Turkey’s Referendum: How Democracies Decline

Sometimes, it’s not with a coup, but with a vote.

Yagiz Karahan / Reuters

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are hailing the results of Turkey’s referendum on Sunday as a victory for democracy. But a victory for what kind of democracy? Not the kind that emphasizes civil liberties, the rule of law, the rights of minority groups, and checks and balances on the power exercised by any one branch of government—the “liberal democracy” that is dominant in the West.

The constitutional change narrowly approved by the Turkish electorate will turn the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, greatly expanding the powers of a president who has already managed, in his more limited capacity, to arrest thousands of political opponents and virtually wipe out freedom of the press. The authority of Parliament and the judiciary might atrophy. Erdogan, who has effectively been running Turkey for the last 14 years, will be granted an opportunity to extend his rule. He claims the reforms will end political gridlock and dysfunction, thus shielding the country—which is beset by economic struggles and the civil war in neighboring Syria—from an array of threats. And there’s a basis for these justifications; the Turkish republic has suffered several military coups, the most recent attempt coming just last summer. But security and stability are also the types of things you invoke if you’re a strongman hoping to grow stronger.

Sunday’s vote was a triumph for an illiberal form of democracy in which charismatic leaders, through democratic procedures like elections and referendums, are empowered to carry out the will of the majority of their people, largely free of democratic restraints. Erdogan is now freer than he was on Saturday to indulge the authoritarian tendencies he’s demonstrated in recent years.

In this sense, the referendum offers an important lesson about the state of democracy not just in Turkey, but in the United States and Europe and beyond. Scholars such as Larry Diamond argue that democracy is declining around the world. But this doesn’t mean that the proportion of democratic versus undemocratic governments has dramatically shifted. In fact, that ratio has remained fairly stagnant over the last decade or so (the biggest changes came in the years preceding and immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when democracy was gaining ground). Instead, authoritarianism is becoming more entrenched in some non-democracies, and many democracies are becoming less democratic.

Democratic governance, Diamond wrote in a 2015 paper, is in “recession” both in well-established democracies like the United States and in less-established democracies like Turkey. And often it’s breaking down gradually—not through coups but “through subtle and incremental degradations of democratic rights and procedures” that occur within a democratic framework. Without the clarifying rupture of a military coup, it can be difficult to recognize democratic decline—even when it’s occurring right in front of you.

In the United States and a number of European countries, decreasing public confidence in government is enhancing the appeal of populist politicians who operate within democratic bounds but nevertheless pose a challenge to the principles of liberal democracy.

In Turkey, Diamond notes, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made Turkey less democratic by restricting pluralism and political freedoms. But it’s also made the country more democratic by, for example, preventing the military from meddling in Turkish politics and creating space for those who want Islam to play a greater role in public life. At the time Diamond was writing in 2015, Erdogan was suppressing dissent and neutralizing independent government institutions at a slow pace, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly when—or if—Erdogan stopped being a democrat. (That pace picked up rapidly following last year’s failed coup.)

If Turkey ceased to be a democracy, Diamond asked, “when did it happen? Was it in 2014, when the AKP further consolidated its hegemonic grip on power in the March local-government elections and the August presidential election? Or was it, as some liberal Turks insist, several years before, as media freedoms were visibly diminishing and an ever-wider circle of alleged coup plotters was being targeted in the highly politicized Ergenekon trials?”

Or was it on April 16, 2017, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan cemented his legacy as the most powerful Turkish leader since Ataturk, the founder of the republic, by remaking Turkey’s political system in his image?