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Turkey’s Wild Elections Confound the ‘Autocracy’ Narrative

What we like is democracy, and what we don’t like is autocracy—or worse!


Is every democracy the same, or are they all different?

This is the question that confronts us when we look at the results of Sunday’s local elections in Turkey. The ruling coalition’s senior party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), was dealt significant setbacks, particularly in the large cities where their support has been slipping for some years—Erdogan’s home city of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the leading opposition party, strengthened its hand; in particular, the young, popular mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, roundly defeated the AKP challenger, 51 percent to 40 percent. The opposition’s performance, combined with anemic turnout, looks like a rebuke of Erdogan’s unsuccessful efforts to control Turkey’s worst economic crisis in a generation.


This all has been greeted with cheers by the Americans who have been anxious to dub Erdogan an autocrat and project upon him our own domestic team sports. But the results undercut one of the central ideas about the “autocrat”—namely, that he has been a serious threat to Turkish democracy. 

Erdogan is a moderate Islamist whose cultural and social policies would be out of place in Paris—Paris, France or Paris, Texas. At the same time, those views, for which Erdogan spent time in jail in the ’90s, are agreeable to many Turks, especially among the rural working class. The Turkish census reports that 99.8 percent of Turks are Muslim—wouldn’t you expect French-style laicism to be kicking against the pricks at least a little? Not even the French are 100-percent on board with French-style laicism, and, until recently, “Christian democracy” (on which Erdogan modeled AKP) was a live movement in much of Europe. 

Even as he pursued conservative cultural policies, Erdogan implemented a robust economic program that encouraged foreign investment in Turkey. He is the only Turkish head of government who has never missed an IMF grant disbursement for regulatory noncompliance. He aggressively pursued closer integration with the European economy, up to and including EU membership. In his Westward-facing early career, he also worked at length to lay to rest Turkey’s two longstanding PR issues: the Kurdish question and the Armenian genocide. (The failure to resolve each of these is complicated and would require two more separate, full-length columns.) This all is to say that Erdogan, his party, and his program have been, in the eyes of the Turkish people, forward-facing and consequently popular with voters

It is true that Erdogan has engaged in some anti-democratic behavior in the past few electoral cycles; there are reports this week of AKP chicanery in the southeast, particularly in the city of Van, where the Kurdish nationalist party HDP won the municipal election prima facie. In the 2017 constitutional referendum, there was suspect behavior in the vote-counting (more on this below). But the preponderance of Erdogan’s changes—to the judiciary, to the constitution, to the military—have been carried through because he has in fact been massively popular for long periods of his political career. The democratic element of the system has asserted itself against the undemocratic elements; what we see now is, in large part, the use of power that he acquired electorally and then consolidated electorally.

When Western liberals condemn Erdogan as anti-democratic, especially to score points against a certain Republican presidential candidate, it isn’t just wrong; it begins to resonate uncomfortably with certain elements of their domestic propaganda. Two of the strains in Turkish politics are Kemalist secularism, which is predominantly urban and elite, and Islamism, which is predominantly rural and popular. Western audiences have always preferred the first, which is comfortably European, but it has been enforced by largely undemocratic, certainly not Western democratic, means: the derin devlet, the “deep state”—yes, that’s where the term came from. When Turkey’s politics have run too hot or too unsecular, elite institutions have stepped in to keep things from getting out of hand—including, thrice, by military coup against the government. The Western liberal preference in fact runs against Turkish democracy. The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, people—read it!

(As a kicker: Erdogan’s 2017 constitutional referendum, which converted Turkey into a presidential system under a united head of state and head of government, did just squeak through under suspicious circumstances—namely, the certification of a large number of irregularly processed ballots. Since when do American liberals think irregularly processed ballots in a tightly contested election are undemocratic?)

It doesn’t make for rousing partisan journalism—Americans especially like a movie with white hats and black hats—but most world leaders are a mixed bag, and most of them hold power by some amount of popular assent. We may find distasteful Erdogan’s Islamism, or his constitutional changes, or his harassment and suppression of the opposition press. (I have a friend who worked for the English version of Zaman and had to make a speedy exit from Ankara after its closure.) But, especially as Turkey has shown itself capable of delivering an electoral black eye to the ruling party for its failures, it is difficult to say that there is exactly a crisis of democracy afoot. If we insist on doing so, and then relating it back to events at home, we may not like the parallels that emerge.

The world is very large and very old, and its various peoples have come up with many different ways of living. This is a difficult lesson for Americans, who have a penchant for projecting the ideologies of our peculiar conservative-revolutionary, Enlightenment-era merchant republic onto the canvas of the world. Jefferson backing the French Revolution, Wilson knocking the crowns off the royal heads of Europe, nation-building in the Middle East—we have a long history of assuming that everyone is an American on the inside. This is a dangerous assumption. Turkish politics will always look different from American politics, just as Marylander politics will always look different from Iowan politics. But for the American liberal, the more dangerous equation is liberal values with democracy—a brittle fiction that will tend to be outed.