogan’s first decade in power. As Erdogan has fallen further and further into one man rule, all of the achievements of the 2000s have fallen into disarray. The Kurdish question has turned more violent again, the economy is a Gulf Arab funded basket case, and we are even beginning to see 1970s style political violence again.

(To be clear Turkey has had 1970s political violence against the Kurds this whole time, what’s novel is that it is beginning to be applied to Turks as well.)

But it’s important to acknowledge that Erdogan has not yet taken that final step towards stealing elections. It would be an exaggeration to call all the elections he has won since 2002 fully free and fair, but they were not frauds either. It seems likely that to win this one he may have to steal it. That would be be a tragedy.

Erdogan has become the greatest threat to Turkish democracy. But that’s only recently. The military didn’t just meekly hand over power to Erdogan. They fought him bitterly for a decade and a half.

In 2007, the generals attempted another coup by memorandum, which didn’t work. They then attempted to get a Turkish court to declare Erdogan’s party illegal, which didn’t work either. In 2016 they tried to kick him out in a violent coup, which thankfully failed.

The Turkish Armed Forces Are a dragon that has been slain. Now that their threat to democracy is receding into history,, it’s easy to imagine that Erdogan, the current threat, is worse than they were. But I don’t think that’s true. As long as the military was mixed up in Turkiye’s government, there was no way to move forward. The clock on sustainable democracy was perpetually restarting, with chaos and horror every decade or so.

Erdogan does deserve some thanks for slaying the dragon, but it would also be good to see him go. His 20 years in power have been a constant battle.

First against the military, and then against the forces that Erdogan unleashed to defeat the military, like the Gulenists, the war in Syria and an invigorated PKK.

What Turkey now has is an incredible opportunity. For 80 years the military was the dark, destabilizing element in Turkish politics. Using tactics both Democratic and Machiavellian, Erdogan replaced the military as that dark destabilizing force. Voting the Turkish military out of power was never an option. But this May the Turkish people really can vote Erdogan out. They can liberate themselves, and make the country more democratic than it has ever been. So is Turkiye a democracy? Well, I guess we’re about to find out.