Democracy in Retreat in Turkey

It is a test of being democratic without sacrificing one’s security, and being secure not at the expense of one’s democracy

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Comfortable assumptions experts on Turkey used to operate with for the last dozens of years seem to lie in shatters: country portrayed as a model for the Muslim states in how they should combine their (supposedly) specific Muslim heritage with Western-style democracy and market economy is sliding into the new unknown. 

Maryna Vorotnyuk for Slovakian newspaper Dennikn

After the unsuccessful military coup, fifth in a row after the successful ones in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, leader of a pro-Islamist party, unrivalled in its public support since 2002, is cracking down every kind of opposition to his what turns out to be increasingly authoritarian one-man rule. The military coup, unconstitutional by definition, has been a traditional Turkish-style method, paradoxical as it may seem, to reinstate democracy by the army, which is a traditional stronghold of secularism and pro-Western affiliation of the country.

It makes sense to ponder on which course Turkey would have taken if coup had been successful. Post-coup Turkey was never the safest and most democratic place to live in. It also makes sense to speculate what are the reasons why it did not succeed and what exactly went wrong for the putschists, who, as the government alleges, are only the marginal outcasts from the army, brainwashed by Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen weaving a net of anti-Turkish conspiracies from the US where he is living since their paths with Erdogan parted after 2013. And why then, the cleansings made by Erdogan against the plotters and perpetrators of what is believed to be an ill-orchestrated coup of marginal military target thousands of people, who are detained on shady grounds as being part of the so called FETÖ – Fethullah Terrorist Organization (a new acquisition to the list of terroristic organizations Turkey needs to fight against).


Using the wide notion of terrorism in antiterrorist legislation where criticism of the government can be labelled as terrorism,


literally thousands of people, including police, judges, teachers and academics, medics are under investigation in the largest-ever purge of society from any kind of intellectual dissent to the government.

This is not to say, though, that the penetration of the state bodies by adepts of Gulenism, labelled a ‘parallel state’, is a welcome phenomenon. But the main question remains – if the ‘counter-coup’ Erdogan makes himself after the failed military revolt will finally dismantle a fragile democracy in Turkey which was, by the way, supported by hundreds of people of different social backgrounds, some of whom even sacrificed their lives on July 15 to say ‘no’ to a violent military takeover.

This protest came not necessarily because Turkish people, including liberals, have special sympathies towards Erdogan and his regime, popularly mocked at as ‘sultanate’, but because they believe that bad democracy with democratically elected Erdogan is better than good military dictatorship. And it is now that Turkish democracy is withstanding its most difficult test – staying democratic with democratically elected, but corrupt authorities who privatized state institutions and resources in a classical example of what is termed in political sciences a ‘state capture’.


It is also a test of being democratic without sacrificing one’s security, and being secure not at the expense of one’s democracy.


Turkey is infamous with its troubled environment, be it Syria with its civil war, Iraq or South Caucasus, terroristic activities by Islamic State, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the humanitarian calamity caused by almost 3 millions of Syrian refugees. Under those conditions, it is not an easy task to maintain a functioning democracy rather than to create a police state. Especially taking into account Turkish ambiguous relations with the West, when USA is dubbed as a threat to Turkish security according to the polls while officially it is the main strategic partner, and the EU is referred to as a hypocritical Christian club with double standards, while accession negotiation are going since 2005 (and association treaty was signed in far 1963).

Traumatic experience of trying to be a part of the West and being continuously rejected coupled with a fast economic growth since early 2000s led to rising Turkish ambitions to act on its own. Turkish government used the momentum to fly the flag of the model state for the countries of the Middle East and its strategic importance to bargain with the West, be it the deal with the EU to exchange migrants to visa-free for Turkish nationals, or the potential projects of gas pipelines with Russia whom Turkey has never shied away to indirectly support economically by not introducing sanctions after Crimean annexation.

The failed coup, according to many Turkish experts, was a unique experience of national consensus in Turkish society, when all political parties with majority of their electorate mobilized to reject the unconstitutional changes. Now as purges against Gulenists unfold, they say about the danger of losing the opportunity to build on the consensus inside deeply polarized Turkey. In this entire conundrum, the EU is facing a challenge to continue to engage Turkey in cooperation on critical issues of common interest which will bring meaningful results while not compromising its stance on democracy.