Democracy thrives best in a country when multiple political parties can safely have vibrant debates displaying their various points of view and appealing to the different segments of the society. Cracking down on political enemies—through means such as media control and propaganda, outlawing and closing parties, plus jailing political rivals—stifles these debates, and in turn, threatens the very essence of democracy. This, in turn, helps to bring about autocracy which is a cruel system where a single party rules with impunity.
Restrictive measures from Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), since 2013 have slowly been morphing Turkey’s democracy into an autocracy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began cracking down on political enemies, both real and perceived, after the famous Gezi Park Protests in 2013 that rocked the nation. The protests were spurred by many issues including the continued use of excessive force by police, growing media censorship, alcohol restrictions, and continued violations of democratic rights. His goal has been to consolidate power by transforming Turkey’s democracy into an autocracy.
An autocracy is a system of government that is ruled by a single leader, known as an autocrat, that wields unrestricted power and command. Parties can exist within autocratic societies but their influence is severely limited or nonexistent altogether. Democracy becomes more and more autocratic as power continues to be concentrated within a single figure as opposed to being dispersed amongst multiple parties, leaders, and branches of government.
A democracy is the opposite of an autocracy in that power is distributed across a range of branches of government, figureheads, agencies, and parties. It is a large and complex machine that constantly interacts with the various components within itself in order to produce the best outcomes. Democracies must have at least two political parties that can operate without fear of punishment or intimidation by other parties or branches of government.
Democratic systems cannot thrive if their political parties do not have enough power to make meaningful change in society or lack the freedom to challenge other parties or government officials without fear of consequence. The point of democracy is to have multiple differing voices, in the form of political parties, come together to discuss the best outcome for society. Restricting political parties restrict democracy.
In March, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that 13 members of the pro-Kurdish opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), were jailed on terrorism charges. The timing of these affronts against the party and its sister party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), was significant.
Parliament and the country were gearing up for an April 16 constitutional referendum that would severely restrict checks and balances by vastly expanding President Erdogan’s power. These incarcerations were a direct assault on Turkey’s democracy and all that it stood for. To put things in perspective, imagine the outcry that would result if President Donald J. Trump decided to jail 15 Democratic lawmakers, despite having committed no crimes, right before a critical national referendum.
Mr. Erdogan has also threatened Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) which stands as the AKP’s largest opposition party, with arrest in June. Mr. Kılıcdaroglu led a protest march, walking over 450km for 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul in late June and early July to protest the arrest of the CHP lawmaker Enis Berberoglu. Mr. Berberoglu was imprisoned on espionage charges and for accusations that he leaked state secrets regarding the shipment of arms to warring sides in Syria.
Disagreements are natural and necessary within democracies. A party cuts off the legs of democracy by silencing disagreeing voices and stacking votes in its favor. Agreeing with political opponents is not a requirement. The only way representatives in a democracy can make their government stronger and more stable is by being civil and respecting each other as opposed to throwing their opponents in jail.
A true democracy demands that we do two things; listen to one another and respect opposing viewpoints. President Erdogan’s continued assaults against opposition parties, journalists, and media outlets further erode Turkey’s democracy and hastens the arrival of autocracy.