Category Archives: institutions

A few comments on democracy indices and Turkey

I am grateful to the feedback on my previous post, whether it has been in public or in private.

I think of the V-Dem data as an important contribution to how social scientists can measure institutions, and democracy in particular. I do, however, have some thoughts on the V-Dem data and the main other datasets on the same topic as well.

As for the specific time series for liberal democracy in Turkey, one thing that struck me as particularly interesting (and something many others have commented on as well) is the relatively positive trend during most of the 1990s, especially the later part. Given my priors (and many others’) this at first seemed rather counterintuitive. The 1990s were, after all, a period of significant political instability, plagued by recurring economic crises and violent conflicts. How is it possible that a measure of liberal democracy can be increasing during such a period? Continue reading

The Reversal of (What Little) Liberal Democracy (There Ever Was) in Turkey

Earlier this year, the University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem institute released a new database on democracy. As it turns out, this database yields some new insights on the timing of Turkey’s democratic erosion, a topic I’ve previously covered (herehere, here, here, here, and here).

Here’s how Staffan Lindberg, the director of the V-Dem Institute, described the database to the Washington Post:

“Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) represents a novel approach to measuring democracy. It is based on collaboration among leading scholars across the world and has two institutional homes: the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which also functions as the operational headquarters for the project’s many parts, and the University of Notre Dame in the United States. V-Dem differs from previous datasets by distinguishing among different principles of democracy (as discussed) and offering about 350 unique democracy indicators, 34 indices of various aspects of democracy such as freedom of association, and five main democracy indices for Electoral, Liberal, Participatory, Deliberative, and Egalitarian democracy. These all cover 173 countries, measured annually from 1900 to 2012.”

Frankly, as a political economist (and all-out data nerd, for that matter) I have trouble expressing how exciting this is.

Of particular interest is the measure of liberal democracy, a topic of significant focus both globally (here, here) and specifically for Turkey (see here and here), but I’ll show graphs for the other main components of the V-Dem data as well.

Readers of this blog and my other work will be familiar with my skepticism of the prevailing narrative of the timing of and character of Turkey’s democratic erosion. As I wrote in a recent blog post:

“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.”

As it turns out, the data recently provided by V-Dem has something to say about this. Continue reading

Turkey’s Instruments of Repression and Declining Press Freedom

In the last post, I found that several Freedom House measures of basic freedoms have been deteriorating in Turkey for a long time, especially when it comes to freedom of expression.  Freedom House (hereby FH) also publishes specific measures of freedoms of the press (data available here), a component of the freedom of expression & beliefs score used previously. Similar to the Freedom of the World publication, FH use subscores to calculate aggregate press freedom scores that are then divided into three statuses, Not Free, Partly Free, and Free. And like the Freedom of the World status, Turkey’s press freedom status has been constant at Partly Free since 2005, only becoming Not Free in 2013 and thereafter.

There are three subscores for press freedom:

  1. A legal environment category focusing on the laws and regulations influencing media content and the government’s inclination to use these laws and legal institutions to restrict the media’s ability to operate:  legal and constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression; the potentially negative aspects of security legislation, the penal code, and other criminal statutes; penalties for libel and defamation; the existence of and ability to use freedom of information legislation; the independence of the judiciary and of official media regulatory bodies
  2. A political environment category, evaluating the degree of political control over the content of news media including editorial independence, access to information and sources; official censorship and self-censorship etc.
  3. An economic environment category. This includes the structure of media ownership; transparency and concentration of ownership; the costs of establishing media as well as any impediments to news production and distribution; the selective withholding of advertising or subsidies by the state or other actors; the impact of corruption and bribery on content; and the extent to which the economic situation in a country impacts the development and sustainability of the media.

In the below graph I show the combined press freedom score for Turkey, as well as its subscores for the legal, political, and economic environments. For the sake of brevity here, the focus is on percentile ranks and Turkey’s performance relative to the world distribution, with higher percentiles implying more freedoms.


The above graph shows a total Freedom of the Press score for Turkey that is stagnant up until 2009 and then starts to slide downwards. The legal environment subscore has been falling consistently since 2005 when it began around the 40th percentile. (This matches the timing of changes to the Turkish penal code, which according to analysts, made prosecuting journalists easier. (See for example here) In 2014, it had fallen to the 16th percentile, an absolutely abysmal deterioration. The political environment subscore was rising somewhat until 2008, and has been decreasing afterwards, from around hovering around the median country in the world to the 22nd percentile. The economic environment subscore has remained largely constant up until 2012, followed by a smaller, but not insignificant, ten-percentile drop.

To illustrate the enormous freedom deficit in terms of the legal pressures on Turkish media the below figure shows the score for the legal environment for press against the Political Rights score in 2005 and 2014, similar to the previous post, with green dots indicating an autocracy and blue dots indicating a Freedom-House-defined electoral democracy: 

Strikingly, legal pressures on Turkey’s media have increased to the point where its 2014 value is equal to that of the median autocracy in the world. In fact, in 2014 there was not a single electoral democracy in the world that had a worse legal environment for the press than Turkey.

Overall, Turkey’s international standing in terms of freedom of the press, as measured by Freedom House, has been decreasing substantially for a decade, driven by legal reforms allowing persecution of representatives of the media, followed by increased political pressure for censorship, and eventually an increase in economic pressures on the media. Along several dimensions, the larger share of this deterioration occurred before 2013.

Noteworthy from the first figure above is the extent to which legal pressures have led political pressures on the media in Turkey. In other words, the capacity for arbitrarily denying freedoms existed long before the government gained extensive control over it. And so one reason why early reforms increasing the judiciary’s ability to use anti-terror legislation against speech (something human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the government for) has been so damaging is not simply that it allowed the judiciary to impinge on media freedoms, but that it may subsequently have become too powerful a tool for the government not to seek control over it. The power of these special courts manifested itself clearly during the Balyoz, Ergenekon, the KCK trials; both in the arbitrary nature of the arrests as well as the degree to which much evidence was fabricated. The political motivations behind arrests of Kurdish politicians and journalists following the AKP’s 2009 election setbacks in the southeast – stifling AKP’s attempts at conquering the Kurdish vote – are one example, the ludicrous arrests of two journalists involved in writing a critical book about the Gülen movement is another.

These trials may have been described as a democratic cleansing of Turkey’s deep state and terrorism, but in implementation they quickly turned into blatant witch hunts to settle political issues that should have resolved by the public democratically, not by political elites in the courtrooms. (The number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey today are still dwarfed by the numbers from 2012 still dwarf those imprisoned today. As a rule, the overwhelming majority of imprisoned journalists tend to be Kurds.)

Politically embarrassing leaked recordings and other incriminating documents found its way from what must have been surveillance units within the security establishment to select newspapers, often those affiliated with the Gülen movement.

The combination of an overpowered judiciary and segments of the media willing to engage in character assassinations, to “eat their own”, and publish manufactured news is an old characteristic of Turkish public discourse (the latter not unique to any specific segment of the media). A key difference in the events of 2011-2013, is that when the cold war between two political elites burst out into the open, it was the government that won the first battle. In the past, it has often been the opposite case.

Herein lies a common misinterpretation of Turkey’s institutional problems to date. It is not simply the concentration of power under the Erdoğan regime that is the problem, but rather the marriage between it and the preexisting overpowered mechanisms for denying freedoms. And so to take stock of how low Turkey has fallen in terms of basic freedoms requires the realization that much of the groundwork already existed long before 2013. What changed was the unprecedented political discretion over instruments of repression previously forged during a period when naïve analysts thought Turkey represented some kind of model reformer.



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).

Continue reading

Which country has the most illiberal democracy in the world?

The most recent edition of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World noted a “disturbing decline in global freedom in 2014.” A driver of this appears to have been not necessarily a shift to totalitarian dictatorships, but a more relative illiberalization of democracies. For example, in one NBER working paper, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman note that:

“in recent decades, a less carnivorous form of authoritarian government has emerged, one better adapted to the globalized media and sophisticated technologies of the 21st Century. From the Peru of Alberto Fujimori to the Hungary of Viktor Orban, illiberal regimes have managed to consolidate power without isolating their countries from the world economy or resorting to mass killings.”

Economists Dani Rodrik and Sharun Mukhand further point out the relative scarceness of liberal democracies around the world. In November 2014, Joseph Stiglitz told an audience at the Central European University that “[t]he conscious development of a learning society, essential for shared prosperity, can only be achieved in a liberal democracy”. 

So what is a liberal democracy? The answer to that question is could probably fill a bookshelf by itself. The simplest definition, as given by Wikipedia is the following:

“Liberal democracy is a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism, i.e. protecting the rights of the individual, which are generally enshrined in law.”

Rodrik and Mukhand tie this a bit more to matters conducive to economic development:

“Liberal democracy rests on three distinct sets of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. The first set of rights protects owners and investors from expropriation. The second ensures that groups that win electoral contests can assume power and choose policies to their liking – provided these policies do not violate the other two sets of rights. Finally, civil rights guarantee equal treatment before the law and equal access to public services such as education.”

These sound like fairly straightforward definitions, but when it comes to measurement, it quickly becomes complicated. Freedom House, for example, explicitly calculates values for “political rights” and “civil rights” for all individual countries each year, yet these are also measures used for “democracy”, not just “liberal democracy”. So is more “democracy” the same as more “liberal democracy”? (Also, for measures of “expropriation” from other sources it is not always clear if it’s from the perspective of a foreign investor or a domestic one.)

Continue reading

A Game of Kurds

Many were taken by surprise by the announcement of the Kurdish HDP’s to run as a party in the upcoming 2014 elections, as opposed to running as independent candidates, which it has done until now. Running as independent have been the Kurdish political movement in Turkey’s way of circumventing the draconian ten percent threshold, which excludes parties from representation in the Turkish parliament if it fails to win more than tern percent of the national vote share.

The HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas did receive nearly 10 percent of the vote in the last (presidential) elections, but given it’s 2011 vote share of ~7 percent, and opinion polls putting HDP at roughly 6-8 percent, it seems a rather tall order to expect HDP to pass the ten percent threshold needed for any parliamentary representation. Most likely it will fall below that, and if it has then run as a party, it will not receive any votes at all. These votes will then almost surely fall into the hands of the ruling AKP, likely giving it the supermajority needed to rewrite the constitution. In this case, the Kurds are dependent on the AKP to use its borrowed Kurdish votes to run through the institutional changes needed to accommodate Kurdish preferences. Failure to do so could result in another lost opportunity for Kurds to achieve institutional equality in Turkey.

As such, the HDP strategy is quite a gamble.

Several people more qualified than me have now written about this (see for example, recent articles by Amberin Zaman’s in Al-Monitor, as well as Gareth Jenkins in The Turkey Analyst).

Continue reading

The Illiberal Pull in Turkey

With Erdoğan’s victory in yesterday’s first round of the presidential elections, Turkey appears set for (at least) another five years of his rule. Whereas as Prime Minister, his powers were substantial (if not unprecedented in post-war Turkey), as President he will for now be holding a much more ceremonial post.

As a result, further institutional change is likely to be expected, as will be an attempt to reform Turkey’s political system into one with a much more powerful presidency. In doing so, we can expect attempts for a substantial institutional overhaul.

There are many problems with Turkey’s current institutions, and so reform is much needed. But whether new reform will lead Turkey towards more or less democracy is far from certain. What is more certain, however, is that Erdoğan will continue to rely on economic growth as a motor for his own popularity, and any institutional change will likely be infused with this.

As such, one would hope that Erdoğan and his team is currently reading up on key works of political economics to figure out how institutional change affects economic development. (Perhaps someone is plowing thru Why Nations Fail, or googling “Besley Persson”, “Acemoglu Robinson” right now.)

Another possibility is that Erdoğan and his team don’t care much for economics and instead start coming up with their own methods.

With Hungarian’s PM Orban’s recent proclamation that ““liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive,” and instead looking to “illiberal state(s)” like Russia and Turkey as a role models, one would wonder who Erdogan thinks of as a role model at present.

Given the weight Erdoğan puts on economic growth, for this purpose I made a graph of a number of selected countries and country groups’ GDP per capita path over the last two decades. It shows Turkey somewhere in the middle of the sample’s performance, increasing its GDP per capita since 2002 by 43 percent.



A noteworthy aspect is the ranking (given in the legend of the graph) which suggests many of the more authoritarian countries like China, Russia and Vietnam belong to those who have outperformed Turkey in economic terms, whereas many of the more democratic countries – both among emerging markets as well as the EU – have underperformed relative to Turkey.

A concern is that, like Orban, Erdoğan may end up looking towards China, Russia, and Vietnam as role models, not just because they offer authoritarianism per se but because they make up fast-growing authoritarian governments. His beliefs on whether a link between authoritarianism and economic development exists may very well end up determining Turkey’s institutional future.