Görkem Altınörs and Ümit Akçay analyse the political economy of regime change in Turkey. The AKP's 'authoritarian fix' strategy was a response to multiple crises in the 2010s. Now, it has led to an attempt at authoritarian consolidation
When his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2002 general election by a landslide, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set out the AKP's agenda. Unlike its predecessor pro-Islamic parties, it represented a pro-European, market-friendly, liberal, and democratic version of conservatism. The AKP’s so-called ‘civilianisation agenda’ was aligned to Turkey’s EU membership candidacy. Turkey's influential business groups, liberal intelligentsia, and international media outlets welcomed its aspiration to achieve so-called ‘democratic consolidation’.
The AKP's so-called 'civilianisation agenda' in the 2000s followed a more repressive political path in the 2010s
However, since AKP’s third consecutive victory in 2011, Turkish politics has become increasingly associated with democratic backsliding, rather than consolidation. International media has increasingly defined Turkey as authoritarian, especially after the Gezi Park Protests in 2013 and the failed coup attempt in 2016. In 2017, Erdoğan’s referendum victory transformed a parliamentary system into a presidential one. One observer concluded that 'Turkey's democracy has died'.
So, what happened in the 2010s that turned Turkey’s political path in a more repressive direction?
In our recently published research, we look at two popular frameworks used to explain the contemporary dynamics of authoritarianism. These are competitive authoritarianism and authoritarian neoliberalism.
Competitive authoritarianism has merits but fails to provide a sufficient causal explanation for Turkey’s authoritarian turn in the 2010s. It fails because authoritarianism is reduced to personal, religious/cultural, or electoral factors. Authoritarian neoliberalism, on the other hand, fills the gap. It does so by highlighting the structural elements in authoritarianism, which is important to our research.
These elements include neoliberal restructuring (for example through depoliticisation and technocracy). There was widespread evidence of such restructuring in the Global North during the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2007–08. What is less well known is that many countries in the Global South, including Turkey, had already encountered such restructuring pressures in the early 2000s, under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. The authoritarian neoliberal restructuring model was already breaking down when Turkey started to face multiple crises in the 2010s.
The crisis of authoritarian neoliberalism has led towards an attempt at authoritarian consolidation, not democratisation
The crisis of authoritarian neoliberalism did not end up democratising Turkey. Instead, in the post-2013 period, the AKP initiated an ‘authoritarian fix’ strategy in reaction to multiple crises of the state and capital accumulation. Political regime change towards a more authoritarian form after 2017–18 is an extension of that strategy.
We describe this as an ‘authoritarian consolidation attempt’. It is a form of interregnum during a process of transition towards a fully authoritarian regime.
There are three dimensions to the authoritarian consolidation attempt in Turkey.
Abolishing the Prime Minister’s office and making the President the head of executive power has always been part of the AKP’s political agenda. In 2017, it succeeded. The president has used his new power in the post-2018 period to dismantle the technocratic state structure and re-politicise management of the economy. This trend is clearly visible in his appointment of central bank governors. Between 2018 and 2021, Turkey’s central bank had four governors.
The violation of judicial independence is another feature of this institutional experiment. The changes have allowed legislative and executive powers, and control over higher judicial bodies, to develop unchecked.
The AKP began to engage in more despotic strategies after the June 2015 general elections. For the first time since 2002, the party failed to secure enough votes to form a single-party government. After this, the AKP abandoned the Kurdish Opening, and established a new nationalist alliance with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party. After the failed coup attempt in 2016, left-wing dissidents were criminalised and dismissed, along with the putschist soldiers and the Gülenists, in the purge.
Civil and political liberties in Turkey have plummeted rapidly since the early 2010s, in line with the authoritarian fix strategy
The authoritarian fix strategy’s two crucial political turning points, the 2017 referendum and the 2018 presidential and general elections, took place under a state of emergency. But both civil and political liberties indexes have plummeted rapidly since the early 2010s, according to V-Dem Institute data.
The AKP has embraced populism’s Manichean worldview. Even in the late 2000s, it used polarisation strategy increasingly against (for example) workers such as TEKEL Resistance who were pushing back against privatisation. And this aspect of the authoritarian fix strategy only intensified in the 2010s. The Gezi Park Protests, the AKP’s U-turn vis-à-vis the Kurdish Opening and Academics for Peace, are all clear illustrations.
The challenges in the Turkish economy continue to worsen after the currency crisis of 2018. The policy response of the Erdoğan government, coupled with changing international financial conditions in 2019, such as the Fed’s U-turn in its monetary policy stance from quantitative tightening to easing, opened the door for Erdoğan to pursue an authoritarian consolidation attempt in Turkey. However, worsening economic conditions for Turkey's popular masses increases the risk of a backlash to the new regime.