Turkey’s Authoritarian Legacy

It’s tempting to blame the country’s recent slide into repression on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s thirst for personal power. But did the ruling Islamist party ever really abandon the country’s long tradition of state authoritarianism?

For years, explaining Turkey’s democratic travails seemed an easy task. There was the persistence of an authoritarian tradition, whose source was identified as Kemalism—the secularist-nationalist founding ideology of the Turkish republic—and which the military embodied. According to the conventional narrative on Turkey, with which anyone who has only casually followed international politics during the last decades will be familiar, the Turkish military had a mission—to “protect secularism”—which explained, so we were taught, its habit of overthrowing governments. All that was needed for Turkish democracy to flourish was the emergence of a force strong enough to end the tutelage of the military.

For several years, the rise of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seemed to be the answer. The general consensus among international observers was that Erdoğan was on a mission to make Turkey fully democratic. Disappointment and bewilderment have increasingly replaced that hope, particularly after an April referendum engineered by Erdoğan expanded the executive power of the president. There’s a scramble for explanations and definitions that will make sense of and conceptualize Turkey’s authoritarian drift under Erdoğan, the presumed liberal-turned-authoritarian.

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