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Why Did So Many Cheer Turkey’s Democracy While It Was Dying?

Summary:
Claire Berlinski’s excellent account of the Western (and domestic) observers who cheered on as Turkey was sliding into authoritarianism reminds me of a point I long wanted to make. There was in Erdogan’s early years some reason to be confused as to what was going on. Was he a Muslim democrat who was essentially the Turkish equivalent of a European Christian Democrat? Or was he an authoritarian at heart who would resort to repression as soon as he had sufficient control? We know the answer now. But at the time there was perhaps what an economist would call an “observational equivalence” between the two scenarios. In his early years, Erdogan was not sufficiently secure in power. Remember that as late as 2008, his party barely escaped closure thanks to a very narrow constitutional court decision. The first five years or so of his coming to power were years of transition, from the secular elites to the AKP-Gulenist alliance. During the transition, Erdogan naturally sought allies among the liberals and the West. But beyond that, the transition opened up space for political discussion and debate in ways that had long escaped the country. The old guard’s power was weakening while Erdogan had not yet consolidated his power. The former could not put the lid on the new developments, while the latter was not strong enough (yet) to crush all potential opposition.

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Claire Berlinski’s excellent account of the Western (and domestic) observers who cheered on as Turkey was sliding into authoritarianism reminds me of a point I long wanted to make.

There was in Erdogan’s early years some reason to be confused as to what was going on. Was he a Muslim democrat who was essentially the Turkish equivalent of a European Christian Democrat? Or was he an authoritarian at heart who would resort to repression as soon as he had sufficient control?

We know the answer now. But at the time there was perhaps what an economist would call an “observational equivalence” between the two scenarios.

In his early years, Erdogan was not sufficiently secure in power. Remember that as late as 2008, his party barely escaped closure thanks to a very narrow constitutional court decision. The first five years or so of his coming to power were years of transition, from the secular elites to the AKP-Gulenist alliance. During the transition, Erdogan naturally sought allies among the liberals and the West. But beyond that, the transition opened up space for political discussion and debate in ways that had long escaped the country. The old guard’s power was weakening while Erdogan had not yet consolidated his power. The former could not put the lid on the new developments, while the latter was not strong enough (yet) to crush all potential opposition.

So at the time it may have been genuinely hard to tell where Turkey was really headed – greater democracy or simply a new set of authoritarian elites.

What also contributed to this was that Erdogan, whose reference point was Islam and Ottoman flowering rather than Turkish nationalism and the Young Turks, did not share the secularists’ taboos on two long-festering issues – the Armenian genocide and the Kurds’ demands for greater autonomy. This allowed much greater freedom to discuss those issues than had been the case under the secularists, adding to the appearance of democratic flowering.

To distinguish between the two scenarios, you’d have to look very carefully beneath the surface. Until 2010, I was among those who gave Erdogan the benefit of the doubt. But then I was not writing on Turkey’s politics and did not feign any expertise in it. When I started to pay more attention as a consequence of the Sledgehammer case in early 2010, the true nature of the Erdogan and his Gulenist allies became alarmingly clear. This was not just a massive power play aimed at current and potential opponents. It represented the wholesale undermining of the rule of law. Erdogan was at worst behind it, at best knowingly complicit in it.

In any case, by 2011 there was absolutely no excuse for the commentators Berlinski mentions (and many others) to be singing the democratic tune. I have yet to see a single one of them provide an apology or an honest account of how/why they got it wrong.

Dani Rodrik
I am an economist, and a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. My most recent book is Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science (Norton, 2015). I was born and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. I still follow Turkish politics very closely, as you will find out if you spend any time with this blog.

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