By Tevfik Murat Yildim. Originally published on 2013/01/15

Most people might argue over the ambiguous political situation in Turkey where one has witnessed the rise of both authoritarianism and social and political reforms since 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. It was the first time in the political history of Turkey that a party has managed to increase its seats in the parliament three times in a row. It seems very plausible that there exists a change towards authoritarianism[1], but this –interestingly- did not give rise to strong oppositions demanding more say in politics.  This situation is reflected by the contradiction in Erdogan’s politics: If it is true that the incumbent party underwent constitutional changes and reforms -such as restricting the army’s influence on politics- and benefiting from being elected by half of the voters, the Opposition has been increasingly repressed in an authoritarian way, not only on the political stage, but also in the media and other form of representations. This argument becomes more compelling when we look at some international reports[2].

Most reforms leading to economic success and political stability are subject to praise; however, failure in humanitarian issues, authoritative and populistic statements and implementations deserve to be mentioned for their extremist characters[3]. So, what is next? What will happen concerns not only local voters, but also all Turkish partners, including the EU.

Turkey and the EU

The most recurring and important questions “Does Turkey need the EU?” and “Would the EU be eager to have a semi-authoritarian state with a massive population in the union?” overlap in terms of their contexts and possible answers. Turkey politically and strategically needs the EU, albeit not economically in the short-run. The failure of the EU members in solving the recent economic crisis has spread the view that Turkey, as a growing power, does not need the EU since most of its members already performed worse than Turkey.

However, political aspect is the most crucial point regarding the future of these two entities. Indeed, these two players’ economic objectives do not converge: Turkey has already reached a considerable growth rate during the last decades, while the EU’s priorities since the creation of the EMU has always been inflation and fiscal disorder rather than outstanding growth rate. What Turkey needs is first to establish a strong opposition that will never be repressed by the incumbent parties, not only in terms of party competitions but also ideas and implementations. This way, the importance of a charismatic leadership and single-man parties will greatly diminish[4].

On the other hand, the EU’s willingness to have Turkey in the Union will not be affected by the rising authoritarianism there. Indeed, skipping the well-known argument that the EU needs Turkey due to its young work force and dynamic economy, I will touch upon a different point: The reason why the EU’s willingness to accept Turkey as a member will not be affected by the rising authoritarianism there. If the EU enlargement policies are indeed based on economic and political criteria, it would not mind the rise of authoritarianism so much, for it has already accepted European states with high authority trends in the Union in the past. Having authoritarian attitudes in politics has never made Turkey less important, as it never did so to the others. We can broaden the argument by analyzing the European Union enlargement policies and ‘polity score index’[5]: In Poland and Hungary, where the practice of democracy had not been experienced before joining the EU, authority trends started to increase gradually after the membership process[6]. The same holds true for Bulgaria and Romania. Until the mid-1990s, the Polity score of Bulgaria and Romania was between -6 and 0. With the EU membership process, this score scaled up to 6-8, very close to full democracy. Therefore, the EU does not look at the authority trends of a country to accept it to join, but rather at other criteria that it considers more important to be met for the membership to the Union (named the Copenhagen criteria). Besides, the EU eventually would force candidate countries to move towards political liberalization, loosening the political conflict and electoral authoritarianism.

In a nutshell, Turkey will always need the EU, or at least the membership process, in order to secure its democratic institutions and to get free from authoritarian tendencies.

[1] We cannot simply define whether it is an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime that Turkey has been adopting for the last couple of years. According to Andreas Schedler, an electoral authoritarian rule –for instance- should be minimally pluralistic, minimally competitive, broadly inclusive and minimally open in terms of the opposition parties present in the competition. Turkey seems to be far from meeting these criteria to be named an electoral authoritarian rule, although I have some doubts about the last one.

[2] Freedom House announces annual reports on countries’ freedom-authority trends. It takes into account the rights of opposition parties, freedom in press-media, and free elections. Turkey is condemned with its political pressure on media, journalists and opposition parties on the website. Moreover, many prominent newspapers like New York Times and The Economist mention this authoritarian trend (an example: “Creeping authoritarianism”, The Economist, Jun 10th 2011.

[3] The articles regarding economic success and political stability have been appearing in prominent articles, mostly focusing on the rising GDP, debt / GDP ratio, and the declining inflation. On the other hand, the infamous records of government in humanitarian and justice issues can be found in the Freedom House and Polity Score Index.

[4] According to some arguments used in the field of political culture, social and religious factors are the main reasons for the enforcement of  hierarchical structure, right before political authoritarianism (see Welzel and Inglehart, ‘Political Culture, Mass Beliefs and Value Change’). Egalitarian societies are less likely to produce authoritarian and charismatic leaders, who are mostly good at public speaking and leadership.

[5] This can be traced from The Polity IV Project, available at

[6] The Polity Scores represent the level of authoritarianism by grading countries’ policies from -10, to 10. For example, Turkey and France are really close to 10, full democracy, while Syria is -10, full autocracy. One can trace the relationship between the EU membership and authority trend by examining this polity score and the trend data. For more information, see (Polish case).

About the author: Tevfik Murat Yildim

Originally from Istanbul, Turkey, Tevfik Murat Yildim is living in Milan, Italy. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, with a focus on Political Economy. He participated in a student exchange programme with University of Bologna, and currently a graduate student at University of Milan. He also undertook some courses at University of Oxford, St.Anthony’s College.

He has been writing for EST for almost a year, but also for NGOs, news agencies and journals. Lastly, he attended conferences in London and Izmir, published two reviews in Political Studies Review (all about Political Economy, Social Policy, Political Change, all of which are his primary concerns). He is planning to pursue a PhD in Political Science.