Tutored by the Tragedy of Turkish Democracy


When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it generated considerable debate between those who saw its success as a potentially liberalizing force and critics who feared it would ultimately bring the end of Turkish democracy. Depending on who you spoke to, the AKP was poised to turn Turkey into either Sweden or Iran; to finally realize Ataturk’s vision of making the country modern and Western or permanently destroy it.

Today, a decade and a half later, the future of Turkish democracy certainly looks grim. With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now leading a heavy-handed campaign to further enhance his powers through a constitutional referendum in April, every day seems to provide new evidence that the party’s earliest critics have been vindicated.

But looking back at the AKP’s rise and transformation, this seems a bit like concluding that the boy who cried wolf was vindicated at the end of the fable when the wolf finally arrived. The alarmism that accompanied the AKP’s rise prompted a series of undemocratic interventions that only strengthened its hold on power, furthering the party’s descent into authoritarianism, and the country’s along with it. Military and legal threats against the AKP in its early years bolstered the party’s support among loyalists and skeptics alike. Those threats also helped confirm a narrative of righteous persecution that Erdogan has continued to draw on as he transformed the party from a potentially liberalizing force into the nightmare it has become today.

During its early years in power, the AKP won liberal acclaim as it challenged the entrenched influence of Turkish military, expanded cultural rights for Kurds and promoted accession to the European Union. In retrospect, it is easy to identify champions of the AKP who were excessive in their enthusiasm for the party or their confidence in its liberal rhetoric. Yet for others, support for the AKP was more measured. If Erdogan was using democracy instrumentally – he infamously claimed democracy was like a train from which you disembark when you reach your stop – many liberals were equally instrumental in their support for him. In the early days, when the AKP itself appeared weak, it made sense to think the party could help clear away the undemocratic forces in Turkish society while still being constrained by political institutions, and, ultimately, voters. In 2003, the AKP was also more than just Erdogan. At the time, it included a far more diverse coalition of business interests, liberals, and democratically-minded religious conservatives.

What’s more, Turkey’s political landscape in the early 2000s offered few liberal alternatives to the AKP. The country’s main opposition party, the CHP, cast its lot with the military, often seeming more concerned about secularism than democracy and more comfortable with coups than headscarves. The ultra-nationalist (not to say overtly racist or quasi-fascist) MHP, meanwhile, appeared a lost cause, while the country’s Kurdish party remained in the thrall of  PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan’s violent and authoritarian brand of Kurdish nationalism.

Given this backdrop, one could be clear-eyed about Erdogan’s faults and still see the AKP as the best of a bunch of bad options. In early 2004, U.S. Ambassador Eric Edelman wrote a cable (subsequently published by Wikileaks) in which he presciently detailed  Erdogan’s “overbearing pride,” “unbridled ambition,” “authoritarian loner streak,” and “overweening desire to stay in power.” Still, the cable went on to conclude that despite these manifest faults, Erdogan was, at the time, “the only partner capable of advancing toward the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe.”

Whatever hope there was for this vision, the behavior of the AKP’s fiercest opponents over the ensuing decade was not conducive to realizing it. The Turkish military in particular did its part to ensure that the AKP would maintain its image as a champion of democracy – or at least the liberal democrats’ lesser evil – well after that ceased to be the case. Given the Turkish military’s history – four coups in as many decades, the most recent in 1997 against the AKP’s Islamist predecessor – it already faced considerable suspicion; its response to the AKP only made things worse.  Despite having the wisdom to recognize that it lacked both the domestic and international support for an overt coup, the country’s top brass expressed just enough interest in trying to force the AKP from power to bolster the party’s popularity and confirm widespread suspicion that the military itself still posed the greatest threat to Turkish democracy.

Details of the military’s activity in 2003-2004 are still shrouded in mystery, but what evidence subsequently emerged was damning enough to cast a sinister shadow over subsequent developments.  In 2007, a Turkish magazine published leaked entries from a diary kept by Admiral Ozden Ornek, commander of the Turkish naval forces during the 2003-2004 period. Ornek’s diary described high-level discussions of a military-led campaign to foment unrest through civil-society mobilization, anti-AKP propaganda and mass demonstrations as means to bring down Erdogan and his party. The authenticity of some parts of the diary were subsequently disputed and there was no evidence the military ever acted on these plans. But the overall picture it painted of the military’s thinking at the time was, by many accounts, accurate and helped damage public perceptions of the military going forward.

In the following years, the AKP would face a series of challenges that further rallied supporters against what appeared to be the fundamentally anti-democratic forces resisting them. In 2007, a crisis emerged over who would fill Turkey’s then largely symbolic office of President. With Erdogan widely seen as too controversial, the AKP put forward co-founder Abdullah Gul. Amidst a heated debate that often focused on Gul’s wife’s headscarf, the Turkish military issued a late night memorandum on its website stating it was watching with concern and was resolute in its commitment to defend secular principles. Among other anti-secular activities that caught the military’s eye, the memorandum noted with alarm that in several elementary schools, female students in head scarves had been singing religious songs. While the objectives of the military’s statement remain opaque, in a country that had already had one coup-by-memorandum, citizens were quick to perceive an explicit threat. And they responded defiantly. Several months later, voters went to the polls and returned the AKP to power with 46.5 percent of the vote, a 13 percent increase over its total in the previous election.

The next year, Turkey’s head prosecutor launched a court case to close the AKP and ban 71 of its leading members from politics. While cases against previous Islamist parties had regularly succeeded, this one failed, defeated by one vote in Turkey’s 11-member constitutional court. But despite the outcome, the case helped confirm in the minds of many AKP supporters the implacable nature of the political establishment they were up against.

For Erdogan of course, this perception would pay lasting political dividends. Having succeeded in maintaining its hold on power in the face of undemocratic resistance, Erdogan built on this narrative to maintain support for his own increasingly undemocratic behavior.

After surviving the closure case, the AKP went on to consolidate control through a series of trials that left many military leaders and prominent secular critics in jail. The trials began in 2008 as an investigation into a sprawling coup plot called the Ergenekon conspiracy. Over the following years, it emerged that the real conspiracy was the case itself. Orchestrated by members of the Gulen movement in the police and judiciary, the case relied on forged evidence and selective leaks, manipulated to target opponents of Gulen and the AKP. Yet while often worrying about the prosecution’s abuses, many liberal observers continued to treat it as a necessary step in breaking the military’s hold on politics. The driving force behind this deeply mistaken calculation was the assumption that where there’s a history of smoke, there must also be fire.

In 2011 and 2012, Erdogan restructured the AKP to empower his own loyalists while forcing out more liberal members and supporters of his rival, Abdullah Gul. Then, as he consolidated his hold over the party, he succeeded in discrediting the growing opposition he faced by emphasizing, accurately or not, its undemocratic character. When widespread urban protests against the government broke out in 2013, for example, they were viewed with a degree of sympathy by some of the AKP’s more liberal members. Yet Erdogan, drawing implausibly but effectively on the Turkish military’s previous plans for instigating mass protests, presented the popular demonstrations as an organized conspiracy seeking to topple the AKP. Months later, prosecutors affiliated with the Gulen movement – which had fallen out with the government in an increasingly naked power struggle– moved to arrest several prominent members of the AKP and their children on corruption charges. In this case, though, the Gulenists’ history of secretive and illegal activity enabled Erdogan to portray the arrests as part of another coup plot, convincing his supporters to overlook the inconvenient fact that the charges themselves were probably true.

Of course, Erdogan’s efforts to play the victim received ultimate vindication last summer, when elements within the military really did launch a coup. In its aftermath, Erdogan’s popularity increased dramatically and his loyalists launched a wide-ranging series of purges that effectively forestalled opposition from rivals within his own party. After years during which observers hoped more democratically-minded figures like Abdullah Gul or former Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu might finally challenge Erdogan and set the AKP back on a more moderate path, the coup seems to have put an end to this possibility. Amidst conspiratorial accusations that Gul and Davutoglu were themselves in league with the coup plotters, Erdogan could almost certainly now get away with having both men jailed if they ever seriously threatened him.

Whether Erodgan succeeds in enhancing his powers through a coming referendum or not, his position seems secure for the foreseeable future. This is a result not only of his ample ambition and political skill, but also of the missteps of opponents who tried to resist him the wrong way.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.

Image: Miguel Carminati, CC