Turkey’s democracy is crumbling and has been for quite some time

Given recent crackdowns on freedoms in Turkey, it might be useful with some perspective. Some in the media still seem to be pushing the talking point that Turkey’s “true oppression” began in 2013 after a corruption scandal, contrasting this period with that when AKP was a “beacon of light”, when Turkey was a “vibrant democracy”, and when “Erdoğan’s Turkey” was on the “right path.”

Accepting this narrative is a convenient exit for analysts who have overestimated the degree to which Turkey’s democracy was improving during the last decade. They weren’t wrong then – instead it is Erdoğan who has recently taken an authoritarian turn. For the Gülenists and a number of established journalists in Turkey, who are among the lead protagonists in pushing these talking points, this narrative provides moral amnesty for their alliance with the AKP up until the two groups fell out over differences on policy and the allocation of power within the security establishment. It also provides cover for their past cheerleading of witch hunts against critical voices in the past (see here and here).

However, using standard measures of freedoms like those of Freedom House (hereby FH) suggest a different picture. In particular, Turkey was backtracking especially in freedoms of expression as well as political pluralism long before the corruption scandals of 2013, and these losses preceding 2013 often dwarf those occurring afterwards (at least so far).

To this date, the perhaps most famous source of measuring freedoms in the world is Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the World reports, which designates countries into one of three statuses: Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, in ascending order in freedoms.

In constructing these statuses, FH uses subscores for 7 categories, which it then aggregates into 2 categories, for which each then gets its own 1-7, which is in turn used to classify a country as having a particular Freedom status. From the FH’s methodology section:

Scores – A country or territory is awarded 0 to 4 points for each of 10 political rights indicators and 15 civil liberties indicators, which take the form of questions; a score of 0 represents the smallest degree of freedom and 4 the greatest degree of freedom. The political rights questions are grouped into three subcategories: Electoral Process (3 questions), Political Pluralism and Participation (4), and Functioning of Government (3). The civil liberties questions are grouped into four subcategories: Freedom of Expression and Belief (4 questions), Associational and Organizational Rights (3), Rule of Law (4), and Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights (4).

Political Rights and Civil Liberties Ratings – A country or territory is assigned two ratings (7 to 1)—one for political rights and one for civil liberties—based on its total scores for the political rights and civil liberties questions. Each rating of 1 through 7, with 1 representing the greatest degree of freedom and 7 the smallest degree of freedom, corresponds to a specific range of total scores (see tables 1 and 2).

FH’s grouping into Political Rights (hereby PR) and Civil Liberties (hereby CL) is interesting as the former focuses more on freedoms pertaining to politics, and is used to construct an indicator variable for whether a country constitutes an electoral democracy or not. The latter, as the name indicates, is more focused on liberties.

Somewhat curiously, Turkey’s ratings have barely budged over the last decade, consistently classified as a Partly Free country. In 2005, FH assigned Turkey a 3 in both PR and CL, and the only change since then was a one-point drop in 2012’s CL rating down to 4.

As a start, I’ve downloaded the aggregate and subcategory scores available on the website. Using these, the below graphs plot the evolution of the PR and CL scores for Turkey between 2005-2015 (i.e. the period for which FH provides this data). I’ve also plotted the 25th, 50th, and 75th percentile in the respective scores to allow comparison of Turkey’s fared relative to the distribution of freedoms over time.


The PR score is relatively flat over the decade with smaller drop after 2013. As for the CL score, it has been falling since 2010. Further disaggregation of these two categories into their subcategories sheds more light on which of the latter have driven the trends in the former.

The below graph plots the individual subcategory scores for PR

1. Electoral Process (0–12 points)
2. Political Pluralism and Participation (0–12 points)
3. Functioning of Government (0–12 points)

and for CL:

4. Freedom of Expression and Belief (0–16 points)
5. Associational and Organizational Rights (0–12 points)
6. Rule of Law (0–16 points)
7. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights (0–16 points)

For Turkey, all of these are relevant, but perhaps especially so are number 2 and number 4. The former refers to the degree to which people can organize in political groupings, credible opportunities for a political opposition, freedom from outside interference, and political rights for ethnic minorities. (This has clear links with the political barriers to entry such as the ten-percent threshold, the banning of political parties, and the persecution of Kurdish political activists in Turkey.) The latter subcategory refers to freedoms related to media, culture, religion, and academics, as well as the degree freedom from government surveillance.

These are plotted below, again grouped by PR and CL.

In this graph, there is rather striking fall in both the political pluralism (on the left) and freedom of expression (on the right).  The other tends to be more stagnant over time, and the only subcategory that exhibited any increase during the period is Electoral Process in 2011, which “featured the first legally permissible campaigns in Kurdish, the reduction of the minimum age for candidacy from 30 to 25, and upgraded ballot boxes” (the same year also say a number of key Kurdish political candidates banned from standing from office, but FH analysts still seem to have interpreted this year’s changes as a net positive).

The falls in political pluralism and freedom of expression are quite substantial, from 12 to 9 in the former, and 12 to 8 in the latter. Taking the latter decrease at face value would imply that citizens of Turkey in 2015 have only two-thirds of the freedoms of expression that they enjoyed in 2005. Moreover, the clear majority of the fall in both these variables occur before 2013.

The above graph shows evidence of absolute falls in freedoms, but an alternative way to gauge performance is to order each variable into percentile ranks. This transforms the variables into values relative to the global distribution of freedoms.


Not only has there been an absolute fall in freedoms for several measures in Turkey, but as the above graphs shows, this phenomenon is also clearly visible relative to the rest of the world. As for the political pluralism subcategory (red line to the left), whereas in 2005 a bit less than 55% of the world’s countries had lower levels of this freedom than Turkey, in 2015 this had been reduced to only 35%. This twenty percentile rank drop is also evident in freedom of expression (red line to the right), where the lower initial rank means in 2015 but a quarter of the world’s countries had worse freedoms than Turkey along this dimension. The other subcategories are mostly stagnant (except, as previously, for the Electoral Process subcategory).

This begs the question how Turkey has fared compared to other democracies. I have previously noted how Turkey tends to be among the most illiberal democracies in the world in one specific point in time. The Freedom House data, and especially the Freedom of Expression subcategory allows investigating how its degree of liberalism has changed over time.

Below I plot the Freedom of Expression subcategory (a part of the CL score) against the PR score for the years 2005 (to the left) and 2015 (to the right). This latter score is used by FH to classify countries into whether they can be called ‘electoral democracies’ or not (CL subcategories have no bearing on this classification):

an “electoral democracy” designation requires a score of 7 or better in subcategory A (Electoral Process) and an overall Political Rights score of 20 or better.

FH thus classifies Turkey as an electoral democracy – its Electoral Process is consistently above 7 (see the second graph from top to the left) and PR score above 20 (see the first graph from the top to the left). But are there many FH-classified electoral democracies with similar levels of freedom of expression? The below graph answers this question differently depending on whether it’s 2005 or 2015.


In 2005, Turkey had somewhat lower freedoms of expression for its given PR score (it lies below the quadratic regression line), but it’s well within the distribution of electoral democracies (blue circles) and not an obvious outlier. Few autocracies (red circles) had higher levels of freedom of expression than Turkey. The dashed lines show median values of the variables on the respective axes for electoral democracies (in blue) and autocracies (in red). In 2005, Turkey was closer to the median democracy than the median autocracy along both dimensions.

The right-hand side for 2015 shows a very different picture. Turkey has now moved way south in the graph and is much closer to the median autocracy than the median democracy in terms of freedom of expression. Numerous autocracies have higher levels of freedom of expression than Turkey, and only two other electoral democracies have lower values of this variable: Bangladesh and Pakistan. Turkey is today a clear outlier due to its freedom of expression deficit among the countries classified as electoral democracies by FH.

Finally, to what extent has Turkey’s slide in freedoms of expression been representative of changes worldwide and how has this affected its place compared to other countries?

The last graph plots the change in freedom of expression between 2005 and 2015 against the level prevailing in 2005 m. A diagonal line is imposed on Turkey’s coordinate point.



Country coded in black indicate countries that exhibited a larger decrease in freedoms of expression than Turkey (points have been jittered to make it easier to distinguish country codes): Bahrain, Central African Republic, The Gambia, Honduras, Russia, and Thailand. (None of these countries were classified as electoral democracy by FH in 2015; both Honduras and Thailand underwent military coups, Bahrain experienced extensive crackdowns on freedoms following the Arab Spring; the Central African Republic has suffered massively from armed conflicts during the period.)

In blue are countries that underwent changes (positive or negative) resulting in them leapfrogging Turkey in freedoms of expression during the period. These include perhaps most notably Tunisia and Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi, Albania, but also Indonesia and Haiti. During this period and for this subcategory, there were no countries that started above Turkey but ended up behind it in 2015.

Turkey today stands out as one of the most illiberal (FH-designated) electoral democracies in the world. The forces that has dragged its institutions towards authoritarianism has hit hardest against those freedoms relating to various forms of expression, but also political pluralism and participation.

This raises a number of implications. One is how relevant the FH’s most aggregate 1-7 ratings are. Simply looking at these over the years we would have learnt very little of the evolution of Turkish freedoms during the last decade. A more disaggregated visualization of the available FH data allows us to see how key freedoms started to fall long before 2013, during the time when many analysts lauded Turkey as a democratic success.

We might also want to consider how far into the abyss a country’s individual freedoms can fall before we should cease to refer to it as any kind of democracy. Should countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey be referred to as democracies if they cannot guarantee basic freedoms of expression and political pluralism?

Finally,and perhaps most important at this point – Turkey’s democracy is crumbling, and has been for quite some time.