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Turkey: Backsliding to Authoritarianism?

Posted by [email protected] on June 29, 2017 at 10:20 AM

by Meghan Lowther


Less than four years ago, Turkey was hailed by the West as a democracy that, despite its flaws, was becoming stronger in an era of tensions with the Middle East and East-West conflicts. Today, that faith has been almost singlehandedly unravelled by President Erdogan, who has taken it upon himself to systematically dismantle a number of democratic systems to bolster his own power.


This didn’t happen overnight, however. A term being thrown around in the political science world encompasses what’s going on in Turkey is democratic backsliding. This means that democracy isn’t destroyed overnight, or through a coup, or a change in leadership. Backsliding means “state-led debilitation or elimination of political institutions sustaining an existing democracy” and has been used to describe current events in countries like Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and even the United States.


Turkey has experienced a number of tumultuous events since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president in 2003, and in that same year, the government took steps to relax certain regulations that would prevent them from proceeding in the accession talks. Those were officially launched in 2005. A number of issues have complicated the process, including public backlash to lifting headscarf bans, strained relations with Israel, and political advances from Islamist-leaning groups that pushed back against democratic reforms. 2014 and 2015 were mired by conflicts with ISIL and a small political shift to the left, and in 2015, the Syrian conflict spilled over into the country and Turkey struck a deal with the EU to continue accession talks if Turkey kept more migrants from entering the EU.


The coup in summer 2016 further stimulated Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism, with Erdogan using the attempt to crack down on the military, extending the favour to the judiciary, academia, and the press. The latest development was the April 2017 referendum to extend Erdogan’s powers through a controversial constitutional referendum, which if implemented, would seriously affect the EU’s relationship with Erdogan’s regime.


On 16 November 2016, The Parliament voted to suspect negotiations, but this decision was not binding. That could change next week in Strasbourg.


The Parliament is concerned about how the recent events in Turkey will affect their accession talks to the EU. In a resolution proposed on 20 June, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s annual assessment of Turkey’s reform process was more negative than years past. Due to the deteriorating situation and the recently passed constitution, the Parliament is recommending that accession talks be formally suspended if they are implemented without any amendments. They stressed the importance of maintaining a good relationship with Turkey but those assertions were coupled with doubts about Erdogan’s backsliding.


There’s not enough being done to address the response to Erdogan’s coup attempt, particularly in terms of the human rights violations and systematic dismantling of institutions like the judiciary and free press.The full Parliament is expected to vote on the proposal in Strasbourg next week. Europe is not ‘closing the door’ to Turkey, but they want to make it clear that the regime’s recent slide to authoritarianism are not in line with EU values. Only time will tell what becomes of Turkey’s administration and rule of law, and the EU hopes that one day the country will be fully ready to embrace the accession process and what comes with it.


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