University of California, Los Angeles

Erdogan’s Empire: A Case Study of democratic backsliding in Turkey by Jacob Awrabi @ University of California, Los Angeles


When examining democratic erosion, a prime example of a brief case study is that of Turkey. Through an array of authoritarian tactics, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly seized unchecked executive power. As a result, Erdogan has created what Princeton University political scientist Kim Lane Scheppele calls a “Frankenstate” in Turkey [1].

Since taking power in Turkey in 2002, Erdogan has been at the head of many authoritarian changes in Turkish government that have eroded the quality democratic institutions in Turkey leading to its current status as a “Frankenstate”. Erdogan has utilized “executive aggrandizement” [2] consistently since 2002 to clearly meet all 4 major criteria of authoritarian behavior as set forth by authors Levitsky and Ziblatt [3].  According to political scientist Nancy Bermeo, executive aggrandizement is the use of elected officials or referenda to implement institutional changes which limit the opposition to executive preferences [2]. Erdogan has employed this method in an authoritarian manner in line with the guidelines set by authors Levitsky and Ziblatt. According to authors Levitsky and Ziblatt the 4 major criteria of authoritarian behavior are:

  1. rejection of democratic rules of the game
  2. denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents

Erdogan has enacted a number of laws and constitutional amendments to gain unchecked power in the form of executive aggrandizement to pursue these ends. Most recently on March 13th, the Turkish parliament approved amendments to electoral laws that relax the electoral threshold of 10% vote share a party is required to earn in order participate in elections, by allowing parties to form coalitions to reach 10%. [4] While on the surface this may seem an inclusive change, in light of other government actions this change will likely allow Erdogan to further consolidate his power in the following ways. The Turkish government in 2004 passed laws curtailing the civil liberties of journalists preventing contributions of criticism of the government in the press [2]. Coupled with defamation laws that allow Erdogan to silence opposition [2], there is no legitimate ability to utilize the Turkish media to publically oppose Erdogan’s rule without the threat of potential jail time. Furthermore, in 2010 Erdogan utilized referenda to pass multiple constitutional changes which allowed him to appoint 14 of 17 constitutional judges [2]. These referenda further decrease the checks of judicial power in Turkey on executive power showing Erdogan’s lack of respect for democratic principles of checks and balances and separation of powers. Utilizing this consolidated power, decisions about which parties are legal and allowed to field candidates for office were shifted from the courts to the legislature. Thus, the most recent electoral changes are likely to bolster smaller pro-Erdogan parties. In the past, these parties may have been unable to participate in elections due to being unable to yield 10% of the vote share.  An additional reason these recent electoral changes are significant in proving Erdogan’s authoritarian status is the 2017 referenda passed in Turkey that states in 2019 the Turkish elections institutions will transition from the current parliamentary system to a presidential system such as in the United States. Currently, the president of Turkey is a largely ceremonial role, in the new structure; the President becomes a nearly all-powerful position as head of government, head of state and head of the ruling party meanwhile eliminating the Prime Minister role and its attached influence [5]. The system lacks the checks and balances of typical Presidential regimes such as in the United States, and in particular transfer powers traditionally held by the national assembly (think congress and senate) to the presidency [5]. When considering Erdogan’s suppression of free speech, disregard for democratic power structures, denial of legitimate political opponents, and the fact that Erdogan has shown tolerance of violence, even on US soil, against US citizens (Erdogan security forces attacked protestors during his visit to Washington, DC in 2017) [6] fears arising over Erdogan’s potential to become a brutal dictator due to these newest electoral changes seem warranted.

Overall, due to these recent changes, Erdogan has clearly created a “Frankenstate” in Turkey. According to Scheppele, “a Frankenstate is an abusive form of rule, created by combining the bits and pieces of perfectly reasonable democratic institutions in a monstrous way.”  These combinations allow Erdogan to severely undermine both the procedural and the substantive aspects of a healthy democracy. Procedurally, yes, there will be elections again in Turkey in 2019, but will they be legitimate contested elections? There is a judiciary in Turkey, but is it reasonably unbiased? The answer to these questions, currently, is no. On the procedural level, Erdogan has clearly succeeded in preserving aspects of democracy only to utilize them to consolidate his power. Substantively, Erdogan has eroded democratic outcomes from the Turkish political system. In terms of civil liberties, in a 2014 report on global freedom of the press, Turkey was downgraded from “partly free” to “not free,” as its score worsened from 56 to 62 on a 100-point scale [7]. In terms of minority rights according to Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution, under Erdogan, there has been a reversal of the gains made with respect to Kurds and the abandonment of efforts to find a negotiated political solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey [8]. While Erdogan may be able to point to the “legal” basis of most of these actions, this use of legal power to pursue the undermining of democratic institutions and their proposed outcomes serves to solidify Turkey’s status as a Frankenstate. It is clear Erdogan is steadfast on squeezing the choking points of power for the long term thus ushering in a new era, perhaps the 21st Century version of the Ottoman Empire, Erdogan’s Empire.



  1. Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the

‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter 5-9.

  1. Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19.
  2. Levitsky, Steven, & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. “Fateful Alliances.” Chapter 1 in How

Democracies Die. NY: Crown Publishing.

  1. Hacaoglu, Selcan. 2018, March 13. “Turkey Approves Election Law Seen Boosting

Erdogan.” Bloomberg Politics.

  1. Soguel, Dominique. 2017, January 21. “Turkey constitutional changes: what are they, how

Did they come about and how are they different?” The Independent.

  1. 2017, May 17 “’Erdogan’s bodyguards’ in violent clash with protesters in Washington

DC”. The Guardian.


  1. Lust, Ellen & Waldner, David. 2015. “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and

Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding.” Washington, DC: USAID. pp. 6.

  1. Kirişci, Kemal. 2018, February 14. “The new geopolitics of Turkey, Syria, and the West.”

The Brookings Institution.

  1. “Photo by Gladson Xavier, Creative Commons Zero license.”



    March 14, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    I definitely agree the aggrandizement of President Erdogan has turned the government into a “monstrosity”. You give a very comprehensive analysis of both former and new configurations of the government, making it clear the new referendum is only going to exacerbate the unchecked imbalance of powers and tighten his grip on their so-called democratic institutions. Any citizen of Turkey would be enlightened (and frustrated) to read this dismal synopsis of their current leadership.


    March 14, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    This article precisely lays out the wrong doings of Erdogan and how he is transitioning Turkey into an undemocratic place. I was shocked to see that you included allowing coalitions to become part of the 10% vote shares, but then when I continued reading and saw your arguments about how it is worse for democracy along with the underlying mechanisms under that law passing, I too, agree that the 10% coalition vote share will hurt the country. Along with everything else you listed, what is leaving a lasting impression on me is the lack of the freedom of press. He is truly in charge of what the people are told if he is in charge of the press – and that is not how a democracy should be. Turkey is a “Frankenstate” and it will only continue to become more of an autocracy (under Erdogan) unless drastic changes are made.


    March 14, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    You reference Sheppele’s article, so I figure it may be worthwhile to compare Sheppele’s analysis of Hungary with yours of Turkey with regard to treatment of the judiciary. You discuss how Erdogan decided to pack the courts by appointing 14 out of the 17 constitutional judges. Orban acts very similarly (he adds a few judges, according to Scheppele) but also creates laws to try to remove the older judges (who were mostly opposition). When he did this, the EU complained, and he ended up returning those judges to their bench but gave them cases of no significance. Both instances are very similar in that, no matter the check and balances (internal and external), once a leader has the power to change the constitution, they have the power to change the judiciary in any number of harmful ways. However, while Sheppele notes that these changes are, on the surface, democratic, the underlying implications are obviously not. The fact that such a similar pattern occurs repeatedly indicates that perhaps people and international governments do not care about having Democracy so long as they can have the surface-level illusion of Democracy.


    March 15, 2018 at 1:52 pm

    I think you did a great job explaining this complex situation. As with all things in society, there are ways to play by the system to beat the system. In this case, the “Frankenstate” serves as a prime example as in places such as Turkey, leaders such as President Erdogan are able to use democratic ways to change democracy in order to have less checks on power. The problem with these cases is that they happen very slowly until eventually the country in question is only a democracy in name and not in practice. I loved how you talked about the lack of a free press, because in our own country, there are many people that want to regulate media for numerous of reasons, yet when this has been done in other countries, the quality of democracy decreases rather than increases. It is so important to have a free press and I cannot stress this enough, because at least in situations when the government is controlled by only one party, there can still be checks on those in power from the press. Overall, I loved your story on Turkey, because it reminds me how so many ideas aligned with democratic norms can suddenly become undemocratic in practice. It is always something that must be contemplated in our society.

  5. Iman Mohamed

    April 29, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    I particularly enjoyed this article because of your reference to Levitsky and Ziblatt”s “How Democracies Die”. It is important to analyze the assaults on democracy Erdogan has committed to Turkish democracy. I believe an attainable solution to controlling Erdogan’s “empire” is for opposition parties to unite and vote out AKP party members and Erdogan himself. A large portion of young voters in Turkey has a negative opinion on Erdogan, many young people who will be of voting age by the 2019 elections. You stated that the Turkish governmental system lacks checks and balances which I agree with. After the new constitutional amendment that grants the president dictator-like power, Turkey will lose all of its democratic traits and display an authoritarian country. I particularly appreciated your detailed explanation of how Erdogan has used democracy as a tool to destroy democracy; under the guise that his political motives are democratic or that the law allows it.

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