The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost their majority in Turkish elections on June 7, a fact that could complicate President Recep Tayyip Erodgan’s ambitions of creating a more powerful presidential system. His ambitions created a debate as to whether Turkey is regressing from its democratic progress, but the elections could prove to be a turning point that Turkey needs to get back on the democratic track.
In the Turkish elections on June 7, 2015, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lost their majority in Parliament. This result could have profound consequences for the Turkish political system as Mr. Erdogan seeks to rewrite Turkey’s constitution to make its presidency more powerful. While the AKP did win more seats than any other party, it did not win an outright majority. This could complicate Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions of creating a more powerful presidential system, a position that is now considered mostly ceremonial. Turkey, a secular republic founded by Kemal Ataturk after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, is becoming increasingly authoritarian and Islamist, with Mr. Erdogan seen as the catalyst for this shift. This has caused many analysts to debate whether or not Turkey is regressing from its democratic progress. While Turkey is undoubtedly more authoritarian than it was a decade ago, it is possible that “the outcome [of the June 7 parliamentary election] is the end to Erdogan’s presidential ambitions.” This election could prove to be the turning point that Turkey needs to get back on the democratic track.
The Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002. One factor that assisted the AKP in its success was a booming economy. Under Mr. Erdogan and the AKP, Turkey averaged 7.2 percent annual economic growth between 2002 and 2006. For several years, Turkey was lauded as “an example of a country in the midst of a great democratic transformation – a nation steadily enhancing democratic norms, finding easy coexistence between Islam and democracy, and moving optimistically in the direction of membership with the European Union.” Mr. Erdogan has also taken more action in softening policies toward the Kurdish dilemma and even gave an unprecedented expression of condolence over the alleged genocide against Armenia that occurred a century ago. Ironically, under the AKP’s rule, more Turks have become “politically mobilized and prosperous.”
The enthusiasm behind the economic growth and political progress, nevertheless, began to wane. The AKP faces allegations of corruption, increasing authoritarianism, a blatant turn toward Islamist politics, and an uncooperative foreign policy. Anti-government protests flared in 2013 over plans to replace a park in Istanbul with a shopping mall. These protests, however, were only the first layer of public discontent. As protesters chanted their pressure on Erdogan to resign and the government responded with tear gas, it became apparent that Turkish citizens are no longer happy with the direction that Turkish politics have taken. Mr. Erdogan, at the helm of the AKP, gathered more power as the AKP continued to reign and became increasingly intolerant of dissent. The AKP has essentially “strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines.” Turkey has become a “hollow democracy.”
Foreign policy is another arena where Turkey’s democratic status has been questionable. When the AKP won its election, the United States and Western Europe, Turkey’s traditional allies, started to question Turkey’s commitment and direction the country was taking; they were concerned Turkey was “leaving the West.” The United States has long seen Turkey as a model for the coexistence of democracy and Islam. Similarly, Turkey was in the beginning stages of applying for membership into the European Union and began implementing political and economic reforms to become more consistent with the EU’s priorities. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since 1952, re-affirmed its commitment to the alliance, attempting to dispel any fears that Turkey was turning its back on the West.
Yet, one of the AKP’s cornerstones of its foreign policy has been its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In this policy, AKP leaders “believed that Ankara had made a mistake for decades of detaching itself form the Arab world,” and it was now time to restructure Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey began improving its relations with its neighbors, including those ruled by authoritarian regimes, such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan – and it even attempted to mend ties with Armenia. This new foreign policy created some tension with the West, as Mr. Erdogan’s relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama suffered as well as stalling on potential EU membership. Relations have further deteriorated with the West, mainly over the first Iraq War, Syria, and the fight against the Islamic State. The West charges that Turkey actions in the fight against the Sunni militant group are not sufficient. Turkey was once celebrated for its democratic ambitions and Western-aligned foreign policy; now, it has become a point of contention with Western governments, and some critics question whether Turkey is truly democratic.
Perhaps Turkey’s authoritarian turn can best be examined through President Erdogan’s desire to transform the current political system into one with a more powerful presidential position. He was “constitutionally barred” from being elected prime minister for another term and wanted to remain in power for as long as he could. He, thus, became the first directly elected president in 2014. Currently, the presidential post is mostly ceremonial, so his main goal is to create a “Super Presidency” – a “system dominated by a single figure within the rough outlines of a functioning democracy, held in place by a strong security apparatus, a politically-controlled judiciary, tightly controlled media and neutered opposition.” To do this, however, Mr. Erdogan needed for his party to win a majority of parliamentary seats to ensure the constitutional reform glided through the parliament without much obstruction. The election results demonstrate that a majority of Turks disagree with the changes Mr. Erdogan wants to impose. As one Turkish citizen aptly observed, “The A.K.P. has lost votes, and it’s because of him [Erdogan]. People are tired of having their lives dictated by one nutty man. It’s time for a change.” Mr. Erdogan’s strategic plan of rewriting the Turkish constitution for his own political gain is the ultimate example of his blatant authoritarian tendencies and Turkey’s turn away from democracy.
The election results will have grave consequences for President Erdogan’s political ambitions. As a result of the failure to gain a majority solely through the elections, the next few weeks certainly promise that he and the AKP will be in tense negotiations in order to build a coalition government. The not-so surprising-loss hampers his ability to create a “Super Presidency.” The Turkish citizens clarified that they do not support his ambitions and he will likely face significant opposition among opposition parties in trying to push this unpopular constitutional reform through Parliament. Mr. Erdogan’s attempts prove that Turkey has strayed from its democratic and even secular characteristics, some of which existed throughout the reign of the AKP. Turkey was, indeed, a hollow democracy, but it shows, through the AKP’s loss of the parliamentary election, that democracy is on the rise.