Daron Acemoglu wrote what seemed like a surprising upbeat piece on Turkish democracy a few days ago. His argument seems to be that democracy required power to be wrested away from the secularists who had erected authoritarian structures, and Erdogan had achieved that. Even though, Erdogan’s recent turn to authoritarianism is “lamentable,” it was, Acemoglu claims, a predictable stage in Turkey’s democratic transition. Once Erdogan is gone, the article implies, democracy would be on a stronger footing than ever.
There were in fact many other paths that could have proved less costly. The more typical pattern is that the old elites reach a modus vivendi with the rising, popular forces that preserves some of their privileges in return for opening up (as happened in Spain and many of the Latin American examples). The Erdogan model of decapitating the secular old guard with a series of sham political trials served instead to deepen old divides and ended up erecting an alternative set of authoritarian structures.
In the early years of Erdogan’s rule, it was easy to mistake the loosening of old taboos associated with the Kemalist-secular elite as a process of democratization. But towards the end of the 2000s, anyone who looked closely could not have been under a similar illusion. The repression of the media and the jailing of opponents on bogus charges had become an unmistakable pattern. Saying this was an inevitable and necessary step towards democracy would be odd indeed.
The Acemoglu article prompted Erik Meyersson and me to write a riposte of sorts. It is called “Erdogan’s Coup,” and can be read here.