Biden’s exclusion of Erdoğan from the democracy summit may be a blessing in disguise for Turkey

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) attends a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Washington March 31, 2016.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Editor's note:

Turkey’s exclusion from the Summit for Democracy may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Turkey, as the shunning weakens Erdoğan’s hand internally, to the advantage of a recently strengthening opposition, argues Kemal Kirişci. This article was originally published in Just Security.

Turkey’s absence from the list of countries invited to President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy was not so surprising. In the past decade, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has eviscerated Turkish democracy with his increasingly authoritarian rule. His unorthodox economic policies have thrown the country’s economy into a bottomless pit, while his foreign policy has torn Turkey away from its transatlantic allies and brought its status closer to autocratic countries such as Russia and China.

So Turkey’s exclusion from the Summit for Democracy needs to be read as Erdoğan’s exclusion, and it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Turkey, as the shunning weakens Erdoğan’s hand internally, to the advantage of a recently strengthening opposition. While Erdoğan had maintained close relations with Donald Trump during his U.S. presidency and exploited that status politically at home, the Turkish leader has been unable to paper over his faults with Biden.

Had Biden invited Turkey to the Summit for Democracy, it would have restored some of Erdoğan’s luster in domestic politics and weakened the hand of the opposition at a time when they are challenging him precisely for failing to govern the country democratically. The fact that he will not be in the same photo-op with Biden at this summit — even on a virtual screen — adds another question mark to his claim to world leader status with which he has always tried to captivate his base.

An invitation for Turkey also would not have made it any more likely for Biden to extract democratic concessions from Erdoğan going forward; Erdoğan is well past the point of making a U-turn from his form of governance. But Biden still should, in line with a longstanding — though spotty — U.S. tradition of supporting democratization in Turkey, make it clear that Turkey as a country would be welcomed back to such summits, if and when it reconstructs its democracy. A look at the history of Turkey’s democratic transition illustrates how and why such an approach might provide fuel for the opposition in Turkey. That kind of tack also may help defuse the growing tendency in the United States to conflate Erdoğan with Turkey, where against all odds there is a growing commitment to a return to democracy.

The Rise and Collapse of Democracy in Turkey

The struggle for democracy and the transition away from a one-party system in Turkey has always been an uphill battle, marked by repeated ups and downs as well as periodic military muscle-flexing against civilian governments, either in the form of outright coups or some approximation. What is striking about the anti-democratic tilt, which accelerated with Erdoğan winning his third term as prime minister in 2011 and consolidated after the July 2016 coup attempt, is that it was preceded by a period of impressive democratic reforms, mostly introduced during Erdoğan’s reign as prime minister in the 2000s. Those reforms were driven by the prospects of membership in the European Union, and even won endorsement in 2009 from then-U.S. President Barack Obama in a speech to the Turkish Parliament as a model of democratic and economic progress.

Turkey’s initial transition to democratic rule had been spurred in part by domestic developments and partly by an effort to join Western economic, political, and defense institutions in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the Cold War escalated. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey embarked on a substantive democratization process.

This process gathered speed in the second half of the 1990s, as the United States and then the EU energetically engaged Turkey in the endeavor. The United States, for example, exerted significant diplomatic effort to persuade the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to hold its summit in Istanbul in exchange for the then-Turkish government allowing a civil society gathering to occur in parallel. The occasion gave an important boost of legitimacy and visibility to Turkish civil society, which was then reinforced later that year, when such organizations responded to a massive earthquake much more effectively and competently than government agencies.

Smart U.S. diplomacy also spurred improvements in the rule of law in Turkey. That same year, the United States aided in the apprehension in Kenya of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which was designated a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States. He was turned over to the Turkish authorities on the condition that he be tried fairly and, in line with EU standards, not be sentenced to death. The bargain provoked a government crisis that led to early elections, which brought in a new coalition more accommodating to judicial reforms, including the EU requirement of eliminating the death penalty from the Turkish Penal Code, a step long resisted by the Turkish military and conservative nationalist politicians.

These developments were critical in paving the way to the EU’s historic decision in December 1999 to declare Turkey a candidate country for membership. It is doubtful whether this would have been possible without the sustained commitment of the United States to support democratization in Turkey and without the vigorous engagement of the EU toward Turkish membership. As a result, Turkey ultimately met the EU’s requirements for democratic institutions and administrative capacity to begin the accession process in 2005. The period had been marked by significant gains in human rights and women’s rights, independence of the judiciary, parliamentary politics, and a range of internationally recognized freedoms.

Not long after Obama’s 2009 visit, however, Turkey’s democratization began to slow and then even regress. By early 2021, Freedom House placed Turkey second on the list of countries with the largest declines in freedom in the past 10 years, after Mali.

What Went Wrong?

The answer to the question “what went wrong” is a complex and difficult one. Domestic factors in Turkey and Erdoğan’s dogged determination to transform the country into a presidential system that would coalesce all governmental authority into his hands played a major role in bringing about such democratic regression. But there were also external factors. Possibly the most important of them was how the EU’s commitment to Turkish membership waned after Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election to the French presidency. He argued that Turkey had no place in the EU for geographical and cultural reasons. Angela Merkel in Germany also pushed for a “privileged partnership” with Turkey in place of full membership. (Another external factor was Cyprus acceding to EU membership even after rejecting the U.N. Annan Plan to unite the island in a referendum in April 2004.)

Initially, Erdoğan responded to the signs of EU rejection by arguing that he would continue with the administrative, economic, and political reforms necessary to complete the accession process. He dubbed them as the “Ankara criteria.” But once he won the November 2011 elections with a comfortable majority, his commitment to EU membership began to wane, too. Instead, he increasingly pushed a political agenda catering to his narrower conservative and religious electoral base as well as his ideological preferences.

The transformation was visible in Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy. Internally, the first signs of backtracking from reforms emerged in crackdowns on free expression, especially independent media, and on Turkey’s Atatürk-era commitment to secularism, which Erdoğan once had pledged to uphold. As early as 2004, the government attempted to restore criminal penalties for adultery, a measure that was defeated with civil society activism and EU pressure. But Erdoğan at various points famously declared that women should have at least three children and heavily taxed and restricted the consumption of alcohol.

Between 2008 and 2013, Erdoğan and his allies began manipulating the judiciary, as in the case of a 2010 referendum (that oddly was supported by the EU) to revise the selection process for members of the body responsible for appointing judges and prosecutors. That move ultimately helped Erdoğan seize de facto control over the judiciary.

In May 2013, the government’s insistence on converting Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spots in Istanbul, into a shopping mall despite clear public disapproval spurred an explosion of protests across the country. Erdoğan, against advice from within his own political entourage, resorted to violent repression and set the pace for future democratic regression. This trend reached a whole new level when he turned the July 2016 coup attempt against his rule into what he termed a “gift from God” to further his political agenda. He declared emergency rule and suspended the parliament’s legislative powers and the normal functions of the judiciary, enabling him to stifle all opposition. He followed up with a referendum in 2017 that rammed through a presidential system of governance with a small margin of victory under suspect circumstances.

Turkish foreign policy became transformed dramatically too, from one that emphasized pragmatism with the popular slogan of “zero problems with neighbors” to one that critics have labelled “no neighbors without problems.” With the eruption of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011, Turkish foreign policy turned increasingly pan-Islamist and interventionist. Erdoğan became embroiled in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, siding with figures representing political Islam such as the Muslim Brotherhood and getting involved in militarized conflicts in Libya, Somalia, and Syria. He also developed closer defense and political relations with Russia, while adopting more and more confrontationist policies towards traditional Western allies including the United States. Though these policies left Turkey increasingly isolated, he used them to rally his electoral base.

This approach was bolstered by Trump’s “American First” policy, disinterest in human rights and democracy, and political embrace of authoritarian leaders, which in turn undermined the West’s credibility and transformative power. Erdoğan skillfully exploited these developments to legitimize his rule and deflect attention for the country’s mounting problems by attributing these problems to external developments and actors.

Conclusion: Blessing in Disguise

By now, Erdoğan has created massive economic, political, social, and foreign policy wreckage for Turkey, and the public is beginning to understand the consequences. Confidence in his leadership is plummeting, according to Metropoll polling results. Against this backdrop, the opposition is starting to unite, increasingly setting and shaping the country’s domestic agenda and calling for early elections well ahead of their scheduled date in June 2023.

The opposition has yet to settle on a common presidential candidate, but six parties have come together and agreed to replace Erdoğan’s presidential system with an “improved and strengthened” parliamentary system. Civil society is increasingly raising its voice, led by organizations of women angered by Erdoğan’s decision to withdraw Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (known as the Istanbul Convention because it opened for signatures there in 2011). The country’s economic problems have triggered sporadic protests, including in Erdoğan strongholds. His authoritarian rule and exploitation of Islam in his politics also have rekindled affection for the founder of the Turkish republic, Atatürk, who transitioned Turkey to secularism as a basis for governance. The public also is showing growing recognition that pluralist democracy is the only way Turkey can govern its own, ethnic, religious, and social diversity and address its internal problems. The above-mentioned Metropoll results, for example, also showed that respondents increasingly value “freedom” more than “ethnic/religious identity.”

These developments provide an unprecedented advantage to the opposition, and Biden’s implicit refutation of Erdoğan’s form of governance gives them an extra boost. No longer is the United States signaling respect for Erdoğan’s power. Instead, in a country where nationalist and anti-democratic forces resist reform by claiming it is being pushed by external forces that only want to weaken Turkey, the country is suddenly left to its own devices. The absence of external interference — in the Summit for Democracy’s requirement for participating countries to pledge improvements, for example — may ironically lend greater legitimacy to those advocating a return to democracy in Turkey.