For political scientists interested in political development, it is in many ways more interesting to study why democracies break down than how democracies form. After all, the best predictor of whether a state is democratic at any given time is whether the state was a democracy previously, so delving into how and why authoritarian reversals occur is a fun field (for a deep dive into the subject, Jay Ulfelder does really good work, such as this). Democratic breakdowns come in a few flavors, but the two most common are military coups and incumbent takeovers (this latter category being when an elected government undermines democracy and the future electoral process). Writing in the British Journal of Political Science last year, Milan Svolik compellingly argued that we should be paying attention to the different categories of breakdown because doing so can give us a sense of where a state might be heading before breakdown occurs. The most interesting insight in Svolik’s article to me was his contention that democracies consolidate against military coups but not against incumbent takeovers. In other words, as a democracy ages and democratic rule becomes institutionalized, the risk of a military coup occurring substantially decreases at some point (according to Svolik, this happens somewhere between the 17th and 26th year of democratic government), but the risk of an incumbent takeover does not decrease. He also points to factors that make incumbent takeover a greater or lesser possibility, with a presidential system ten times more likely to break down than a parliamentary or mixed system, while having a history of past military rule makes incumbent takeover less likely because, in Svolik’s words, “In a democracy that lacks a history of military rule, an incumbent may succeed in accumulating enough power to subvert democracy, especially if aided by a presidential constitution and natural resources. But in a democracy that was preceded by a military dictatorship, these factors may be insufficient for a successful incumbent takeover because any such attempts will be preempted by a military coup.”
Why do I bring any of this stuff up? Because various happenings in Turkey make it look like the country is dangerously on the brink of an incumbent takeover, and Svolik’s piece is a useful guide in assessing what might be going on. It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog (or really anyone who keeps on top of international news) that things in Turkey have been going downhill for awhile. The question is not whether Turkish democracy has suffered, since it unquestionably has, but rather at what point do we cease talking about Turkey as a democracy and call it a flat out authoritarian state. I have never liked terms like illiberal democracy or quasi-democracy or troubled democracy, since I think of democracy similarly to the way I think about pregnancy: either a state is a democracy or it isn’t. Just as you can’t be sort of pregnant, you can’t be sort of democratic. So if Turkey has ceased to be a democracy, how will we know and what will that reversal look like?
My friend and erstwhile co-author Steven Cook has a piece in Politico comparing Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule to that of patrimonial Arab dictators, and laying out the ways in which Erdoğan has accumulated power and dominated politics. I’d add that since assuming the presidency, Erdoğan has done so in ways that subvert the Turkish constitution by taking over powers accorded to the prime ministry without formally amending the constitution. While it is true that the president has the constitutional power to preside over a cabinet meeting if he so chooses, this power is supposed to be reserved for extraordinary situations such as wars or other crises. And yet, there was Erdoğan last month chairing a meeting of the cabinet and purposefully not ruling out doing so again. Erdoğan has assembled a shadow cabinet of advisers around him that in many ways mimic Turkey’s actual cabinet, and he has asserted himself in all sorts of areas that are reserved for the prime minister. The biggest power play was actually symbolic but spoke volumes, when Erdoğan announced that Prime Minister Davutoğlu was to reside in the Çankaya presidential palace because Erdoğan was taking for himself the newly built, monstrously large palace that had been intended for the prime minister.
There is no question that Erdoğan is amassing power in what are unprecedented ways for Turkey since the death of the unapologetically all-powerful founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As former AKP parliamentary foreign affairs chief Suat Kınıklıoğlu writes, “Not a day goes by when our president is not to be seen on television, sometimes three times a day. Close to a dozen TV channels broadcast his speeches live. Even a prominent music channel cuts its broadcast and televises the speech. Total control. It is rather ironic to see how a political movement that aspired to break the authoritarianism of the old order has come to establish an even more effective authoritarian regime itself.” Everyone knows what is going on, as it is taking place in broad daylight and over the vociferous opposition of anyone not connected to the AKP. It is also in many ways completely and unabashedly shameless. Look at the government’s takeover of Bank Asya just yesterday, for example, which everyone knows is being done to punish Erdoğan’s current designee as Public Enemy Number One, Fethullah Gülen. The Gülenists in Turkey have hounded their own enemies for years, and their anguished cries of complete innocence are laughable, no matter what Gülen himself claims in the opinion pages of the New York Times (for a pitch perfect takedown of the op-ed, look no further than Claire Berlinski’s rejoinder to Hocaefendi yesterday). Nevertheless, whatever the Gülenist movement’s actual sins, nobody credibly believes that the “Bank Asya decision has no political dimension, it is a completely legal decision,” as Davutoğlu claimed with a straight face. This is a bill of attainder, pure and simple, and the fact that the people and institutions being targeted are themselves unabashed power-grabbers who subvert Turkey’s legal system for their own ends does not make the government’s actions democratic or legal. In a more candid moment, Davutoğlu said at a political rally yesterday that he doesn’t see why a religious movement needs a bank. Neither do I, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
The reason Svolik points to presidential systems as being prone to takeover is because presidential systems can be dangerous. The United States is a remarkable exception to this rule, but new democracies largely try to avoid them these days because of their instability. The only presidential democracy with an extended history of constitutional continuity is the U.S., and parliamentary democracies generally last more than three times as long as presidential democracies. A presidential system promotes a strong figure at the top of the food chain with an independent power base, which can be dangerous in divided societies or states without countervailing strong legislative and judicial institutions. Part of the argument against presidential systems comes from a sort of selection bias, in that they were adopted (and failed) in states where the conditions made them especially prone to failure, but the numbers also back up the fact that they lead to more short-lived democracies. Yet, just yesterday Davutoğlu had the following to say: “There is an argument that the presidential system will create authoritarianism. What’s your proof for that? Those who have little knowledge of politics and political science know that democracy is implemented both under presidential and parliamentary systems. These are both described as democratic systems in comparative political studies. Inclinations for authoritarianism can come from parliamentary systems as well.” Yes, it is true that democracy is implemented in both types of systems, but it is also true that one breaks down at a rate ten times that of the other. Surely the prime minister does not think this is a mere coincidence.
The transformation of Turkey to a presidential system is worrying when it comes to incumbent takeover, but so is the military component, because Svolik’s reason for why a military past tends to prevent incumbent takeover does not apply here. The threat of a military coup is supposed to deter an incumbent from amassing too much power and eroding the democratic system, but Turkey’s military has been so hollowed out and beaten down by the AKP (and its former move-along-nothing-to-see-here Gülenist allies) that the chances of a coup are close to nil. In fact, in many ways Erdoğan is primarily motivated by Turkey’s military past and sees his attainment of more and more power as the ultimate victory over the era of military tutelage. The unique history of the relationship between Erdoğan and the military in the pre-AKP era and the relationship between the AKP and the military since 2002 – and particularly since the failed coup by memorandum attempt in 2007 – actually make Turkey’s military past an exacerbating factor rather than a mitigating one. Combined with what Erdoğan has been doing since his election last summer, I don’t think any warning about what is coming down the road can possibly be strident enough.
The long and short of it is that Erdoğan is trying to institute a presidential system, and he is determined to do it one way or another. If he (meaning the AKP, his “former” party) passes the magic 330 seat threshold in the June election, he will attempt to do it by using his parliamentary supermajority to amend the constitution without a referendum, and if the AKP falls short, he will just keep on doing what he’s been doing until it is a fait accompli. But presidential systems are dangerous vehicles for shaky democracies, and that is even more so when the president is vocal and open about his contempt for liberal and democratic norms, views the entire country as something to be controlled by his personal whims, and sees checks and balances as nothing but a minor inconvenience. I don’t know if a complete incumbent takeover has yet happened, but I do know that if we ask that question again five or ten years from now, it will likely be too late.