The Ottoman Ouroboros: The Ebb and Flow of Turkish Democracy

, by Adi Horesh

The Ottoman Ouroboros: The Ebb and Flow of Turkish Democracy
Turkish Flags. Mstyslav Chernov, CC BY-SA 4.0 <> , via Wikimedia Commons

This text is written and published as part of the Democracy Under Pressure Campaign of JEF Europe.

For nearly two decades, the "Democracy under Pressure" campaign by JEF Europe has been amplifying the voices and narratives of engaged citizens and activists expressing concerns about the state of democracy and the rule of law across various European countries and their neighbouring regions. Unfortunately, over time, it has become increasingly evident that democracy is susceptible to external pressures and events, allowing internal radical forces to undermine our fundamental values and impact the future of all European citizens and beyond.

One particular country that demands attention when addressing the decline in democracy and the rule of law is the Republic of Turkey, or under its new official name, Türkiye. Emerging from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Türkiye initially stood as a beacon of modernism and a proponent of liberalism and democracy, maintaining a unique blend of being a Muslim yet secular powerhouse. However, since 2003, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president and former prime minister, Türkiye has witnessed a deterioration in its democratic principles, rule of law, and the erosion of secularism. Erdoğan's ambitious agenda, including aspirations to revive the influence of the Ottoman Empire on the global stage, has contributed to Türkiye's decline. Therefore, comprehending the reasons behind Türkiye's regression in terms of liberalism and democracy requires an understanding of its historical journey towards becoming a modern, democratic state.


From the 14th century until the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) exerted influence over vast territories across Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa, encompassing diverse cultures and populations. Regarded as a formidable threat to European empires for many years, the Ottomans made significant conquests, notably capturing the symbolic capital of Constantinople in 1453, renaming it Istanbul, and expanding into the Balkans until they were halted at the gates of Vienna in 1683, prompting widespread cry throughout European Christian societies. However, internal strife, corruption, and the spread of Enlightenment ideas from the West eventually sparked revolts within the Empire, weakening its grip over its extensive domains. The Sultanate, clinging to power at all costs, embarked on gradual modernisation efforts, but the underground movement led by the Young Turks secret society demanded swifter reforms and actively pursued them. In 1908, following a major uprising, the Young Turks successfully reinstated the Ottoman Constitution and introduced an early model for a multi-party system. Despite these efforts at modernisation, the Empire aligned with the Central Powers during World War I (1914-1917) and perpetrated genocide against its Armenian population in an attempt to suppress nationalist aspirations. The aftermath of being on the losing side of the war proved catastrophic for the Empire, compounded by both external and internal pressures, resulting in its fragmentation into numerous entities and a bloody struggle for independence. The heartland of the Empire, situated on the Anatolian peninsula and predominantly inhabited by Turkish people who were influenced by the principles of self-determination advocated by American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), fiercely pursued their independence. Leading them to victory was none other than the renowned Mustafa Kemal Pasha (1881-1938), also known as Atatürk, who spearheaded the abolition of the sultanate and the caliphate, steering the nation towards a bold and progressive modern vision.


In 2023, Türkiye commemorated the 85th anniversary of the death of its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. While Atatürk was not inherently a democratic figure, having ruled with an iron fist during his tenure, many Turkish people continue to regard his secular and liberal ideals as central to their nation place within the liberal world. What distinguished Atatürk to the extent that the Turkish parliament bestowed upon him the title "Atatürk," meaning the "Father of the Turks," and how does this relate to the evolution of the Turkish democratisation process in the 20th century?

Atatürk implemented sweeping reforms aimed at modernising Türkiye and promoting secularism, encapsulated in the philosophy known as Kemalism, which remains the core ideology of the Republic to this day. These reforms included the adoption of a new civil code based on Swiss law, and the secularisation of education and legal systems. Moreover, he initiated a comprehensive language reform, replacing the Ottoman Turkish script with the Latin alphabet to make Turkish more accessible to the general population and to the non-Muslim world. Following his death in 1938, Türkiye maintained political continuity under the Republican People's Party (CHP), which upheld the principles of Kemalism. In 1952, it joined NATO, aligning itself vividly with Western powers against the threat of communism. However, political instability persisted, with multi-party democracy reintroduced in 1945, leading to alternating periods of civilian rule and military interventions. The rise of the Democrat Party (DP) in the 1950s brought about liberal economic policies but ended with a military coup in 1960. Subsequent decades saw further military intervention in 1971 and 1980, and the invasion of Cyprus and establishment of Northern Cyprus, thus adding global complexity to its regional dynamic. The 1990s were marked by more political instability, economic crises, and the emergence of Islamist parties, although Türkiye kept maintaining its alignment with the West and secular world views.

The pivotal year of 2003 saw the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a dominant political force. Led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was convicted and banned from politics in 1998 for inciting religious hatred, the AKP won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held in November 2002, signalling a new era in Turkish politics. The AKP's agenda, characterised by Islamist-leaning conservatism, economic liberalisation, and judicial reforms, also marked a departure from the smooth cooperation with the West, with a simultaneous aspiration to revive historical imperial glory of an extinct Empire.


Since the rise of Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2003, several milestones have marked a shift in Türkiye's political landscape and its relationship with the West, as well as the prominence of Islamist ideology over a democratic and liberal one:

 Early Reforms and EU Accession Negotiations: Initially, the AKP's reforms and engagement with the EU signalled a commitment to democratic values and liberalisation, such as the removal of death penalty in Türkiye. However, subsequent developments have raised questions about the depth of these commitments, as Türkiye once again supports the return of the death penalty.

 2013 Gezi Park Protests: The crackdown on peaceful protests and the government's response to dissent highlighted growing authoritarian tendencies and raised concerns about the state of democracy and liberalism in Türkiye, as five people were killed and more than 8000 people were injured. Since then, protests against the government, even peaceful ones that do not align with the government’s agenda, have faced significant obstacles, particularly in Taksim Square. Authorities have swiftly and forcefully dispersed such demonstrations, curtailing the rights of citizens to express dissent and engage in peaceful assembly.

 2016 Coup Attempt and Subsequent Crackdown: The failed coup attempt led to a significant crackdown on perceived dissenters, resulting in the dismissal or imprisonment of thousands of individuals, including journalists, academics, and civil servants. These actions have raised serious concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Türkiye until today, as the coup was used to cement the leader’s hold of power over the state.

 Constitutional Changes and Expansion of Presidential Powers: The 2017 constitutional referendum, which expanded the president's powers, raised concerns about the concentration of power and the erosion of checks and balances, potentially undermining Türkiye's democratic institutions. Since then, the President has been granted the authority to personally appoint twelve out of the fifteen judges of the Constitutional Court and five out of the thirteen members of the Supreme Court, consolidating significant judicial power in his hands. This concentration of judicial appointments under his control has raised global concerns about the independence of the judiciary and the potential for undue influence over legal proceedings.

 Military Interventions and Assertive Foreign Policy: Türkiye's military interventions and assertive foreign policy stance have led to increased tensions with Western allies and raisedquestions about Türkiye's adherence to liberal democratic values. Concerns have been raised regarding Türkiye’s respect for international law and human rights, particularly considering its military actions resulting in loss of life, occupation of Syrian and Kurdish territories and [allegations of ethnic cleaning-> in-north-and-east-syria-stop-Türkiyes-war-and-occupation-policies]. These actions have prompted accusations of war crimes and cast doubt on Türkiye’s consistent commitment to upholding democratic values and respecting human rights standards.

 Syrian Refugee Crisis: The Syrian refugee crisis compelled Türkiye to host millions of refugees, leading to a significant humanitarian and political dilemma. In response, Türkiye and the EU brokered an agreement in 2016 whereby Türkiye would block the entrance of migrants and refugees into European territory, in exchange for financial aid from the EU. This agreement granted Türkiye considerable leverage over the European bloc, which sought to avoid another large-scale influx of immigrants into its territory. However, the implementation of the agreement has sparked concerns regarding human rights and democratic values, particularly regarding the treatment of refugees in Türkiye. Reports have surfaced detailing instances of forced labour, physical abuse, torture, disappearances, and other violations of human rights perpetrated against refugees within Türkiye. These allegations have raised serious questions about the ethical and moral implications of the agreement and its impact on the protection of vulnerable populations.

 Treatment of the Kurdish minority: The treatment of the Kurdish minority and their political parties in Türkiye has been marked by discrimination, repression, and conflict. Kurdish political parties, such as the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), have faced legal challenges and harassment by the Turkish government, raising concerns about political pluralism and freedom of expression. The ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgent groups has resulted in widespread human rights abuses, exacerbating social tensions and undermining efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution. Addressing the grievances of the Kurdish minority and promoting dialogue and reconciliation are essential steps toward advancing democracy and liberalism in Türkiye. The Turkish president’s pursuit of what he perceives as a Kurdish threat has manifested in various ways, including his actions during the latest NATO expansion. Notably, he refused to approve Finland's and Sweden's NATO applications, citing allegations that both countries harboured Kurdish dissidents and had failed to comply with extradition requests, among other demands. This stance underscored his assertive approach to foreign policy, particularly regarding issues related to Kurdish separatism and opposition movements.

Indeed, under the current leadership of President Erdoğan, Türkiye faces significant challenges to the rule of law and its democracy is being put under constant pressure, with fundamental human rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, steadily eroding. Many observers fear that Türkiye is on a dangerous trajectory toward autocracy under Erdoğan's rule, with no signs of a reversal in sight. Nevertheless, it is vital to continue supporting Turkish democracy and liberal values and to provide a platform for those who seek to make their voices heard, especially individuals who may face restrictions on freedom of expression in their home country or outside of it. By standing in solidarity with the Turkish people who wish to preserve their liberal and democratic values, we can help pave the way for a more democratic and inclusive future.

In the context of broader global events which we experience on a daily basis, from the war in Ukraine, to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of right-wing populism in Western countries world, the future might seem bleak. But the one conclusion that our campaign yields is, that yes, the future might seem grim, but staying informed about global developments and actively listening to voices from around the world, we can foster a network of liberal values and awareness that has the potential to shape a brighter future for us all.

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