CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dropped the final fig leaf of democracy, announcing this week that the state of emergency will continue until Turkey achieves “welfare and peace.” The state of emergency, introduced with some justification after the failed coup in July 2016, allows Erdogan to rule by decree, sidelining both the legislature and the constitutional court. By extending it indefinitely, Erdogan is making explicit what had been implicit for months: He’s now officially a dictator.
States of emergency are funny things. Many countries keep them on the books, because they are useful in genuine emergencies, and because their presence might, in theory, urge rulers back to democracy when the emergency passes.
Even the U.S. Constitution has a version of a state of emergency in the suspension clause, which allows the temporary waiver of the basic right against arbitrary arrest and detention “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” President Abraham Lincoln invoked the clause unilaterally during the Civil War, even though most constitutional experts then and now think only Congress has that right. That made him, by some lights, a constitutional dictator.
A permanent state of emergency is something else again. Above all, it’s a familiar constitutional tool for dictators. Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak relied on this model for decades to rule Egypt. In Germany, the famous Article 48 of the Weimar constitution was used after the 1933 Reichstag fire to make Hitler’s dictatorial rule formally legal. The decree invoking the state of emergency remained in place until the end of World War II.
Erdogan’s move carries with it a number of important lessons for democracy and the rule of law in this highly charged political moment.
First, and most important, democracy isn’t a one-way street. In the years before Erdogan’s selection as prime minister and during the early part of his leadership, Turkey had made great strides in the direction of meaningful democracy. Regular elections were contested peacefully and for the most part without major corruption.
Free speech wasn’t absolute, especially for Kurdish or Islamist groups. But it was far more extensive than it had been in modern Turkish history.
Indeed, without lots of free speech, Erdogan’s AK Party wouldn’t have been able to run for office. The party’s moderate religious stance was outside the bounds of Turkish secularism. Erodgan himself had been banned from politics for his religious views. The system was democratizing simply by letting the AK Party campaign and come to power.
Starting out as prime minister, Erdogan responded to European incentives by further expanding free speech and democracy. This was in his interest, to be sure. A politician who can win free elections has an interest in avoiding the threat of military coup by consolidating democratic norms. Erdogan also hoped at first for greater integration into the European Union, and maybe even full membership.
Yet as these incentives have been reduced, Erdogan’s democratic tendencies have diminished. The message to Europe and the rest of us should be clear. What’s happened in Turkey can happen in Hungary, where President Viktor Orban is increasingly authoritarian. It can happen in Poland, where the ruling PiS party has hamstrung the constitutional court despite ineffectual European protests.
The second major lesson of Erdogan’s act is that the failed coup attempt against him turned out to be a godsend, because it allowed him to end the separation of powers. The only institutions capable of counterbalancing Erdogan were the military and the courts.
The failed coup gave Erdogan the opening to purge the judiciary and military of opponents and skeptics, indeed anyone who wasn’t a reliable loyalist. That left no one to balance Erdogan — and no reason for him to stick with democratic rule.
And so the mild, failed attempt was worse than nothing. It gave Erdogan added legitimacy, because the public didn’t rise up in support of the coup plotters. Some of the public openly resisted the idea of military takeover.
It probably also helped gain support for Erdogan’s constitutional reforms, which won narrow public affirmation in a referendum whose results are contested.
The third lesson relates to that referendum. In retrospect, it wasn’t about switching to a U.S.-style presidential system to consolidate Erdogan’s power by lawful means, as I and others thought.
We now know it was about Erdogan demonstrating he had some degree of national support. Once he had, he could skip over the constitutional formalities, moving right into rule by decree.
Erdogan didn’t need a supermajority for this move, and he didn’t come close to getting one. A bare majority was sufficient, at least combined with the weakness of his purged opponents. Erdogan clearly doesn’t expect major protests now. If they occurred, he would put them down, probably brutally.
The cumulative effect of these lessons is to remind us of the fragility of democratic politics. Building democracy is hard, painstaking work; keeping it is just as difficult, sometimes more so. Europe and the United States shouldn’t view Turkey’s slow democratic fall with contempt or pity, but with a sense of recognition. What has happened in Turkey can happen elsewhere, unless government and institutions and people work against it.
Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard University.
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