Category Archives: institutions

Erdogan’s Coup and the True State of Turkish Democracy

Last week me and Dani published a piece in Foreign Affairs (available here). It’s labeled as a response to an earlier article by Daron Acemoglu, but it’s in many ways just as much its own article.

Ebru Akman (who has done a stellar job translating several of my previous blog posts) has been kind of enough to help us translate the article into Turkish (here), and Dani has a nice roundup of the article over at his blog:

Daron Acemoglu wrote what seemed like a surprising upbeat piece on Turkish democracy a few days ago. His argument seems to be that democracy required power to be wrested away from the secularists who had erected authoritarian structures, and Erdogan had achieved that. Even though, Erdogan’s recent turn to authoritarianism is “lamentable,” it was, Acemoglu claims, a predictable stage in Turkey’s democratic transition. Once Erdogan is gone, the article implies, democracy would be on a stronger footing than ever.

There were in fact many other paths that could have proved less costly. The more typical pattern is that the old elites reach a modus vivendi with the rising, popular forces that preserves some of their privileges in return for opening up (as happened in Spain and many of the Latin American examples). The Erdogan model of decapitating the secular old guard with a series of sham political trials served instead to deepen old divides and ended up erecting an alternative set of authoritarian structures.

In the early years of Erdogan’s rule, it was easy to mistake the loosening of old taboos associated with the Kemalist-secular elite as a process of democratization. But towards the end of the 2000s, anyone who looked closely could not have been under a similar illusion. The repression of the media and the jailing of opponents on bogus charges had become an unmistakable pattern. Saying this was an inevitable and necessary step towards democracy would be odd indeed.

The Acemoglu article prompted Erik Meyersson and me to write a riposte of sorts. It is called “Erdogan’s Coup,” and can be read here.

Turkey’s Institutions Problem

Turkey has an institutions problem. There, I said it.

The problem of Turkey’s institutions is the following: it’s a country with stronger-than-average state powers combined with weaker-than-average citizens’ rights. To see this, just take a look at the most recent edition of the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index.



Yes, Turkey is ranked 59 out of 99 countries surveyed, which is rather low, but the interesting devil is in the details. Continue reading

Turkey’s Economic Miracle and its Swedish Cheerleaders

In last post I questioned some of the Swedish government’s fascination with Turkey’s recent democratic reforms, which although carry the label of democratic reforms, do not address the fundamental problems. This post is about the government’s infatuation with the Turkey’s economic success.

In addition to last year’s Turkish state visits to Sweden (see here and here), a number of more focused trade-relation visits have occurred (see here, for an example). It was likely no coincidence that, sitting in Stockholm University Aula Magna during the inauguration ceremony for the new Swedish institute for Turkish studies (SUITS) last year, that the ratio of businessmen-to- academics seemed rather high.

One can understand the lure of Turkey’s economy for Swedish firms – the country has  74 million inhabitants, a relatively young population, is the 17th largest country in terms of IMF-measured PPP GDP. Moreover,  the government’s expansion in infrastructure and technology sectors coupled with a burgeoning middle class, the possibility of a resolution to the decades-long conflict in the east, as well as a possible stepping stone into the Middle East, all add to the pull.

A ubiquitous talking-point in Turkish foreign policy is the claim that, under AKP rule, the country’s GDP has tripled. This, however, is a misleading number as it relies on valuing US dollars of Turkey’s GDP at current prices, thus pooling both inflation of the dollar and the real appreciation of the Turkish lira on top of real growth. In real terms, Turkish GDP at constant prices grew by 64 percent between 2002-2012, and GDP per capita grew by 43 percent. A decent growth rate, but nowhere near the miraculous. Continue reading

Swedish Democracy Promotion in Turkey

The news coming out of Turkey these days are bleak. Earlier this week, a fifteen-year-old boy, Berkin Elvan, passed away following 269 days in a coma after being hit by a tear gas canister during the Gezi protests last year. Demonstrations in his honor was met by more tear gas, and so far two people are reported dead in clashes between police and protesters.

This is but the latest incident in the country’s political instability which has been going on for years under the surface, only coming out in full view last year. A political civil war is raging between the Prime Minister Erdogan’s ruling AKP and the Gulen movement, a conflict between powerful former allies over the control of the country’s overpowered state institutions. Disagreements over policy in Syria, Israel, EU, appointments in top intelligence positions, as well as executive succession are the symptoms of this conflict. The underlying rationale is consolidating the power vacuum left by the old secular elite, many of which now linger in jail after a set of  controversial trials. In both the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, suspects were accused and later convicted to harsh sentences for on multiple occasions attempting to overthrow the AKP government. When these trials were ongoing, Erdogan, the AKP and Gulenist media outlets, such as Zaman and its English version Today’s Zaman, both proclaimed them as the harbingers of democracy.

Today, the tables have turned, and Erdogan now claim these trials to be a fraud and point to followers of the Gülen movement in the judiciary and police as the main culprits of the judicial abuse (here). Although this smacks of political expediency – Erdogan and the AKP have likely been well aware of what’s been going on – it has increasingly become obvious that the trials were often based on fraudulent evidence and conducted with severe judicial impropriety. In the ongoing conflict with the Gulen movement, the government has reassigned thousands of police officers, prosecutors, and judges and new laws have further concentrated the governments hold over the judiciary. Media censorship has also expanded with new laws to monitor internet activity and threats to ban social media sites for incriminating voice recordings of top officials. But just as important as the recent erosion of democratic institutions are the reforms that never came about under AKP’s more than a decade long rule. The way I see it Turkey is plagued by three fundamental institutional deficits Continue reading

My Inner Skeptic and Cynic on Recent US commentary on Turkey

The US foreign policy community has been making quite a few waves on Turkey lately. Barely a month ago, two former US ambassadors to Turkey wrote a scathing op-ed in Washington Post criticizing Erdogan and the AKP in its civil war with former allies in the Gulen movement. Yesterday, a who’s-who of the US foreign policy community wrote an open letter to Barack Obama claiming Erdogan is “subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values and endangering the U.S.-Turkey relationship.”

It’s certainly a good thing that influential policy leaders are aware of the real risk that Turkey’s fragile democracy could erode into an authoritarian one-party state. But the Skeptic in me feels these interventions lack a crucial component. Dani Rodrik voiced this in what I think is probably the best paragraph I read on Turkey this week:

We cannot look at all this and focus only on what Erdogan is doing without at least acknowledging that the Gulenists also bear considerable responsibility for bringing the country to its current crisis. The idea that there was something like the rule of law or Turkey was democratizing before Erdogan began to tighten the screws on the Gulen movement is dangerous nonsense. Those who call on Erdogan to respect democracy and the rule of law should be calling on the Gulen movement to do the same. Otherwise, they end up taking sides in a war in which neither side looks pretty.

It’s hard to keep a straight face reading some of the above linked interventions. One wonders where these concern were during the height of the Ergenekon, Sledgehammer trials, and KCK trials, which are only the most recent of Turkey’s long list of tainted political trials. I don’t remember seeing any concerns voiced after the Roboski massacre, when fighter jets bombed 40 (mostly-teenager) Kurdish villagers crossing the Iraq.

In regards to this, my inner Cynic is quite informative. In addition to noting that Kurdish villagers do not give a lot of political donations to US politicians, moreover the the apparent shift in many US policymakers’ views on Turkey may not be about its quality of democracy at all (perhaps it should, though).

Instead, as Michael Koplow explains in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the US has been getting increasingly annoyed with Turkey’s government for a host of other (not necessarily related to the quality of democracy) events. You should read the whole article but among a few key points that likely underlie the likely end of the US-Turkey “model relationship” are: Continue reading

Here’s to Tunisia’s new constitution, let’s hope it matters

Tunisia has a new constitution, and it’s relatively liberal. It’s a much-needed sign of progress in a region that hasn’t seen much of it lately, and we’re all naturally very excited.

Some of us are perhaps more excited than others. Here’s Mustafa Akyol in The New York Times:

In 2011, protests led to the ouster of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The spirit of revolution soon spread to other Arab countries, albeit with less-impressive results. Libya suffered from bloody internal turmoil; Egypt reverted to brutal military rule; Syria continues to be ravaged by civil war. In Tunisia, however, the nascent democratic process has not been derailed. The country’s new Constitution — the most liberal and democratic charter the Muslim Middle East has ever seen — remains the Arab Spring’s crowning achievement to date.

Ratified on Jan. 26, the Constitution is a strikingly “We the people” document in a region where “Me the state” has long been the norm. It protects civil liberties, establishes a separation of powers, and guarantees women parity in political bodies. Though it declares Islam the country’s official religion and refers generally to Tunisia’s identity as an Islamic state, the Constitution protects religious freedom for all.

Civil liberties, separation of powers, gender equality, and religious freedom for all… Now, I understand how the author badly wants to swim in this wonderful liberal-democracy-for-all-soup. After all, I can only imagine how disappointing it must be to have expected this to occur in Turkey and instead getting penguins, porn lobbies, and pepper spray.

Also, I’m not completely convinced by describing Tunisia’s constitutions as “the most liberal and democratic charter the Muslim Middle East has ever seen”. I’d like to see a real comparison between Turkey’s 1960 constitution and this one… Continue reading