As Democracy Slips Away, What are We to Do?

Ozan Kose / GETTY IMAGES
Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan takes in his referendum victory. Erdogan will have increased powers until the year 2029.

On October 29, 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the first president of the Republic of Turkey. Ataturk, who began his career as a successful Ottoman military leader, established the Republic after defeating Ottomans and an international coalition in what is know known as The Turkish War of Independence. As President, Ataturk enacted ambitious political and cultural reforms aimed at transforming Turkey into a modern, secular nation. For almost a century, Ataturk’s dreams have become a reality in Turkey. The country, which straddles Europe and Asia, has become a model of effective democratic government in a region which is increasingly known for its omnipresent tensions and conflicts. 

Despite all of the progress Turkey has made since Ataturk took control, today, the country’s democracy is closer than ever to falling away. Last month, Turkish citizens narrowly passed a referendum to give their current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sweeping constitutional authorities. While the results of the referendum are a devastating blow to those within the international community who hoped to see the Turkey remain as a stable Near East nation, they are not altogether surprising. Since becoming the country’s Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan and his political allies have earnestly begun the process of dismantling Turkey’s democracy. 

Over the last five years especially, Erdogan has taken actions which seem more in line with a strongman dictator than a democratically elected government official. In the midst of the Arab Spring, Erdogan attempted to ban Turks from accessing Twitter. The social networking platform and Turkish government watchdog groups vigorously protested the ban, eventually winning a court ruling permitting Twitter’s use. Erdogan has also begun a vigorous campaign against his country’s media. Erdogan has arrested more journalists in recent years than any other country - in 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists identified Turkey as the biggest jailer of Journalists. Further attempts by his government to promote self censorship within the media community have fundamentally undermined one of any democracy’s most important institutions. Erdogan began his most conspicuous purge of journalists and other opposition leaders in the wake last summer’s coup d’état attempt. 

When President Erdogan proposed his sweeping constitutional reforms to the country, it seemed to many like a disturbing yet natural progression of his slide towards authoritarianism. In the referendum, Erdogan asked his constituents to grant him authorities previously left in the hands of the nation’s parliament, like appointing judges and bureaucrats, and passing laws. Despite a fervent opposition, or Vote No, campaign in the country, Erdogan and his supporters claimed victory in the referendum, announcing that they had won by a slim 51 percent. There has, however, been widespread skepticism regarding the legitimacy of the referendum. As Erdogan gave a victory speech, opposition parties announced that they were contesting a third of all votes cast. 

Despite Turkey’s gradual but obvious slide away from Democracy, foreign powers, including the United States, have been reluctant to step in the way. This is deeply troubling. While Erdogan’s victory does not immediately mark the end of Turkey’s democracy, it is a frightening step in that direction, and it seems that the international community is willing to sit back and watch. Even rhetorically, Erdogan has enjoyed vast support from America and other western nations who are usually quick to stand up against such blatant attacks on freedom and democracy. In large part, this comes from the crucial role that Turkey plays in the global war against the Islamic State, or ISIS. Even as Turkey was purging its military and media of any opposition figures, the Obama administration sent its Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to celebrate President Erdogan’s prevailing over the attempted coup d’état. 

Some say that Erdogan may soften his stance and move to a more centrist role so that he can guarantee himself a more definitive victory in the 2019 elections. This could involve making a deal with Kurdish separatists in the country’s southeast, and see Turkey playing a more direct role in the fight against ISIS. All of this would further cement President Erdogan’s support among western nations, who, for now, seem to have placed the war on terror above the ideal of democracy. 

What happens next for turkey, however, does not depend solely on Erdogan. The international community may choose to support Erdogan for now, but this cannot allow him to continue his actions unchecked. Even as he tightens his fist on his own nation’s media, news outlets and citizens around the world can and should take on the role of referees, calling the President out as he continues to chip away at his people’s freedoms. Even for those who place security and regional stability ahead of ideals, a stable democracy is always a safer option than a veiled dictatorship, which is what Turkey is quickly becoming.