The ongoing crackdown on dissidents, journalists and alleged coup plotters in Turkey seems to confirm what many observers have long concluded: Turkish democracy is dead, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more in control than ever.
But it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey’s fate will now be a stifling but stable form of civilian authoritarianism. The fragmentation of institutions such as the military, coupled with the erosion of Erdogan’s democratic legitimacy and the ongoing assault on Turkey’s veneer of parliamentary democracy, have left the country unprepared for the shocks it is likely to face in the year ahead. If the situation in the country spirals out of control, the result could easily be violence and chaos rather than a resurgence of democracy.
Until recently, the Turkish state, for all of its problems, enjoyed a strong institutional foundation.
Until recently, the Turkish state, for all of its problems, enjoyed a strong institutional foundation. And Erdogan, for all his problems, enjoyed a strong electoral mandate. But in April, a referendum marked by widespread allegations of fraud approved a package of proposals that dramatically increases Erdogan’s powers. This has coincided with the imprisonment of many in the country’s opposition, including leading Kurdish parliamentarians. Erdogan has even threatened to jail Turkey’s main opposition leader and used the threat of arrest to fend off challengers within his own base. This raises the question of what will happen when the pretense of democracy becomes harder to sustain. If political grievances and popular frustration can no longer be aired or addressed in parliament, they could quickly spill out onto the streets.
Meanwhile, sweeping post-coup-attempt purges have left the military increasingly distrustful and paranoid, exacerbating fissures that already existed within its ranks. Erdogan has also been working to create a variety of new organizations that are well-armed and personally loyal to him, elevating the possibility of civil conflict. Among other steps, the government has provided better weapons to special forces within the police and intelligence service in case they come into conflict with the military, as some did on the night of the failed coup. Erdogan has also worked to arm and organize private citizens, ranging from party members to newly formed civil-defense groups and existing youth movements such as the Ottoman Hearths. In a future crisis, or even in the face of widespread protests like those of 2013, this proliferation of armed actors increases the odds of a growing conflict with no cohesive national force that could quickly stem it.