Turkey’s mixed record over the last decade can be summarized as the transformation of a regional poster child into a huge disappointment.
Although ostensibly democratic, Turkey is a de facto authoritarian regime, and one that increasingly supports systems of clientelism and patronage. The intimidation and arrest of journalists—as well as regular citizens who dare criticize the omnipotent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—has now become common. Under this unprecedented pressure, Turkey’s few remaining domestic analysts and independent observers no longer question whether Turkey is an oppressive regime; now we debate the nature of its authoritarianism.
Some call Turkey’s regime “sultanistic,” because it revolves around Erdoğan. Others say that Turkey has been reduced to “electoral democracy,” since it lacks the civil liberties of a full democracy. Due to the combination of elections and intolerance for dissidence, still others label Turkey a system of “competitive authoritarianism.”
But for its highly unpredictably and personalistic regime, perhaps Turkey deserves a new name: “arbitrocracy.” Turkey’s problematic relationship with the rule of law has always spurred criticism. However, there has been no other period in which the system revolved around one man, and in which the violation of the constitution has become so commonplace, unquestionable and unjustifiably arbitrary.
In the eyes of many, the most visible symptom of arbitrocracy has been Erdogan’s lavish new palace, widely referred as “Ak Saray,” based on the initials of Erdogan’s AK Party. In Mar. 2014, an Ankara court ruled against the construction of Erdoğan’s new palace. Then prime minister, Erdoğan openly challenged the court’s decision, saying “If they have the power, then let them destroy it.” No one did—the court order was eventually dismissed, and the palace completed. The same building, originally designed to house the office of the prime minister, became a presidential palace when Erdoğan was elected president on Aug. 10, 2014.
But this extravagant palace is only one example of Erdoğan’s free reign.
Turkey’s record on freedom of the press has never been particularly stellar. In June 2014, Freedom House, a non-governmental advocacy organization for democracy and human rights, downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free,” citing the government’s harassment of reporters in during Istanbul’s 2013 Gezi Park protests. In Dec. 2014, the country witnessed a major crackdown against members of the media critical of the regime and close to the grassroots religious movement Hizmet. Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Turkey’s highest circulation daily Zaman; Hidayet Karaca, director of Samanyolu Broadcasting Group and others (including script writers and graphic designers) were detained by Turkish police on charges of forming a terrorist organization. On Dec. 30, 2014, journalist Sedef Kabaş was detained over a single tweet.
The cost of such arbitrariness is not simply political. In Feb. 2015, the inexplicable fight that Erdoğan waged against the president of the Turkish Central Bank for not lowering the interest rate per Erdoğan’s instructions led to a historic loss of value for the Turkish lira. Simultaneously, Erdoğan’s tireless efforts to bankrupt a private bank with shareholders close to the Hizmet movement have led to a crisis of confidence in the country’s economy and the withdrawal of foreign investors.
Erdoğan sometimes does not bother to hide his motivations. On the way back from a trip to South America in Feb. 2015, Erdoğan told journalists that he had essentially awarded a lucrative construction contract, even though bidding for the project had not yet been opened to the public. The 2002 law of public procurement been amended 37 times during the rule of Erdoğan’s AKP party.
Erdoğan has repeatedly disappointed Turkish liberals and Muslim democrats who believed he would Westernize Turkey and bring it into the European Union. He has similarly undermined the idea that political Islamists can be genuine democrats by doing exactly what skeptics feared most. The consequence of the stubborn president’s arbitrocracy will likely reach far beyond Turkey’s borders: any hope for a democracy that might set a model for oppressive neighbors and Muslim peers in the region is now gone.