Autocracy behind a democratic facade: the political regime in Turkey

Guest article by Ertuğ Tombuş,
Institut für Sozialwissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Totalitarian closure in Turkey

On 23 September 2008, addressing the United Nations (UN) General Assembly about the ongoing financial meltdown, the then President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, said: “Just when we had thought the worst had passed, the light at the end of the tunnel became an oncoming train hurtling forward with new shocks...” After every election and referendum in the last decade, those who want to live in a democratic and free society in Turkey have the same feelings. Feelings of hope and solidarity have been replaced with feelings of despair and loneliness immediately following elections.

Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002, Turkey has become a country where fundamental rights and liberties are regularly and systematically violated, political rights are severely restricted, criticism and dissent are considered a crime, and law is perverted into a tool of oppression entirely detached from the idea of justice.

Democracy in Turkey has never been without severe limitations, obstacles and problems. Even during periods of democratisation, transformations and reforms were uneven. For particular identities and groups, democracy has always been a very distant hope, and it has always been closed to some ideas and claims. When it comes to the ‘security’ of the state, democratic politics and fundamental rights have been the first to be accused and suspended, as has happened several times with military interventions. From the very beginning, democratic politics in Turkey have been squeezed within a very narrow framework drawn by an authoritarian raison d’état.

Yet the current political situation is severe and unprecedented, even compared to previous political crises and episodes of authoritarianism in Turkey. The mentality in power has never been so close to a totalitarian closure. Even if the AKP has not yet achieved such a closure, they definitely aspire to this and are working for it. Especially since the June 2015 elections, when the AKP realised that it could lose political power in a free and fair election, the government has been trying to establish its domination over every sphere of life and even over the minds of every individual. The government turned the failed coup of 15 July 2016 into an opportunity to implement an autocratic system to keep itself in power. This totalitarian aspiration of the current government in Turkey exists together with the personal aspirations of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who claims that the faith of the state and the nation depends on the continuity of his rule.

Coup attempt and emergency rule

On 15 July 2016, a section or a coalition of sections within the Turkish military attempted to stage a coup d’état and overthrow the AKP government.[1] Following the coup attempt, the government declared a state of emergency throughout Turkey on 21 July 2016 and extended this seven times until 19 July 2018. President Erdoğan stated that the state of emergency was required to take swift and effective measures against the Fethullah Gülen movement, which had infiltrated every state institution and was behind the coup attempt. However, the scope of the state of emergency and the groups targeted by the government clearly shows that the government had a different aim. In contrast to the declared objective of protecting the constitutional order and the rule of law, and eliminating the causes of the emergency situation, the government used emergency rule to get rid of any constitutional, institutional and political limitations on its power and in the way of its aim to initiate a fundamental change affecting the nature of the political regime in Turkey.

During the state of emergency, the government issued 31 emergency decrees, most of which were beyond constitutional limitations. The government violated procedural limitations by not sending the emergency decrees to parliament for a vote, violated substantial limitations by regulating a very wide scope of issues with emergency decrees, and even violated temporal limitations by making permanent changes in the constitutional and legal system. The AKP made changes in areas such as the military, police, judiciary, public administration, education, business and many others, on issues that were not even remotely related to the emergency situation. Additionally, most of the emergency decrees have continued to have effect after the state of emergency has been abolished. Both in terms of their scope and duration, most of the regulations should have been matters of ordinary parliamentary legislation. But during emergency rule, the AKP deprived parliament of both its supervisory and legislative powers.

The emergency decrees did not only target the Gülen movement. The government used the decrees to persecute, oppress and silence the opposition with the justification of necessity arising from the emergency. During the state of emergency, more than 200,000 individuals were put into pre-trial detention. As of 20 March 2018, the number of convicts and detainees in prison reached 224,974. With emergency decrees, the government dismissed 112,679 public officials from public service for life. Some 5,707 academics were dismissed from public universities and 15 private foundation universities were closed down, together with 1,964 private education institutions, 1,419 associations, 145 foundations, 174 media and broadcasting organisations and 29 trade unions.

Academics who signed the Peace Declaration, released to the public on 11 January 2016, and signed by more than 2,000 academics, have been targeted by the government. Some 516 signatory academics were removed and banned from public service. Of these, 404 were not only dismissed from their university positions but also had their passports arbitrarily cancelled. Many of them have received scholarships and grants abroad but cannot use these opportunities as they cannot travel outside Turkey. The government has violated their academic freedom, their democratic right to express dissent and their freedom to travel. The AKP used the state of emergency as a pretext to suppress any dissenting voices while conveniently blocking any appeal mechanisms for those who were subjected to arbitrary decisions.

Constitutional amendments and the presidential system

The constitutional amendments of 2017 replaced the parliamentary regime in Turkey with a presidential system. Despite the fundamental change the amendments brought about, they have, in a way, simply codified in the constitution the de facto situation that applied under the state of emergency. President Erdoğan used the state of emergency to concentrate power in his hands, free from constitutional limitations, and can now enjoy the very same unlimited powers as a feature of the constitution.

With the amendments, the Office of the Prime Minister and the council of ministers are eliminated and executive power is transferred to the president. In the new system, the president has vast appointment powers, including of vice-presidents, cabinet members and high bureaucratic officials, and can issue executive decrees, declare a state of emergency, deploy the military and close down parliament. And the president can use his unprecedented powers without any parliamentary oversight. Given the fact that judicial independence, even at the level of the Constitutional Court, has become highly dubious, no effective body or office remains that can make the president accountable for his actions, or enforce the constitutional limitations on him. In its current form and practice, presidentialism in Turkey, as some scholars rightly define it, can be better called “absolutist presidentialism” or “presidential autocracy.”

What President Erdoğan acquired or secured for himself throughout the process that started from the coup attempt, continued with emergency rule and constitutional amendments and went through to his election as president in 2018, is not merely a matter of how much he monopolised power in his hands by codifying autocracy in the constitution. In other words, it is not simply a question of the limits of his constituted authority. Such a question still assumes the authority of the constitution, no matter how undemocratic it is. President Erdoğan used this process to justify his claim to have the authority to violate the constitution when he sees it necessary, as he claims to represent the will of the people and its constitutive authority. Any limits to his power, in his rhetoric, mean a limitation to the will of the people. When it comes to his decisions and actions, constitutionality is reduced to a mere option.

Civil society: suppression and co-optation

The AKP and President Erdoğan have consolidated their political power not only by securing their monopoly over state institutions and its coercive mechanisms. Surely, the governing party uses its monopoly to suppress civil society organisations (CSOs) or close them down arbitrarily by accusing them of supporting terrorist organisations without feeling the need to prove these accusations. However, as recent scholarship on civil society in Turkey demonstrates, suppressing existing CSOs that challenge the AKP and President Erdoğan or promote values different to those of the governing party is not the only strategy the AKP follows on civil society.

The AKP, as J L Doyle, explains, establishes new CSOs that promote the AKP’s political agenda and conservative worldview.[2] These pro-government, or government-led pseudo CSOs, marginalise critical voices while offering the impression that a free civil society exists as a support to the democratic façade they want to maintain. As Doyle defines, the AKP creates “an entirely new government-controlled shadow civil society.” Diffusion into civil society through government-controlled CSOs, as B Yabanci shows with the cases of trade unions and women’s organisations, also has the function of reproducing a populist antagonism between the people and the corrupt elite. This populist antagonism has been the backbone of President Erdoğan’s political rhetoric, through which he claims to be the sole representative of the people. As Yabanci argues, the government-dependent trade unions and women’s organisations “reassert the AKP’s continuing relevance as the only genuine representative of ‘the people’.”[3]

Reimagining democracy

Democratic backsliding is a global phenomenon today, with Turkey only one of the cases in which democracies in different parts of the world have been under attack. One important characteristic of this trend is that democratic politics and its essential institutions have not been entirely destroyed where the authoritarian regime is denying democratic legitimacy or popular sovereignty as the modus operandi. Instead, in most cases, those who are in power abuse and degenerate democratic institutions while claiming to be the real defenders of democracy and the people. Their power depends on the continuity of democracy as a mere façade.

Any attempt to reimagine democracy therefore needs to understand and explain how democratic institutions can be degenerated from within, how we can reclaim democracy from its current usurpers, and how we can ensure that democracy not only promises us a free and equal life but also delivers this promise for all equally. Any understanding of democracy that does not address the issue of political and economic inequality would be an empty rhetoric instead of a concrete practice in the lives of many.


[1] There are different scenarios put forward by the government, the opposition and others about what happened on 15 July 2016, and who was behind the coup attempt. None of them go beyond speculation. The mystery about the coup attempt has been long-lasting. One thing is certain: the government does not have a sincere aim to investigate and find out the truth about it.

[2] ‘Government co-option of civil society: exploring the AKP’s role within Turkish women’s CSOs’, Jessica Leigh Doyle, Democratization, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2018, pp. 445-463.

[3] ‘Populism as the problem child of democracy: the AKP’s enduring appeal and the use of meso-level actors’, Bilge Yabanci, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2016, pg. 591.



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