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 .
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”  consistently since 2002 to clearly meet all 4 major criteria of authoritarian behavior as set forth by authors Levitsky and Ziblatt . 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 . 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:
- rejection of democratic rules of the game
- denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
- toleration or encouragement of violence
- 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%.  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 . Coupled with defamation laws that allow Erdogan to silence opposition , 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 . 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 . 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 . 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)  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 . 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 . 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.
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‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter 5-9.
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Did they come about and how are they different?” The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/turkey-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan-referendum-constitutional-reform-a7539286.html
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- Kirişci, Kemal. 2018, February 14. “The new geopolitics of Turkey, Syria, and the West.”
The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/02/14/the-new-geopolitics-of-turkey-syria-and-the-west/
- “Photo by Gladson Xavier, Creative Commons Zero license.”