Prospects for Democracy in Turkey

This piece is a summary of the panel on the Prospects for Democracy in Turkey held by CDACS and D&S. Panelists include Dr. Murat Somer, Dr. Lisel Hintz, Dr. Berk Esen, Dr. Deniz Ay, and Dr. Daniel Brumberg.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has strengthened his grip on power in the last two decades as Turkish society has experienced pernicious divisions. With the next presidential election scheduled for 2023, many figures within Erdogan’s camp are already scheming in preparation for a possible change in the administration while the opposition discusses how to defeat him. Erdogan’s potential contenders include Ekrem Imamoglu, the Mayor of Istanbul, Mansur Yavas, the Mayor of Ankara, and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party (Republican Peoples Party).

The ongoing economic crises have made it difficult for Turkish society to make ends meet. High inflation, high unemployment, devaluation of the Turkish Lira, and rising borrowing costs created a hostile economic environment and fostered even more dissident voices. The economic crisis has changed the dynamics of Turkish politics; however, the probabilities of political outcomes are diverse, depending on internal and external factors. Murat Somer, Professor of International Relations from Koc University, argues that it is hard to state whether the ongoing downfall of the Turkish economy will foster any opportunities for the opposition, considering that economic crises can, in fact, allow authoritarian leaders to consolidate power. Nevertheless, the (re)democratization of Turkish politics is a real possibility, conditional on which actor(s) use politics skillfully and strategically react to unforeseeable and seemingly random incidents.   

The central question is whether the economic crisis can push enough people toward the opposition camp. Without a doubt, there is frustration among the electorate. Erdogan built his regime on a vast network of patrimonial relations, funneling public resources to his cronies and financing a vast range of social programs for the urban poor, argues Berk Esen, Professor of Political Science at Sabanci University. Stocks plummeted 20 percent, and overnight interest rates reached 7500 percent during the 2001 crisis, weakening the middle class while wiping out the urban poor. Large groups of people migrated from the rural parts of Turkey to the urban areas, expanding the urban poor. Esen states that, after AKP and Erdogan took power in 2002, they increased social spending, undertaking a partisan agenda based on the empowerment of the urban poor and the enrichment of businesses that had close ties with the regime, creating a triangular network of dependency. Tax breaks, turning a blind eye to workplace violations, and anti-labor policies were tolerated, allowing Erdogan to undermine the rule of law. Erdogan was effectively immune to ideological conflicts, and, accordingly, accountability diminished. The enriched businesses expanded their sphere of influence to media and civil society, fostering an environment where oppositional voices were increasingly suppressed. Toleration for dissent diminished, whereas the new class of oligarchs gained a wide range of benefits and perks. 

Nevertheless, as the 2018-2022 currency and debt crisis deepens, those patrimonial relations become more burdensome to sustain due to a lack of resources, adds Esen. On the other hand, the opposition camp has yet to develop a concrete and comprehensive economic proposal that would provide relief to Turkish society. The political impact of the economic crisis is not clear. If the current trend continues, the opposition does have a chance in the upcoming elections. The opposition parties control the local governments of the three most prominent cities in Turkey and have been able to provide adequate services to the public, particularly to the urban poor, proving that a change in the regime need not result in instability. The uptick in labor movements, student uprisings, and the women’s movement has energized and mobilized the dissident voices. According to Professor Daniel Brumberg, Director of the Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown University, Erdogan still has cards to play, especially in foreign policy. The Ukraine crisis and the improvement of the relations with the United Arab Emirates and Israel are opportunities for Erdogan to revitalize his diminishing popularity with the electorate.   

Rebuilding a democratic Turkey will require much more than winning the upcoming elections. Even if the opposition emerges victorious in 2023, an age-old conflict, the Kurdish issue, and the refugee crisis that materialized due to the Syrian civil war will need addressing, adds Somer. On February 28, 2022, six oppositional parties proposed a new parliament system after a joint meeting in a rare occurrence. Professor Somer points out that the joint proposal was a significant attempt to build consensus among ideologically distinctive parties, but Turkey’s third-largest political party, the pro-Kurdish HDP, was not invited to the meeting. One of the promises of the consensus was equal citizenship, but it is unclear how that promise will be executed, as the oppositional coalition did not have a concrete message on how to resolve the Kurdish issue. Turkey is a deeply divided society with several social cleavages, so it is unsurprising that Turks are united in lacking concrete ideas on how to resolve the Kurdish issue. Turkish elites use conflicts against one another to consolidate their bases while reinforcing the age-old divisions within the society, making democratization harder. On the contrary, Somer points out, Kurds do have tangible ideas on how to resolve the issue. Turks need to move beyond the conventional approaches to the Kurdish issue and realize that a sustainable and democratic future will require practical and consensus-based solutions. 

Speaking of practicality, most major political actors avoid discussing the refugee crisis openly and comprehensively, as they are constantly worried about public backlash. Millions of displaced Syrians live in Turkey, most of them in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, and no political actors have any concrete proposals besides populist soundbites that feed into the increasing nationalism within Turkish society. Addressing the refugee crisis will be a significant obstacle since large portions of the society believe that the refugees will and should be sent back to northern Syria, where they came from, without considering the logistics or the humanitarian aspect of such an attempt. Contrary to national politics, Deniz Ay, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern, argues that municipalities have demonstrated that progress can be achieved even under political constraints at the local level. Local governments largely depend on funding from the central government to finance their services, and municipalities are legally bound to provide services to all residents, regardless of their citizenship status. Accordingly, local governments need to divide resources between citizens and non-citizens, fueling tensions between refugees and residents. According to Ay, local governments initially struggled with financing public services without the necessary funding from the central government due to political partisanship. Soon enough, new units were formed under local institutions, encouraging new coalitions and cooperation with international organizations and agencies, including but not limited to the European Union and UNHCR. 

Lisel Hintz, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University argues that local governments used social media platforms to build coalitions and cooperative agendas. Since pro-AKP companies now control 90 to 95 percent of mainstream media, social media emerged as the sole tool for oppositional forces to campaign and mobilize. Hintz underlines the skepticism many held toward social media having an actual effect on the ground. However, by allowing people to connect, share resources, and form solidarity, Hintz says online platforms have proven their vitality for political mobilization. A heated discussion continues on whether the oppositional parties and political elites can effectively use the momentum on social media. Some find the oppositional coalition often too reactive and ineffective. That being said, social media will clearly play a vital role in the future of Turkish politics. 

As Turkey moves towards an election year, both camps have specific tools to mobilize their bases and gain momentum. Erdogan is, as Brumberg called him, “a wild coyote,” and should not be underestimated, since he still has several cards he can play in domestic politics and the international arena. The opposition has the upper hand, considering that the economic crisis is here to stay, and Erdogan has limited options in addressing the high inflation and unemployment rate, especially the youth unemployment rate, the voter group that is staunchly anti-AKP relative to other age groups. The upcoming elections in Turkey will have lasting consequences for Turks, and it is vital to Turkey’s (re)democratization process that the opposition makes the most of their growing momentum.

Yusuf Can, Assistant Editor