Did Turkey’s Democracy Devour Itself?

At a pro-Erdoğan rally in Istanbul, July 24, 2016 (Mike Norton / Flickr)

Democracies have been making some poor choices lately. Last summer, a slim majority of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union, which has allowed them to travel and live abroad, boosted Britain’s economy, and invested in needy communities. A few months later, a minority of U.S. voters chose the most unqualified candidate in their country’s history to lead the free world, ignoring his string of bankruptcies, compulsive dishonesty, and open misogyny. All across Europe, new and not-so-new democracies are lionizing leaders who promise to dismantle bedrock liberal safeguards, from academic freedom to minority rights.

Alarming as these developments are, none of these countries has gone so far as to vote democracy itself out of existence. Turkey seems to have done just that on Sunday by approving a series of constitutional amendments that scrap its serviceable parliamentary system in favor of an “executive presidency,” a flattering euphemism for autocracy by plebiscite. The amendments entrust all levers of government to the hands of an all-powerful president, removing every possible constraint on his authority.

Democracy’s critics say it is prone to “autophagy”: a tendency to consume itself.* Demagogues bewitch citizens by promising miracle cures for whatever ails them, in exchange for unfettered power. When they predictably fail to deliver on their promises, they blame enemies foreign and domestic, and demand greater power to vanquish them. Full-blown authoritarianism lies at the bottom of this spiral.

To be sure, Turkey was never a beacon of democracy. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, used an iron fist to unify and Westernize a diverse population. In the name of preserving his legacy, the Turkish military has punctuated the republic’s history with periodic coups, mostly against Islamist-leaning governments. The amendments approved Sunday by the Turkish electorate are layered on top of the authoritarian legacy of Turkey’s 1982 constitution, which was the product of a bloody military coup. Nonetheless, it allowed for some institutional checks and balances. For instance, the judiciary periodically asserted its independence by applying brakes on executive and parliamentary discretion, while the Turkish parliament occasionally checked the executive’s agenda, such as by refusing to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish territory during the 2003 Iraq war.

But for nearly a decade, Erdoğan has openly advocated replacing this system with a presidential one. The failed coup attempt against his government last July provided an opportunity to rally parliamentary support behind the constitutional changes for which he had so far failed to garner enough votes.

The new system secures Erdoğan’s power with belt and suspenders: it not only renders other political branches subservient to the president but, for good measure, removes nearly all of their authority. For instance, in his capacity as leader of his party, the president will have an outsize role in selecting candidates to the unicameral parliament, where his own party is likely to command a majority in any case. The cabinet will be appointed by the president, and subject neither to individual confirmations nor a parliamentary vote of confidence. Parliament will lose its legislative supremacy: the president will have the power to govern a broad range of matters by executive order.

Similarly, not only will twelve of the fifteen judges on the nation’s once-independent Constitutional Court be appointed directly or indirectly by the president—and the rest selected by a parliament under his party’s control—but its powers of review will be curtailed. For instance, it will not be allowed to review presidential legislation issued during periods of emergency rule for conformity with basic individual rights. (It is worth recalling that Turkey has been under emergency rule since last July’s coup attempt, and parliament extended it by another three months on Monday.)

Given Turkey’s steady slide into authoritarian rule, does this constitutional change matter? Under Erdoğan’s leadership, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has systematically undermined the autonomy of Turkey’s institutions, demanding unconditional loyalty from judges, prosecutors, and civil servants and severely punishing dissent. When it lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections, it refused to relinquish power or form a coalition with any of the opposition parties. Shortly afterwards, Erdoğan declared that Turkey already had a de facto presidential system; all that remained was for the constitution to catch up.

In the wake of last July’s coup attempt, the noose around civic life tightened still further. Tens of thousands of administrators, teachers, academics, law enforcement officials, and military personnel were jailed or dismissed from their jobs without even the semblance of due process. To make room for these political prisoners, thousands of violent felons were hastily released from prison. Numerous parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been arrested on terrorism charges, along with the elected mayors of more than sixty predominantly Kurdish provinces and towns.

Media freedom has been hit particularly hard. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey by the end of 2016 had more journalists in jail than any one country at any one time. Independent journalism has been all but stamped out of the mainstream. Virtually all television channels and most newspapers are friendly to the government and saturated with propaganda in support of the constitutional amendments. Where critical journalists aren’t jailed, self-censorship rules the day. In March, the Hürriyet newspaper, which is part of Turkey’s last independently owned media conglomerate, refused to publish an interview with Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk because he had expressed his opposition to the presidential system.

Finally, the conduct of the actual referendum was far from savory. In a scathing report, OSCE election monitors concluded that “the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards,” and that “the legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.” Most egregiously, Turkey’s Supreme Board of Elections decided to admit vast numbers of ballots that lacked the requisite seal of approval from election monitors. According to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is  appealing the result of the referendum (if with little hope of success), these ballots exceed the margin of victory by 1 million. Notwithstanding these irregularities, President Trump wasted no time in congratulating Erdoğan on the outcome.

In the circumstances, what is surprising is not that Erdoğan’s ruthless campaign succeeded, but that 48.7 percent of the electorate held fast in their opposition to his plan. The closeness of the vote inspires hope that the Turkish electorate might have enough civic energy to one day resurrect their democracy, though the country will now have to climb out of a deeper hole.

In the end, this may be a Pyrrhic victory for Erdoğan, who now finds himself in the classic autocrat’s predicament: with absolute power comes absolute responsibility. Since virtually all power is concentrated in his office, Turks will have nobody but him to blame for the failures of their government. These have been in plentiful supply lately: the lira has lost nearly half of its value against the dollar since 2013, and unemployment is on the rise. Domestic and geopolitical instability has left foreign investors jittery. ISIS attacks have killed scores of civilians. The civil conflict that laid waste to the country’s Kurdish provinces in the 1980s and ’90s has resumed in full. The firing of thousands of civil servants, judges, and prosecutors has left a grave vacuum of competence in the country’s key institutions. Turkey’s foreign policy lies in tatters, and the prospect of EU membership is moribund.

Erdoğan’s supporters argue that Turkey is still a democracy, since people will get to vote for their president once in a while. But there is no democracy without free and fair elections, and elections aren’t free and fair when the opposition can’t speak up. By eradicating independent sources of information, cowing the judiciary, persecuting opponents, and fomenting fear and ethnic animosity, the AKP regime steadily depleted the civic oxygen needed to keep the flame of democracy burning bright.

Turkey’s democracy did not consume itself. It fell prey to an autocrat.


Turkuler Isiksel is James P. Shenton Assistant Professor of the Core Curriculum at the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. She is the author of Europe’s Functional Constitution: A Theory of Constitutionalism Beyond the State (Oxford University Press, 2016).

* The term was coined by political scientist Melissa Schwartzberg.



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