Turkey’s Opposition and Its Global Significance

The efforts of Turkey’s opposition to change the government through elections are not only interesting and important to the Turks and those interested in Turkish politics. These efforts concern all citizens of the world who are looking for ways out of the deepening “democracy crisis” that is likely to worsen along with the global economic crisis.


It’s not that all countries are autocratizing. But democracies are losing power and prestige in the world and democratic norms of speech and behavior are eroding even in strong democracies. The world is under the threat of a new model of authoritarianism, a process of autocratization that is different than what we witnessed in the 20th century, described as democratic backsliding, democratic erosion, incremental autocratization, creeping authoritarianism, or executive aggrandizement. In this brand of autocratization, democracy is not destroyed by one strike through military or civil coups, by actors who hold totalitarian ideologies deeply opposed to representative democracy, such as fascism or communism. Instead, it is destroyed incrementally through many “micro-coups,” by elected governments who come to power saying that they believe in democracy and claim to be democratizing their countries. Hence, the public is also divided between those believing the government is eroding democracy and those thinking it is advancing democracy. The US under the Trump presidency, Hungary under Fidesz, Poland under PiS, Venezuela under PSUV, and Turkey under the AKP are among prominent examples.


Threats to democracy described as extreme right or populism should also be discussed with this new type of authoritarianism in mind. Not only that adjectives such as “extreme” are subjective and problematic. When parties such as the Brothers of Italy, the winner of the elections in Italy, and Sweden’s “Democrat” party, the second largest party in Sweden, come to power alone or in a coalition, they are likely to erode democracy by following this pattern, regardless of their ideology. How to hinder these policies and “micro-coups” should be the main discussion. We may be divided in ideology, but we must unite in democratic rules and methods. Despite their different ideologies, Morales in Bolivia, Chavez in Venezuela, and Erdoğan in Turkey did many positive things that won the appreciation of important segments of society. The problem was that while they were doing this, they also eliminated the democratic check and balance mechanisms including media independence, used polarizing politics as a lever, and created blocs that were hostile to each other. Hence, if not stopped, the end result of new authoritarianism is usually – at least yet – not totalitarianism, but what political scientists call hybrid regimes or electoral or competitive authoritarian regimes. These governments continue to hold elections that are fiercely fought by both the government and the opposition. But they incrementally eliminate the conditions that enable citizens to make well-informed choices, such as equal opposition access to mainstream media and an independent and impartial judiciary.


There is not yet a new democratization model that has emerged in the world against this new authoritarianism model. There is no new recipe for countering this new authoritarianism.


The most common academic advice is that the opposition should unite on a democratic platform against eroding governments and change the government through elections. However, the Hungarian elections last spring showed us that this is much more difficult and riskier than previously thought. The opposition alliance, which united against the authoritarian and corrupt Orban government and determined its candidates through democratic primary elections, was defeated. Political parties, which are organized to compete with each other by their very nature, have difficulties in forming a common discourse and program, and when they struggle to sufficiently excite and mobilize society. Research also suggests as possible remedies interventions by democratic institutions and peaceful, issue-based popular mobilization. But these remedies lose their effectiveness when eroding autocrats use polarizing politics to divide society and politicize institutions.


It is precisely for these reasons that what the opposition is trying to do in Turkey has global importance. The erosion of Turkish democracy under AKP governments, which initially promised to reform it to become a full democracy and an EU member, fits with the model of new authoritarianism in the world. According to the Varieties of Democracy database, when the AKP came to power in 2002 Turkey was an “electoral democracy” changing governments through free and fair elections but lacked liberal rights and freedoms, and its liberal democracy score was 0.5 out of 1. After an initial slight improvement in the AKP’s first two years, Turkey’s score fell every year, the annual decrease hovering around 0.03 with the greatest change in 2014 (0.08). As a result, Turkey’s score has fallen by almost fourfold to around 0.1 and the country is widely considered an “electoral autocracy” now.


For two decades, Turkey’s societal and political opposition has experimented with various methods against this gradual authoritarianism. Appeal to the judiciary and the law, mass election rallies and anti-government protests such as those in the 2013 Gezi protests, issue-based protests (for example, against unlawful and government-sponsored projects leading to environmental destruction), petitions, humor, boycotts, civil resistance, strikes and hunger strikes, media campaigns, books, articles, civil society initiatives, corruption exposés, electoral alliances, joint presidential candidates… These methods moved back and forth between “normal” democratic strategies that tried to utilize existing institutions to target specific issues (for example, applying to the Constitutional Court or submitting a bill to the Parliament), and “extraordinary” democratic methods that directly targeted autocratization and tried to unseat the government (for example, anti-government protests demanding the government to resign and electoral alliances of ideologically rival parties based on an autocracy-democracy platform).


During this period, Turkey’s opposition learned four important lessons. First, as the democratic erosion deepens, institutions become partisan and lose their functions, so the solution lies in politics. Second, aggressive policies purely against and aimed at changing power deepen polarization, or ideological appeals – such as appealing to a secularist worldview in Turkey — consolidate the ruling party’s power base and backfire. We need an anti-polarizing and unifying language, and dialogue. The “radical love” campaign in the 2019 local elections and CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu‘s call to societal reconciliation (helalleşme in Turkish) are among the most original and important results of this course.


Third, sustainable coalition-building and inter-party coordination on a pro-democracy platform are crucial, but it is very hard for parties with competing ideologies and millions of members to pull this off. They need mechanisms to resolve the inter-party disagreements that naturally arise without sinking the ship. Hence, the Table of Six (the name given to the coalition of six opposition parties that came together first last February) has party leaders meet in regular meetings, each time hosted by a different party. Fourth, opposition alliances aimed at changing the power alone are not enough. It is necessary to come up with a program that promises to build the political and economic system, that is, a better future. Here, more than a minimum common denominator is required.


It is an important but insufficient success that the Table of Six reached a consensus on changing the current authoritarian presidential system to a democratic “Strengthened Parliamentary System”. The parties are also working on establishing common reform programs on social and economic issues and foreign policy. Likewise, the dialogue between the Table of Six and the newly formed “Labor and Freedom Alliance” is very important for social peace and social justice. The most difficult thing is to create a common “political language”: that is, clear, simple, and majority-supported answers to the question “why are we here, why do we aspire to power, and why do we want your support”. While building democracy, primarily the economy requires a program, arrived at through a consensus, that gives hope to the society in every field and promises peace and tranquility. But the most progressive program may not always be the best recipe, the example of Chile is before us. The progressive constitution of the young government, elected with the support of the majority of the society, was again rejected by the majority of the society.


In a nutshell, there is no clear example in the world of what the Turkish opposition is trying to do. Therefore, we should not expect a magic wand from the opposition. But the Turkish opposition should be aware of the national and global importance of its work, and the democratic world should lend it its moral support as long as it continues trying to invent how to defeat new authoritarianism and replace it with democratization.


Murat Somer is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Koç University Istanbul.

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