Thursday, 01 October 2015

Intertwined legacies: authoritarianism and democracy in Turkey after November 1

Published in Articles

By Nick Danforth

September 23rd, 2015, The Turkey Analyst

Turkey’s democratic and authoritarian legacies have been thoroughly intertwined from the outset. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian instincts have been both motivated and enabled by the authoritarian behavior of his predecessors. Yet Erdoğan is also restrained by institutional forces that remain in place because military and civilian leaders before him proved willing to step down and compromise. And he is moreover restrained by the instincts of voters and some within his own party who value Turkey’s democratic tradition.


BACKGROUND:  Observers are divided over what will happen in Turkey after the election on November 1. That is no surprise, given how views of Turkish politics over the past century diverge as well. Where some have praised the endurance of democracy in Turkey or even held it up as a model for the Middle East, others have emphasized the endurance of authoritarianism, suggesting that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has merely replaced Kemal Atatürk as the model of a strong leader Turks apparently crave.

In fact, Turkey’s democratic and authoritarian legacies have been thoroughly intertwined from the outset. Turkey’s experience with democracy began in 1950 when the leaders of the one-party state established by Kemal Atatürk voluntarily yielded power. Between 1939 and 1950, İsmet İnönü had ruled as “National Chief,” using the dictatorial powers he had inherited from Ataturk to jail critics, close newspapers, and institute confiscatory taxes against Christians and Jews during World War Two. President İnönü then organized rigged elections in 1946 followed by free elections in 1950. Then to the even greater surprise of Turkish citizens and foreign observers alike, he actually abided by the results when he lost.

Some scholars have tried to reconcile İnönü’s decade of authoritarianism with his dramatic act of democratic statesmanship by suggesting U.S. pressure or the desire to join NATO played a decisive role in it. Yet recent research makes it clear this was not the case. İnönü acted of his own volition, revealing the extent to which even a single individual could embody both Turkey’s democratic and authoritarian traditions.

Adnan Menderes, the man who came to power in Turkey’s 1950 elections, ruled for a decade before he was executed following the country’s first military coup.  Over the last several years, Erdoğan has made reference to this trauma in several high profile speeches. Following the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 2011 electoral victory, Erdoğan declared it a triumph for the spirit of Menderes. Then, after being elected president in 2014, Erdoğan stated that the parenthesis opened by Turkey’s 1960 coup had at last been closed.

Erdoğan and many of his supporters continue to view Menderes as a democratic martyr, a man who challenged the country’s secular elite on behalf of its pious majority and paid with his life. Not surprisingly, the AKP’s critics often have a different take. Many view Menderes as something of a proto-Erdoğan, a populist politician who used Islam to mobilize the masses in pursuit of his own autocratic rule.  

Recently, a more precise, less partisan parallel has emerged: Menderes began his career as a bold young politician, challenging an established autocracy in the name of his people’s material needs and democratic rights. He won admiration for loosening the government’s strict, often anti-Islamic interpretation of secularism while liberalizing the economy to bring increased prosperity to the country’s rural population. But, never secure in his power, he turned increasingly autocratic, curbing press freedom and putting political opponents on trial until the military intervened to stop him. 

Historical parallels only go so far. The AKP has experienced something Menderes never did: it lost its parliamentary majority on June 7, 2015. The party will get a second chance on November 1 when the country votes again. But polls continue to suggest the results are unlikely to change, leading to wildly divergent predictions of how Erdoğan and his party might respond to an unprecedented second defeat. 

IMPLICATIONS: The turbulence of Turkey’s first democratic transition nonetheless serves as an important starting place to understand what could happen, as it shapes and prefigures the interplay between democracy and authoritarianism up through the present. Recently, for example, AKP supporters even linked opposition efforts to hold party members accountable for corruption to the 1961 executions of Menderes and his two colleagues. When Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), stated that his party, once in parliament, would try AKP officials for what they had done, AKP supporters saw proof their opponents were bent on perpetuating a cycle of revenge.

Yet the understandable focus on Menderes’s fate obscures the fact that the Turkish Republic has experienced far less high level political violence of this sort than most of its neighbors in the Balkans and the Middle East.  If anything, AKP leaders’ fears are – arguably – motivated by their party’s much more recent treatment of the Turkish military rather than any deep-rooted historical precedent.

Indeed, the role of the military is closely linked to conflicting perceptions of Turkey’s democratic tradition. Those who view Turkey’s post 1960 political history through an authoritarian lens have emphasized the frequency of military coups, while others have emphasized instead the military’s consistent willingness to hold subsequent elections. The behavior of Turkish voters in these subsequent elections is important as well. While most citizens supported the military’s initial seizure of power in 1980, for example, when they were then given a chance to vote they rejected the military’s preferred candidates. More recently, the AKP itself benefited from popular opposition to military interference. In 2007, the Turkish military published a late-night bulletin on its website widely seen as a challenge to AKP’s nomination of Abdullah Gül as its presidential candidate. The voters responded by increasing the AKP’s vote share by 10 percent, securing Gül’s subsequent election. And even some liberals were so alarmed by the military’s undemocratic behavior that even after evidence of irregularities and abuses surfaced they continued to see the staged “Ergenekon” proceedings as a necessary evil that could ensure Turkey’s democratic future. 

But while one expression of authoritarianism – the military’s 2007 memorandum – thus served to excuse its expression in another form – the Ergenekon trial – the opposite has also been in evidence, as Erdoğan’s authoritarian transgressions have simultaneously encouraged a liberal consolidation. Since 2010 the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has gradually adopted a more liberal platform, incorporating its commitment to secularism into a broader defense of rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, the HDP has successfully expanded its appeal beyond Kurdish voters by rebranding itself as a progressive party rather than a strictly pro-Kurdish one. This effort has also required it to distance itself from the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose influence as an armed group on the party one member recently likened to the previous role of the Turkish military in nationwide politics.  

Still, this progress could be negated by renewed fighting between the government and the PKK, perhaps the most dramatic consequence of the AKP’s authoritarian turn. The broad connection between authoritarianism and Turkey’s Kurdish problem is frequently noted, but the specific nature of the relationship is striking as well. Since the inception of the Turkish state, every successive government has pursued heavy-handed, assimilation policies driven by a deep-rooted nationalist ideology. Yet it has been during periods of non-democratic rule that these policies have been the most violent and provoked in turn the most violence. 

Between 1923 and 1945, Turkey’s single-party government pursued aggressive policies to consolidate its power in southeastern Anatolia. Not only did this include suppressing a series of Kurdish rebellions, but also forcibly deporting Kurdish tribes in order to punish and pacify them. The end of these systematic deportations coincided with the government’s decision to allow the creation of a formal parliamentary opposition and hold multi-party elections in 1946. While the government did not abandon its broader commitment to forcible assimilation, the need to secure votes led it to curtail some of its more violent methods. 

Likewise, the persistence of electoral politics over the next three decades helped mitigate the potential for violence. Kurdish leaders were drawn into a system of partisan patronage which coexisted with continued repression of overt Kurdish nationalism. Though this system of accommodation was already beginning to break down in the late 1970s, it was only with the 1980 military coup that Turkey’s “Kurdish Problem” again erupted into a full-fledged insurgency. The cycle of terrorism and brutal counter-insurgency that followed was further exacerbated when Turkey’s military rulers took more systematic steps to criminalize the Kurdish language and other expressions of Kurdish identity. The armed forces maintained control of state policy toward the Kurdish issue through the 1990s, preventing any sustained discussion of a less militarized and more accommodating approach. 

After curtailing the military’s influence, though, the AKP has intermittently attempted such an approach over the past decade. Erdoğan has certainly been motivated by the conviction that finding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem would consolidate the AKP’s hold over a considerable Kurdish voting bloc. And Erdoğan’s commitment to a negotiated settlement with the PKK continued as long as he maintained the hope of increasing his share of the Kurdish vote. When the June 7 election results dashed this hope, AKP representatives declared the peace process dead and both the government and the PKK renewed hostilities. 

CONCLUSIONS:  Given the persistence of authoritarianism and democracy in Turkish political culture, it would be almost self-evident to say that whatever happens after the November 1 general election will be the result of at least one of these two traditions. President Erdoğan’s authoritarian instincts have been both motivated and enabled by the authoritarian behavior of his predecessors. Yet he is also restrained by institutional forces that remain in place because military and civilian leaders before him proved willing to step down and compromise. And he is also restrained by the instincts of voters and some within his own party who value Turkey’s democratic tradition.

A democratic outcome will not necessarily end Turkey’s conflict with the PKK. But a non-democratic outcome, one in which the HDP was kept below the threshold for parliamentary representation through suspect means, would create a level of popular anger that would pose an ongoing and formidable obstacle to peace.

Nick Danforth is a doctoral candidate in Turkish history at Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

Image attribution:, accessed on Sept 25th, 2015

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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