Prospects of change in Turkey
As the 2019 presidential elections approach, change has gained a more profound meaning to many voters in Turkey. Ruled by the same party and leader since 2002, an unusually long time for a competitive political system, many people in Turkey wonder when and how change can possibly happen.
Previously, I evaluated the possibility of a split within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lead to a transition in Turkey toward a more pluralist political system. I argued that under such circumstances this chance is small. This is because in today’s dominant party system of Turkey, members and supporters of the ruling party prefer staying in office over other options, as long as their party continues to deliver benefits and as long as they fear a non-peaceful change. Thus, even rival factions tend to cooperate with the existing leadership.
So then the question is: In what form is democratic change most likely to happen in a dominant party system like Turkey’s, where circulation of power has stalled and opposition parties are practically unable to win office through elections?
We do not have a crystal ball, but we can make predictions based on past examples. We have seen such transitions in Central Europe, Africa, and recently in the Middle East, most successfully in Tunisia. We know that democratic transitions become likely when some of the following developments occur.
Transitions most typically begin when demand for democracy becomes widespread, often manifested in the form of mass movements. Leaders can rarely remain indifferent to millions demanding more rights. Often, this stage also involves some of the former supporters of the government to join the opposition. If the fear of non-democratic transition and unfair treatment after loss of office is a key reason to why even rival factions in ruling parties end up cooperating with existing leaders, belief in the opposition’s full-hearted commitment to democracy is what moves soft-liners in the ruling party toward the opposition. Sometimes, such shifts also overlap with economic downturn periods during which the ruling party can no longer deliver economic benefits to its constituencies. As opposition grows, leaders face two choices: Either to respond to democratic demands or to try suppressing the opposition.
This choice depends on two factors. Democratization studies highlight that if the opposition conveys clearly that they demand democracy and justice for all, rather than penalizing the members of the ruling party, then leaders can see an acceptable fate for themselves after possible change and they will be more likely to negotiate. However, rulers who fear marginalization and penalties after change resist it at all costs.
Previous studies show that if a ruler chooses to try oppressing the opposition, then the fate of change is up to the security apparatus. Leaders can eliminate the opposition, if they have military support behind them. If militaries choose to use force on civilians, there will not be any democratic change. If not, change becomes likely.
The military’s choice here depends on its institutional independence and the opposition’s commitment to peaceful methods. Professional militaries consider their fate as independent from any political group and stay out of domestic conflict, as long as there is no violence. Yet, personalized militaries may see their fate tied to political authorities, and thus, back them in case of public protests, which can have dreadful consequences.
Now, based on previous cases, what can we say about the prospects of change in Turkey toward a more pluralist party system with some circulation of power? Despite limitations, Turkey has a competitive electoral system and a military that has a history of institutional independence. These increase its chances to achieve a polyarchy in the near future, where power will be distributed among multiple actors. However, it is clear that change requires at least some portions of the ruling and opposition groups to unite around mutual interests, and the deep polarization between the supporters and opponents of the ruling party deters this. Thus, prospects of change, at this point, are up to the opposition’s ability to develop a unifying democratic agenda that not only themselves but also the soft-liners in the ruling party can resonate with.