Erdogan's Disregard for Democracy

Noah Buffam

September, 2017

Unludetay (2014)

Unludetay (2014)


In July of 2016, armed soldiers stormed the streets of Turkey in an attempted coup d’état.  Turkish citizens and military forces fought back and defended the current government, but despite its failure, the coup has induced paranoia in the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. 

Turkish president, Recep Erdogan, claimed that the attack had been orchestrated by the Gulenist movement, led by Fethullah Gulen. In the following weeks, Erdogan arrested and fired suspected Gulenists. 

President Erdogan has arrested citizens for insults and criticisms directed towards him. By the beginning of 2017, over 100,000 citizens had been fired and 37,000 had been arrested. The mass arrests have led many to question Erdogan’s commitment to democracy.

Is it democratic to jail your political opponents?

Fears of the president’s disregard for democratic decision were heightened when Erdogan and the AK Party’s proposed constitutional referendum was voted in on April 16, 2017. The results of the referendum allowed the Turkish government to amend the constitution in such a way as to change the parliamentary system to a presidential republic.  This amendment will come into effect starting in 2019 upon the next election.

The current parliamentary system offers a separation of powers, meaning that the executive, legislative and judiciary branches are independent.  In this system the people of Turkey elect a prime minister and a president.  Supporters of the parliamentary system claim it promotes democratic decision making.  However, critics of the system complain that decision making is inefficient.

History has shown that the system is imperfect, as past disagreements between prime minister and president have led to inaction and economic and political crisis.  In 2001 escalating arguments between the prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, and president, Ahmet Sezer, spooked investors and triggered capital flight from Turkey.  The Istanbul index fell 63% within two days, meanwhile, Turkish Lira were sold off at an astonishing rate.

The solution set forth by Erdogan was to abolish the position of prime minister while increasing the power of the president.  The amendments made to the constitution following the results of the referendum greatly reduce the authority of parliament. 

In the new system parliament will continue to draft laws, however these laws will be sent to the president for approval. Furthermore, the president will have the authority to pass laws by decree and dissolve parliament in a state of emergency. Therefore, the president will yield a much larger share of legislative authority.  The president will also have a great amount of control over the judiciary as he will appoint half of the senior judges.  The other half will be appointed by the parliament unless the president has a majority rule of parliament - as is the case now - in which case he will have the power to appoint all the judges.

Considering these changes to the distribution of power within the Turkish government, it is evident that the new system will place an excessive amount of power in the president’s hands and may erode the democratic process.

Turkish citizens voted in favor of the referendum with 51.4% of the vote. However, there have been calls that the referendum was unfair. The ‘Yes’ campaign received a larger share of television coverage. Moreover, Erdogan has significant influence over the press, and it is believed that Turkish freedom of press may have been eroded.

In the 2017 analysis, Reporters Without Borders ranked them 155 out of 180 countries on their press freedom index.

In addition, the opposition party, CHP, has complained about obstruction of the ‘No’ campaign.  These range from accusations of assault to police detention.  German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and European institutions have also voiced opposition to the manner in which the campaign was carried out. It is clear that the democratic process was not followed during the referendum campaign.

The results from the Turkish referendum has caused tensions internationally. Efforts by Erdogan to campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote among expatriates in the Netherlands and Germany were stymied by Merkel and Dutch leader, Mark Rutte. Further, Turkish-USA relations have been rocky since the USA refused to deport Fethullah Gullen after the attempted coup. 

Turkey’s status as a NATO member should be called into question. NATO was created as a collective defense alliance which spread democratic values. As Turkey slides towards an illiberal democracy, their values may begin to oppose those of NATO. The tensions between Turkey and NATO members – such as, USA, Germany and the Netherlands - proves there is a growing difference of core values and interests between the countries and Turkey. 

The victory of the ‘Yes’ side in the Turkish constitutional referendum along with Recep Erdogan’s disregard for traditional democratic values poses a threat to the future of Turkish democracy. Erdogan’s lack of respect for democratic decision-making will likely carry over to the 2019 election; if he wins Turkey may slip further into the grips of illiberal democracy and become authoritative.