May you live 100 years! It’s a welcome toast in many cultures. People who live that long are often wise and mature. Countries that reach the age of 100, though, are still young and searching for their identities. So it is with Turkey, which this year will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a republic.
“Celebrate” might be the wrong word. After generations of erratic progress toward democracy since its founding in 1923, Turkey has lurched backward. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces reelection this year. If he wins, Turkey will turn 100 not as a thriving democracy but as the fief of a vengeful quasi-dictator. Recent Turkish history is a chilling case study of how the tools of democracy can be used to undermine democracy.
As recently as a decade ago, it seemed the whole world was flocking to Turkey. Vanity Fair breathlessly reported that visiting Istanbul “makes you feel like you traveled to a magic town in your sleep.” Vogue gushed over the “new generation of cutting-edge design stores and labels.” Istanbul was the coolest city in the world, and Turkey seemed headed for a gloriously democratic future.
That’s over. President Erdoğan (pronounced AIR-doe-wan) has used his bloc in Parliament to create a new political system in which the president has sweeping power. He uses it forcefully. The military, the judiciary, the police, and the Supreme Electoral Board are firmly under his control. His wealthy supporters have bought most of the country’s media outlets. He has closed political parties, removed dozens of elected mayors from their posts, and imprisoned hundreds of journalists, civil-society activists, and politicians. The most recent victim is the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, who in December was sentenced to 31 months in prison. Officially his crime was insulting public officials. His real offense was preparing to run for president.
In addition to jailing opponents and closing rival political parties, Erdoğan, 68, has smoothed his path toward reelection in recent months with a series of decrees that suddenly make life easier for many Turks. He granted early retirement pensions to 2 million workers, gave permanent status to tens of thousands of temporary government employees, and doubled the minimum wage. The beneficiaries and their families will presumably show their appreciation at the polls.
Turkey is also asserting itself boldly on the regional stage. Turkish troops occupy a portion of Syria. Erdoğan has warned that his next target may be Greek islands near Turkey in the Aegean Sea, which he says his army could attack “suddenly in the middle of the night.” Greece and Turkey are both NATO members, but Turkey has become the member from hell. Erdoğan torments the alliance, most recently by blocking the accession of Finland and Sweden on the grounds that they harbor Kurdish militants and other opponents of his regime. This blustering strengthens his nationalist image at home. It may also be a tool to pressure the United States into selling him advanced fighter jets, which Washington has withheld because Turkey is cooperating economically and militarily with Russia.
This is a sad turn for a country that burst onto the world stage under the revolutionary leadership of Kemal Atatürk. European leaders had decided after World War I to divide Turkish territory into protectorates they could control. Astonishingly, swarms of Turkish volunteers rebelled and ultimately chased out the Greek, British, French, and Italian armies. Atatürk, their commander, proclaimed the Republic of Turkey on Oct. 29, 1923.
Atatürk established a one-party state, but opposition parties were slowly allowed to emerge. In the first competitive election, held in 1950, the opposition won. Atatürk’s party accepted the result and left power. It was a promising start for an incipient democracy.
Since then, Turkey has been plagued by outbreaks of civil violence and three military coups. Around 2000, it seemed finally to be finding its way. Social protections expanded, the economy boomed, and political debate flowered. In the first years after Erdoğan was elected prime minister in 2003, he seemed to embrace the new Turkey. Yet as he has tightened his grip on power, especially since engineering his election to the super-powered presidency in 2014, he has brought his country’s march toward democracy to a screeching halt.
Erdoğan has created a political system that looks like democracy but is structured to guarantee his eternal power. Having eliminated several rivals and assured favorable press coverage of his campaign, he should coast to victory in the election expected this spring. If by some chance he loses narrowly, he would be able to fiddle with results enough to claim victory. But what if, against all odds, he loses decisively?
Turkey would plunge into crisis. Erdoğan’s spectacular corruption suggests that once out of power, he and his family would face endless legal prosecution. He might claim a “steal” and summon the military to keep him in office. There is no soft landing for him — although the opposition could offer him immunity as was granted to the last military dictator, Kenan Evren, who despite immense crimes was allowed to retire peacefully after leaving office in 1989.
An opposition victory seems unlikely, though not impossible. If it happens, Turkey might be able to celebrate its 100th birthday as a true rebirth. A new government could release political prisoners, tolerate dissent, and curb presidential power. Erdoğan is determined to prevent that from happening. His reelection would make him an even more inspiring role model for autocrats around the world.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.