Democracy in Turkey

Explaining the history of democracy in Turkey, prospects for its future trajectory and the key factors behind the current crisis in the country’s democracy.

Explainer Published 23 May 2024 6 minute READ

Is Turkey a democracy?

Turkey is a democracy and has been since the 1950s when its multi-party system was established. Elections are a particularly important aspect of Turkey’s democracy; they are credible and the political system is competitive.

In the 2023 presidential election, for example, the outcome was uncertain until the result was announced. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in the end re-elected, a second round of voting was required to produce a winner. There was in fact much expectation that the opposition would win. 

While at the national level, power is in the hands of President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party), at the local level it is largely in the hands of the opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). In the March 2024 local election, the opposition won a landslide victory and now controls almost all major cities. In Ankara, the opposition candidate won almost by 30 per cent, in Istanbul by 11.5 per cent.

Turkey’s political parties are strongly based on political identities. There are two main divides in Turkish politics. One is a broadly conservative-secular split, where the governing party represents the conservative (Islamic and centre-right) segments of society, and the opposition largely represents the secular segment of society.

The other is a national-identity divide, with the different Turkish nationalist parties on one side, and parties of Turkey’s large Kurdish movement on the other. Most of Turkey’s political parties have strong social bases, which helps create societal resilience in the country’s democracy. 

But Turkey’s democracy also has many flaws. To mention a few, it suffers from weak checks and balances, a weak civil society, a partisan media landscape, biased and fraying institutions, and weak rule of law, including the political weaponization of the judicial system. There are also serious concerns over violations of freedom of expression and political rights. Finally, an overly centralized administrative system puts constraints on local governance.

What type of democracy is Turkey?

Turkey is a flawed democracy. The political system, until recently, was a parliamentary democracy where the executive power rested with the prime minister. There was also a president who held quite significant power, including making appointments to Turkey’s public universities, high courts and key state institutions. This system was in place from the 1960s until the 2017 referendum, when the system changed to an executive presidency and the office of prime minister was eliminated. 

Turkey now has an executive presidential system. While there would normally be an expectation of checks and balances between the executive power (president), the legislature (parliament) and the judiciary, this is to a considerable degree lacking in Turkey. Its parliament is quite weak, particularly if the president also has parliamentary majority. Another issue is that public trust in the judiciary is extremely low. The public perception is that the judiciary is compromised and biased, and politically motivated on big political questions.

What is the history of democracy in Turkey?

Following the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. Until the 1950s Turkey had a single-party system and was ruled by the CHP, today’s main opposition. Turkey’s first president was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic.

In 1950, Turkey held its first real multi-party system elections, which the Democratic Party won. The Democratic Party was created by figures within the CHP, who became critical of the party and fell out with its leadership. They largely represented the conservative and centre-right of the political spectrum, which is where the core of the Turkish electorate resides. From the 1950s onward, Turkey has mostly been run by centre-right and conservative parties.

The question of the military’s place in the political system has become one of the central questions in discussions around democracy and democratization in Turkey.

But normal politics have often been disrupted by military coups. The first coup was in 1960, during which the military junta executed the prime minister, Adnan Menderes. They also imprisoned the president and many members of the Democratic Party. There were subsequent coups in 1971, 1980 and 1997, as well as a failed coup attempt in 2016. Coups were a regular feature in Turkey until the government of President Erdogan came to power in 2002.

The question of the military’s place in the political system has become one of the central questions in discussions around democracy and democratization in Turkey. Since the first coup in 1960 until early 2000s, the military either shaped the country’s politics directly through coups or indirectly through its strong influence. The military has been particularly influential in shaping big questions regarding identity, politics, security, geopolitics and foreign policy.

Apart from the secular-nationalist segment of society, most political groups have in some way opposed the military’s influence in the political system. Many have viewed it as the central impediment to democratization in Turkey. Military rule has also blocked progress on major issues such as the Kurdish issue or the rights and liberties of the conservative Islamic segment of society.

As Turkey’s political sphere became increasingly defined by the big political identity questions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two groups gained prominence.

The first was the conservative-Islamic section of society. This group was critical of the military’s very restrictive understanding and enforcement of secularism and self-proclaimed role as guardian of a secular republic. 

The second group was the Kurdish movement, which viewed the military influence in the political system as a major obstacle for Kurdish rights and liberties.

When Erdogan first came to power, his party benefitted from a growing consensus that the road to democratization was to eradicate military influence in politics. He built a broad coalition of conservatives, liberals, Kurds and certain left-wing politicians to achieve that aim.

During his first decade in power, Erdogan was very much favoured by the West, including former US president Obama. There was also broad EU support for democratization packages that were being introduced at the time, such as the Kurdish peace process and steps to improve the rights of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities.

But as the AK Party has consolidated its power, it has had less incentive to form broad-based coalitions and undertake reforms. 

The picture also began to change in 2013-14 due to a number of domestic, international and regional factors. These included the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the protesters, the power struggle between the government and a religious group called the Gulenists, urban warfare by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the 2016 coup attempt. These events began to reverse the opening up and democratization that had been taking place. Instead, security concerns took centre stage, the political sphere began to shrink, and rights and liberties were curtailed.

How has democracy lost ground in Turkey?

The perennial question of a crisis in Turkey’s democracy can be explained by four major factors.

First is that the state in Turkey is too strong and too centralized, making it amenable to capture and use against political opponents. This overly strong and centralized state has also sought to shape society around a certain idea of identity – causing serious problems in a very diverse society. How best to decentralize power and strengthen local governance is an issue that bedevils Turkey’s democracy, because it is entangled with various identity questions – the Kurdish issue in particular.

Second is the question of political culture. Turkey’s civil society is as weak as the state is strong. The public sphere is too dominated by the state, as is the political economy structure of the country.

How best to decentralize power and strengthen local governance is an issue that bedevils Turkey’s democracy, because it is entangled with various identity questions – the Kurdish issue in particular.

Political party laws are also an issue. Existing party structures and laws tend to concentrate power in the hands of party leaders, with very little accountability. Once in power, this lack of democratization and political transparency is reflected at the national level.

Third is the prevalence of strongman politics, a major factor in democratization, or lack thereof, in Turkey – and it has a long history. 

Political strongmen, in Turkey’s political history, include Adnan Menderes, the prime minister who was executed in 1961 by the military following the1960 coup, and Turgut Özal, the architect of Turkey’s economic liberalization in the 1980s. Today, it is Erdogan.

Political strongmen can undertake daring or ambitious reform packages that other politicians would be unable to pull off – Erdogan, for instance, undertook the most ambitious steps to date to resolve the Kurdish issue.

But strongman politics also has many downsides. It prevents institutionalization and the emergence of strong cadres, and the leader becomes the sole centre of gravity.

Fourth is the international context. The story of Turkey’s democratization has always been closely linked with its Western and European ties. For a long time, democratization and Europeanization were seen as interchangeable. While the Europeanization process worked well as a reference point for democratization for a long time, that is not the case today.

A prevalent perception is that Turkey’s Europeanization process came to an end due to the authoritarian turn in its domestic politics. There is some truth to that, but Turkey’s European aspirations were actually dashed during one of the most reformist periods in its political history.

For a long time, Turkey’s EU membership did not seem to be a realistic goal. But once Turkey started to make progress on reform in the early 2000s, the opposition to its membership grew stronger within Europe.

As Turkey’s official EU accession talks started in 2005, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that instead of membership, there should be discussions about a privileged partnership with Turkey. Jacques Chirac, the president of France, said the French would bring the issue of Turkish accession to a public referendum. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, opposed the question of Turkey’s EU membership even more vociferously. There were similar sentiments expressed by countries like the Netherlands and Austria.

EU resistance undermined its credibility not only with the Turkish government, but with the opposition as well. Today, the EU is no longer a strong political reference point for the public and political discussion in Turkey.  

Finally, over the last decade Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood has experienced invasions, civil wars, proxy conflicts and the resurgence of non-state armed groups. This has further strengthened a security-focused political climate in the country, which is inimical for political reform, freedoms and democratization.

These factors will likely continue to have an impact on the future trajectory of Turkey’s democracy.

What is the future of democracy in Turkey?

There are both positive and negative trends in Turkey’s democracy. One major positive factor is that election democracy is still very important at the popular level, and the societal foundation for a democratic system is quite strong. The election turnout in Turkey is very high, usually above 80 per cent.

Another positive factor is that Turkey does not have the political economy for sustainable authoritarianism – it does not have gas or oil for example. Turkey is very much dependent on international trade and its social capital, both of which would be harmed by long-term authoritarianism.

A third positive factor is that elections are not a foregone conclusion. The fact that both the governing party and the opposition believe that they can win the election, that elections can bring change, is important. Turkey does not have a hegemonic political group or identity. All the political parties rest on strong social bases with genuine demands and grievances, which keeps the system competitive.  

But there are also negative trends. The international context is particularly concerning. Events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Gaza invasion, the unresolved Syrian conflict, and the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China are creating an international climate more focused on security and geopolitics that is not conducive for democracy, democratization, rights and liberties. As a result, there has been a rise of strongman politics in many parts of the world. A second Trump presidency in the US would have further negative repercussions.

There are also two negative, and interrelated, domestic elements to do with weak checks and balances in Turkey’s political system. At the nexus of presidency, legislature and judiciary, there are insufficient checks and balances on the executive power – particularly if the president also has majority in parliament. The other negative element is the relatively weak civil society, and the state-dependent nature of Turkish capitalism. Turkey lacks a strong civil society or civil sphere in general that can put up with the pressure of the very strong state.

How do elections work in Turkey?

In Turkey, the general election is comprised of both parliamentary and presidential elections that are held on the same day.

The logic behind holding these elections on the same day is to create more harmony between the president and parliament and reduce the risk of early elections. This was a change brought in when Turkey’s political system changed in 2017, as the country was notorious for its early elections and short-lived governments before the 2000s.

The local elections are held on a different date and both local and general elections are held every five years.


Turkey’s system is based on proportional representation. But to strengthen the executive and prevent political fragmentation, there is an electoral threshold for a party to enter parliament. 

This threshold was 10 per cent from 1983 until 2022, when it was lowered to 7 per cent. It is still a very high threshold by international standards.

The fact that voter turnout is so high in Turkey means neither the governing nor opposition bases have given up on the ballot box.

The pre-election period can be unfair as the incumbent (governing) party can use more public resources – and usually does – but the elections themselves are competitive and the results are genuine. The elections are conducted under the auspices of the judiciary with the participation of the representatives of all political parties. Despite concerns in certain parts of Turkey’s society and internationally, election security seems to be sound and elections genuine.

The fact that voter turnout is so high in Turkey means neither the governing nor opposition bases have given up on the ballot box – seen as the ultimate arbiter of the political contest. This sends a strong signal of hope for the future of democracy in Turkey.