Turkey’s illiberal turn

Turkey is sliding back on its democratisation path

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The European Union must re-engage with Turkey – even if it cannot with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – if it is to prevent any further backsliding on democratic reforms, according to this policy brief.

Prime Minister Erdoğan, who led his AKP (Justice and Development Party) to a landslide general election victory in 2002 and won two further terms, is expected to top the poll in next month’s presidential election beginning on 10 August.

This brief suggests that if he is elected to the presidency, the EU should re-engage with reformers and modernisers within the AKP to prevent a concentration of power in the hands of the new head of state. ECFR Senior Policy Fellow Dimitar Bechev recommends that the EU “work its way around, rather than against, Erdoğan and hope for change from Turkish society in the long term.”

A decade ago there were high hopes that, with the help of the EU, Turkey was on its way to becoming an advanced democracy. But now this bold vision is all but dead. He writes that Turkey is now becoming an “illiberal democracy” in which Erdoğan could use his powers to turn the country into a presidential republic. Bechev details the causes of Turkey’s illiberal turn under AKP rule:

  • A corruption scandal implicating Erdoğan and his ministers.
  • Damage to the rule of law raising European Commission concerns about judicial independence.
  • The Turkish government’s concentration of power in the hands of an increasingly unaccountable executive branch as well as declining media freedom.
  • An ineffective parliamentary opposition presenting no real alternative to the AKP.

The EU accounts for 80 percent of foreign direct investment in Turkey but Dimitar Bechev points out that – unlike the 1999-2005 period – Europe and Turkey now have little time for one another: Europe is tied up with its own crisis in Ukraine while Turkey is preoccupied with its never-ending domestic dramas. He suggests Europe can recover its leverage and press for reforms only if it finds ways of collaborating pragmatically with the new Turkish leadership in various policy areas over a lengthy period.

On the prospects for EU accession, his analysis ends with a stark warning that the anti-enlargement mood across Europe and the success of the far right in recent elections to the European Parliament could spell trouble. He adds that if the EU accession deal were to become unstuck, “Turkey and the EU would easily fall back into the usual blame game”. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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