Partner Perspectives

Erdogan as Autocrat: A Very Turkish Tragedy

12 MINS READApr 20, 2017 | 12:58 GMT

By Howard Eissenstat for Project on Middle East Democracy


  • In just over a decade, the Republic of Turkey has gone from a period of promising political liberalization to fast-approaching one man rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  
  • A serious democratic erosion has been underway for several years, but repression has expanded dramatically following the failed coup of July 2016. If Erdoğan’s proposal for an executive presidency is approved in the April 16 referendum, meaningful limits on his rule may disappear.
  • The AKP’s ties to a deeply illiberal Turkish state tradition hampered its role as an agent of democratization.
  • The effectiveness of the AKP political machine, coupled with its increased political control of key institutions, has led to a virtual one-party state in Turkey.
  • Turkey’s economic success was closely tied to its liberalization; the current authoritarian trajectory undermines that success.
  • Whatever the outcome of the April referendum, the damage done to Turkey’s institutions, economy, and social fabric by the breakdown of rule of law and rights protections will not be repaired easily.  Further consolidation of power under President Erdoğan is likely to worsen instability.


In just over a decade, the Republic of Turkey has gone from a period of promising political liberalization to fast-approaching one man rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The party he leads, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 promising a more tolerant, inclusive Turkey.  Its “political brand” was stability, economic prosperity, and good governance.

After early progress, today this brand is discredited. Erdoğan, who became prime minister in 2003 and was elected president in 2014, remains remarkably popular among his tens of millions of supporters, about half of the population.  But terrorism now rocks the country, and Turkey’s once healthy economy is in danger.  Most opposition has been cowed or imprisoned.  Governance is increasingly autocratic.

A state of emergency imposed after last July’s attempted coup has led to the jailing of tens of thousands of government critics (and presumed critics) and the summary purging of more than 100,000 people from their state jobs. On April 16, Turkey will hold a referendum on whether to change the constitution to create an executive presidential system that would remove meaningful limits on Erdoğan’s power and enable him to remain in office until 2029. Whatever the outcome of the vote, Erdoğan’s new thousand-room palace has already replaced Turkey’s venerable parliament as the center of political power. It is a telling symbol of the country’s descent into autocracy. 

Erdoğan and his party, once viewed as a potential vanguard for a democratic wave in the Middle East, are now more often framed as part of the rising global tide of authoritarianism. Obviously the retreat of rule of law and the weakening of democratic institutions is not unique to Turkey.  But the fact that Turkey’s liberalization and its spiral into authoritarianism were undertaken by the same political leadership is striking. What went wrong?

Some early critics of the AKP believed from the outset that its professed liberalism was a ploy—that at its core, the party sought to achieve not democracy, but some sort of Islamist authoritarianism. As Michael Rubin argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2006:

While democrats fight for change within a system, Islamists seek to alter the system itself. This has been the case with the AKP. […] Erdoğan has spoken of democracy, tolerance and liberalism, but waged a slow and steady assault on the system. He endorsed, for example, the dream of Turkey's secular elite to enter the European Union, but only to embrace reforms diluting the checks and balances of military constitutional enforcement.[i]

Such comments now seem prescient. By and large, however, these critics came to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. They tended to turn a blind eye to abuses by Turkey’s military and other secularists while overstating the role that religion played in AKP governance.[ii]  The core of the problem did not lie with the AKP’s ties to political Islam. 

Instead, as this paper illustrates, two other factors were more important in making the AKP a flawed vessel for democratization. First, the party was unable to cut its ties to a deeply illiberal Turkish state tradition: an obsession with centralized control, an overly politicized bureaucracy, weak rule of law, and a jealous blend of religion and nationalism honed by Turkey’s military rulers after the 1980 coup. The path to a truly democratic Turkey would have required a clearer break from this past than the AKP leadership was willing to make. Second, the AKP’s domination of the political system—and Erdoğan’s domination of the AKP—have centralized political power to a degree that is unprecedented since the death of the founder of the Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1938.  The state has become largely an extension of the ruling party and of Erdoğan’s power.

The AKP’s Liberalization…and Its Limits

Although the celebratory language of Turkey as a “Muslim model for the Middle East” common in the Western (and of course, Turkish) media during the AKP’s early years in power may have been overblown, it was not baseless. For a while, the party and Erdoğan delivered. Between 2002 and 2007, Turkey’s real GDP grew by an average of 6.8 percent annually; the annual inflation rate dropped from a staggering 54.2 percent in 2001 to 8.8 percent in 2007.[iii]  Foreign direct investment surged. The middle class grew accordingly.

The AKP also tangibly expanded political freedoms.  It progressively pushed the military out of politics.  It completed the abolition of the death penalty initiated by the previous government and curtailed (but never fully ended) torture. Restrictions on wearing the headscarf were rolled back. And in a country where acknowledgement of diversity and minority rights traditionally had been seen as akin to treason, the AKP took theretofore unthinkable steps to acknowledge Kurdish identity and to respond to some grievances of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities.[iv] These reforms were significant and helped the AKP expand its support well beyond its devout base. 

Yet even in its most “progressive” early phase, the AKP never truly freed itself from Turkey’s extraordinarily illiberal nationalist traditions.  By 2007, the AKP’s enthusiasm for democratic reforms was already waning.  In part, the AKP came to realize that certain progressive stances were poor electoral politics; in part, the AKP leadership did not realize how deeply they would need to break from entrenched Turkish political traditions for their reform agenda to succeed.  In 2008, for example, the AKP effectively sacrificed further outreach to minorities in return for the support of the nationalist, right-wing National Action Party (MHP) for a law ending the decades-long ban on wearing headscarves in universities.[v]  Writing at that time, I offered a muted assessment of the AKP’s human rights record, concluding that its “commitment to human rights, while real, is limited and contingent.”[vi]  Subsequent events proved me far too optimistic.

Never Truly Secular: The Republic as Turkish-Muslim Nation

The question of religion and minorities in Turkey serves as a useful window into the limitations of the AKP’s liberalization program. 

As noted, the party made important overtures to Turkey’s embattled non-Muslim communities. In 2005, despite obstruction from secularist prosecutors, some hysterical coverage in the press, and considerable dissent within the AKP itself, a historic conference on the Armenian Genocide was held at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. Then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül sent a letter of support; then Prime Minister Erdoğan declared, "I want to live in a Turkey where freedoms are enjoyed in their broadest sense.”[vii]  Turkey continues an official international campaign of denial to this day, but since 2010 public commemorations of the genocide have been held annually in central Istanbul’s Taksim Square and elsewhere in the country. The government also returned to the Armenian community some properties that had been expropriated in past decades. As recently as 2015, the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church Foundation was able to regain control of Camp Armen, which Turkish authorities had confiscated in 1982.

But such steps, though laudable, were relatively easy ones for the AKP to implement—and were hardly the party’s top priority. For the AKP, the rights of its own pious base, most notably the right of women to wear the headscarf in state institutions, were always most important. Outreach to non-Muslims burnished the AKP’s international reputation without fundamentally changing the dynamics of domestic politics. While the symbolic importance of Turkey’s non-Muslims is considerable, their demographic weight is minor. The number of Christian and Jewish citizens of Turkey today hovers around 150,000, or about 0.2 percent of the population. Moreover, the AKP’s acceptance of non-Muslim communities within a fundamentally Muslim nation echoed the party’s own narratives regarding Turkey’s Ottoman legacy, which emphasize both the Islamic character of the Ottoman Empire and its reputation of “tolerance” of non-Muslims. A true break from the past would have required going beyond symbolic gestures to Turkey’s remaining non-Muslims and making clear that all citizens—regardless of faith—had equal claim to the nation. That was a break the AKP was simply not prepared to make.

Such a shift was so difficult because the AKP was deeply embedded within a nationalist tradition that interwove Islam and Turkishness. The AKP indeed has expanded the role of Islam within the public sphere, but in most ways, its merger of national and Islamic symbols represents an extension of this tradition. Turkish “secularism” has never been truly secular in the sense of maintaining state neutrality towards religion. The Directorate for Religious Affairs was established under Atatürk in 1924 and has continued to govern Muslim religious affairs ever since. Turkish imams are state employees and the Friday sermon is written in Ankara, to be delivered in mosques throughout the country. Rather than being “neutral” towards religion or “separate” from it, the Turkish state attempted to closely manage Islam, channeling it and bending it to the state’s use. Turkish nationalism consistently has conflated Turkish and Muslim identities in its rhetoric and sometimes in state policy.[viii] Especially following the 1980 coup, this tendency was intensified through the state’s embrace of the so-called Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, an ideological approach that featured Islamic symbols within nationalist rhetoric.[ix]

Although the AKP proved more flexible than its Kemalist predecessors in implementing some positive changes for non-Muslim minorities, the same could not be said for its relations to the Alevi population. Alevis are a heterodox Muslim group related to, but distinct from, the Alawites of Syria. Representing perhaps 15 percent of Turks, Alevis are a much larger group than non-Muslims. But their hybridity as Muslims represented an important challenge to the AKP’s conception of a “Muslim Turkish nation.” Bigotry and myths regarding the Alevi abound among devout Sunni Muslims (and thus among the AKP base). Treatment of the Alevi was thus a vital test of the AKP’s commitment to a liberal and inclusive Turkey.  It is a test that the party failed. 

Even before the AKP came to power, Alevis faced discrimination. They have no official standing. Alevi (and non-religious) children are not allowed the exemption from religious education that non-Muslim children are, meaning that they are obligated to study Sunni Islam as part of their public school education.[x] Alevi cemevi, or prayer houses, are not recognized by the state as religious sites, but only as cultural institutions. In 2007, the AKP floated the idea of an “Alevi opening” to address many of these concerns. But when the party failed to gain any significant increase in Alevi votes in the 2007 elections, this outreach was aborted.[xi]

As a result, the Alevi community’s grievances have intensified under the AKP. This is in part to due to the increasingly vocal place of Sunni Islam in the public sphere, but it is also a by-product of the sectarianism of the Syrian civil war. For many Alevi, that war, the AKP’s support for the largely Sunni Syrian opposition, and their own diminished place within Turkish society are all of a piece. Alevis continue to fear for their future as a distinct group in Turkey. The potential for civil unrest is significant.


[i] Michael Rubin, “Mr. Erdoğan’s Turkey,” Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2006,

[ii] Erdoğan has been consistent in his belief that a devout Muslim nation is best served by secular institutions. He made this argument, to the consternation of his hosts, when he visited Egypt in 2011. He made it again on a trip to Croatia in 2016 and most recently on a trip to the Gulf in February 2017, when he argued that rather than seeing secularism as “anti-religious,” one should see it as a system by which “the state guarantees freedoms to all groups, without privileging one over the other. That is our understanding of secularism.” “Erdoğan to Al Arabiya: We Will Eradicate Terrorism with GCC Support,” Al Arabiya English, February 17, 2017,

[iii] Mihai Macovei, “Growth and Economic Crises in Turkey: Leaving Behind a Turbulent Past?” European Commission – DG ECFIN Economic Papers no. 386 (October 2009), 12,

[iv] Sultan Tepe, “Turkey’s AKP: A Model “Muslim Democratic Party’?” Journal of Democracy 16, no. 3 (2005): 69–82. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish.

[v] The Constitutional Court eventually struck down a constitutional amendment reversing the headscarf ban and it was only in 2010 that the ban was finally lifted.

[vi] Howard Eissenstat, “Human Rights in the Era of the AKP,” The Immanent Frame, October 23, 2008,

[vii] Amberin Zaman, “Armenian Forum Stirs up Turkey,” Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2005,

[viii] I describe this process at length in “Metaphors of Race and Discourse of Nation: Racial Theory and State Nationalism in the First Decades of the Turkish Republic,” in Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World, ed. Paul Spickard (New York: Routledge, 2005), 239–256.

[ix] Sam Kaplan, “Din u Devlet All Over Again: The Politics of Military Secularism and Religious Militarism in Turkey Following the 1980 Coup,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 1 (2002): 113–127; Étienne Copeaux, Espace et temps de la nation turque: Analyse d'une historiographie nationaliste, 1934-1993 (Paris: Éditions CNRS, 1997).

[x] As must agnostics and atheists.

[xi] Şener Aktürk, Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 186–187.


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