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Gökhan Bacık
Jan 23 2019

Is Turkey fully authoritarian?

Last week, the Deputy Chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Leyla Şahin Usta, said there were no instances of human rights violations in Turkey.

Indeed, Turkey's Islamists seem quite confident about the country's democratic status. “No one can lecture our country about democracy, human rights and freedom,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last month.

For the opposition, meanwhile, the country is ruled by an authoritarian. Last year, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), called Erdoğan a dictator and described Turkey as a “one-man regime”.

Any debate about a country’s political regime in regards to authoritarianism and democracy is primarily a matter of political science. So, how might the current literature on political science describe Turkey’s regime?

A handful of major journals, including Third World Quarterly, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Turkish Studies, Foreign Affairs, the Journal of Democracy and The International Spectator, have published articles on Turkey in recent months.

Reading these articles, one quickly notices that they underline two major points.

First, they all agree that Turkey is now an authoritarian country. Second, they mostly agree that Turkey’s brand of authoritarianism fits into “competitive authoritarianism,” a category developed in 2002 by Harvard University scholars Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way.

Competitive authoritarianism is a regime that is democratic in appearance but authoritarian in nature. There are democratic institutions, but they have no real impact. No freedom of press exists. Universities are oppressed by the regime. Elections are not fair, and human rights are often violated.

There is no rule of law. Instead, courts work in tandem with the regime’s agenda. In a typical competitive authoritarian regime, many citizens are unfairly jailed.

However, competitive authoritarianism is not full authoritarianism. Despite the authoritarian framework, there are still elections and a multi-party system.

Usually, several factors, such as economic dynamics or international influence, prevent competitive authoritarian countries from becoming fully authoritarian.

For Turkey, these factors might include the Kurdish issue, economic concerns, and the impact of urban secular groups. At a more general level, two key reasons explain why Turkey has stayed a competitive authoritarian regime.

To begin with, Turkey has no domestic economic resources that would enable it to neglect domestic and global dynamics. Thus, economic factors generate some rationalist thinking, keeping the country on a competitive authoritarian track.

Secondly, Turkey is unable to guarantee its national security without international support.

Yet a competitive authoritarian regime tends to be a stalemate: the regime is unable to move to full authoritarianism, while the opposition is unable to bring about a return to full democracy.

Thus, Turkey’s competitive authoritarian regime is costly at many levels. Most resources are consumed within the domestic political fight, and competitive authoritarianism is able to kill rationality at all levels, from economics to foreign policy.

Meanwhile, a growing number of scholars argue that Turkey is moving beyond the limits of competitive authoritarianism and becoming a fully authoritarian regime.