On October 18, 2017, Osman Kavala, a prominent businessman, philanthropist, and civil society leader, was taken into custody as he landed at the Istanbul airport. His arrest and subsequent prosecution on absurd charges of trying to overthrow the Turkish government signaled yet another escalation in the relentless purge that has followed the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, and the country's march toward autocratic rule.
No one familiar with Kavala's work could take these accusations seriously. For years, the businessman funded projects to support cultural diversity, promote social peace and dialogue, and showcase arts and culture. But the 60-year-old philanthropist has now joined tens of thousands of people arbitrarily detained in the post-coup attempt period. The state of emergency declared by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan within days of the botched putsch, initially for three months, has been extended repeatedly and looks set to remain a permanent feature, at least until the Turkish head of state achieves his ambition to gather all the reins of power in his own hand. Curbing civil society activism, silencing independent media, and controlling the judiciary are essential tools of the authoritarian's play-book, and Turkey's leadership is wielding all three.
Authoritarianism often creeps in with the assent of a significant part of the population. Bolstered by his party's successive electoral victories since it came to power in 2002, and by his own election in August 2014 as Turkey's first president chosen by popular vote rather than parliament, Erdogan claims to embody "the will of the nation." Democracy, as he understands it, is a winner-takes-all game, and losers deserve little consideration.
Elections are essential pillars of any pluralist system, but in the absence of adequate checks and balances, they can lead to a tyranny of the majority and be abused by demagogues. Solid institutions, such as a strong parliament, free media that hold power to account, and a justice system that protects fundamental rights, are crucial to prevent excesses. In Turkey, institutions have always been weak and traditionally served the state rather than ordinary citizens.
Turkey's strongman has now embarked on the last leg of his long journey toward an executive presidency, which would give him the power to appoint ministers, dissolve parliament, and issue decrees with the force of law. Under the new rules, narrowly adopted in a controversial referendum held on April 16, 2017, the president will also select 18 of the top 28 judiciary officials, (1) while the rest will be appointed by parliament, which Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, the Adalet ve Kalhnma Partisi (AKP), currently control. At the same time, the national assembly's power of oversight will be reduced.
Before the new regime officially comes into force and the post of prime minister is abolished, Erdogan still needs to clear one last hurdle: a presidential election, to be held concurrently with parliamentary elections currently scheduled for November 2019. In practice, however, the president's influence already stretches far beyond the boundaries of his current role, thanks to his appointment of a compliant prime minister, Binali Yildirim. This allows Erdogan to retain a strong grip on the ruling party he founded. Traditionally, the Turkish Constitution required the head of state to be a neutral figure that is above party politics, but by May 2017, Erdogan was back at the helm of the AKP.
At what point does a society lose the essential attributes of democracy and tip into autocracy? This paper focuses on NATO-member Turkey's authoritarian drift, but the question is not only relevant in the Turkish context. Populism is on the rise around the world, triggered by shifting global power balances, growing inequality caused by globalization, and a sense that traditional political elites have lost touch with the grassroots. As a result, fundamental rights and democratic principles enshrined in international agreements in the post-World War II era are under threat, even in mature democracies. Does Turkey's recent trajectory offer clues to understand this phenomenon? Can the contagion be stopped?
A Dark Reality
A powerful orator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is constantly on the stump, touring the country to deliver defiant speeches that present a Turkey assailed by enemies, domestic and foreign. However outlandish his conspiracy theories may appear to outsiders, his fiery rhetoric galvanizes crowds and strikes a chord in the hearts of his constituents. To diehard supporters, Erdogan is a heroic figure defending the country against enemies, while to his detractors, he is a dictator. But focusing solely on the personality of the AKP leader and his supersized ambitions is not sufficient to explain the darkness that lurks beneath the apparent normalcy of daily life in Turkey today.
Many of the recurring themes of Turkish officials' speeches today, such as the notion that Westerners want to weaken Turkey, have been honed for decades, taught to generations of school children, and utilized by politicians across the political spectrum. Having found fertile ground, Erdogan is constantly updating and adapting the discourse, introducing new twists that draw on Islam and Ottoman history.
The AKP leader has proven masterful at exploiting divisions in society and distracting attention by turning the spotlight on threats, real or imagined. These methods have achieved short-term gains for the ruling party, but at a devastating cost for society. Contrary to perceptions, Turkey is not just polarized between religious and secular citizens, AKP supporters and opponents. The politics of confrontation adopted by the head of state are exacerbating fault lines that run deep in Turkish society--Turks vs. Kurds, Sunni vs. Alevi, Muslim vs. non-Muslim, to name a few--resulting in an increasingly fractured nation.
The red flag with the white star and crescent is visible everywhere in Turkey, and national unity is a constant leitmotif. In reality, communities only seem to coalesce in constantly evolving alliances against those identified as enemies. Uniting citizens around a common vision for the future of the country and principles that would benefit all has so far proved elusive.
In its first years in power, AKP introduced democratic reforms and improved services such as healthcare, winning over many citizens who had hitherto felt disenfranchised. But the window of positive change did not remain open for long. From the mid-2000s, reforms came to a standstill, and pressure on dissenting views gradually grew.
The Gezi protests of May and June 2013 marked an important stage of Turkey's authoritarian drift. Triggered by the brutal police response to peaceful action by environmental activists seeking to prevent the destruction of a public park--a rare spot of greenery in the heart of Istanbul--they erupted spontaneously and spread rapidly across the country. At least five people died and 8,000 were wounded in the unrest. Erdogan attributed the popular uprising to a broad conspiracy of Western enemies seeking to weaken Turkey. One of his advisors even suggested at the time that the German airline Lufthansa had stoked the protests out of concern that plans for a massive new airport in Istanbul would undermine its hub in Frankfurt.
But the real turning point came with the failed takeover attempt of July 15, 2016, which gave the government an opportunity to accelerate its purge of opponents, which was already well underway. The bloody events of that summer night, when Turkish military jets bombed the country's national assembly in Ankara and helicopters strafed civilians, shook the nation to its core. In Istanbul, against a background of sonic booms caused by military aircraft breaking the sound barrier as they flew low over the city, AKP supporters climbed on tanks and took to the streets in response to Erdogan's call to resist. The president made his television appearance via FaceTime, his face framed by the small screen of the cell phone a TV anchorwoman held toward the camera. At least 240 people died during that traumatic night.
Many questions remained unanswered about the chaotic takeover attempt, including who would have taken power if it had succeeded. Within hours, Turkey's president put the blame firmly...