Turkey’s general elections on June 7 opened a new chapter in the nation’s democratic history. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since first gaining power in 2002. This has not only opened a new era of possible coalition governments, it also marks a major step backward for the authoritarian ambitions of AKP leader President Tayyip Erdoğan, who had hoped to secure a major electoral victory that would give him the mandate to introduce a new constitution tailor-made for himself.
When AKP first came to power in 2002, it largely received the support of Turkey’s classical liberals, along with its own religious base and ordinary Turks who just wanted a competent government. The AKP was made up of former Islamists — which is not consistent with classical liberalism — but they claimed to have reformed themselves, and declared that their aim was to incorporate the liberal political and economic criteria of the European Union.
They actually did keep that promise — for a while, at least. The first two terms of AKP power (2002–11) witnessed reforms for minorities, an economic boom, and a pragmatic foreign policy. Turkey’s secularists, who are a separate group from classical liberals, were still angry with the AKP for allowing greater public visibility for Islamic symbols, such as the headscarf. The secularists were driven by Jacobin-like secular authoritarianism, but for those of us who believed in liberty this merely constituted an expansion of religious freedom.
The early reforms of the AKP began to sour, gradually, during the party’s third term in power — beginning in June 2011. Erdoğan had subdued his nemesis, the military, so he no longer needed to meet European Union criteria. By that point, he had full control of the government, so classical liberal calls for taming state power seemed irrelevant to him. Erdoğan reverted back to his Islamist ideology, at least in terms of rhetoric, and focused on building an even deeper political hegemony. He began to give signals of a social re-engineering, by vowing to raise “religious generations” and interfere in private lives to prevent such “immorality” as young adults sharing households.
Meanwhile, Lord Acton’s famous dictum proved its truth once again — power corrupted the AKP, and as its power drew closer to absolute, so did the corruption. AKP’s capitalism increasingly proved to be crony capitalism, in which juicy state contracts were distributed to Erdoğan-friendly businessmen. Others, especially if they owned media, were not only disadvantaged in this system but openly threatened by Erdoğan and his own media apparatchiks. Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, because their bosses could not afford to hire Erdoğan critics — simply out of the fear of the government’s wrath.
This “new AKP” that emerged gradually after 2011 began to shrink the liberties and reverse the democratic reforms that it had earlier spearheaded. This downturn has been well documented by the European Commission, Freedom House, and many other Western think-tanks and NGOs. The response to this by Erdoğan and his supporters was to concoct the notion of a Western conspiracy that aimed to block the rise of a powerful and independent “New Turkey.” According to this fantasy, the nefarious conspirators were “the Jews,” and their imagined plans were executed by “the traitors” within Turkey — none other than Erdoğan’s political opponents.
For many of Turkey’s classical liberals, this conspiratorial narrative by the AKP was yet another sign of the worrying direction that Erdoğan had followed. His regime had clearly taken the form of an illiberal democracy: a system in which a popularly elected government threatens liberty and rule of law. Other liberals, however, found at least some of Erdoğan’s arguments convincing, and decided to keep supporting him. Turkey’s liberal community, therefore, has lately been divided into two, between those who now see the AKP as a problem, and those who still see it as a solution.
Those in the former group, including me, did not necessarily dismiss the societal problems about which Erdoğan and his supporters complained — such as militant left-wing groups on the streets, or the shadowy “parallel state” within the police and the judiciary formed by a religious order. We did not agree, however, that such troubles are legitimate excuses for suspending civil liberties or destroying the independence of the judiciary. Every authoritarian regime, after all, finds excuses to justify its expansions of power.
On June 7, many of the Erdoğan-skeptic classical liberals opted instead for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), which emerged victorious with 13 percent of the votes, doubling its traditional mandate. Classical liberals actually have little principled ground with which to support this party; it has a Kurdish ethno-nationalist base and its economic vision is quite socialist. Yet its entry into the Turkish parliament, overcoming the 10 percent national threshold, was strategically crucial. Because of that perentage, the AKP fell short of winning a majority, and now will spend the next several weeks trying to form a coalition government with two other major parties.
Those two parties, the secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the Turkish ethno-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), are not liberal either by classical definitions. The only Turkish party that claims liberalism, The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is so weak that it is totally ineffective. The means that Turkey’s liberals don’t have any powerful electoral alternative with which to advance the liberal agenda.
The political history of the world suggests, however, that liberty sometimes advances when authoritarian-minded powers cannot subdue each other and thus are forced to agree on compromise frameworks that will curb their respective authoritarian potential. That could possibly be a positive outcome of June 7 elections, the formation of a parliament in which no party has majority.
It is too early to predict what the nature of such a coalition government may be, or the chances of having renewed elections if no coalition can be formed. It is safe to say, however, that the elections provided a breath of fresh air to those who feared that Turkey would rapidly become a tragically illiberal democracy, if not an “elected dictatorship,” had Erdoğan continued to call all the shots.