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Dialectics of Reform and Repression: Unpacking Turkey's Authoritarian “Turn”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 May 2018

Sinan Erensü
Northwestern University
Ayça Alemdaroğlu
Northwestern University


Twenty-first century Turkey has been shaped by two conflicting trends: all-encompassing reform in almost all aspects of law that were transformative if not altogether progressive, and an increasing erosion of the rule of law, which finally culminated in a nation-wide emergency regime and the April 2017 constitutional referendum. The pressing question for many is why the promising reform era was abandoned for crude repression? In this essay, we answer this question by challenging its very foundation and pointing instead to an alternative line of inquiry concerning Turkish politics and society, one that focuses precisely on the interplay between reform and repression. The constitutional referendum of April 2017 compels observers and scholars of Turkey to reevaluate the interplay between reform and repression. Rather than reading contemporary Turkey as a case of relapse from reform into repression, as many commentators do, we suggest approaching reform and repression as concomitant and complementary modes of government.

Special Focus on Turkey: The Evolution of a Referendum
Copyright © Middle East Studies Association of North America, Inc. 2018 

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1 We thank Sultan Tepe for her constructive criticism and valuable comments.

2 While providing an exhaustive list of these reforms is beyond the limits of this paper the most notable and oft-cited ones include improvements in fundamental rights and liberties (2001), abolishment of the death penalty (2003), prevention of torture and mistreatment (2003), revision of the Anti-Terror Law, improvement of the Penal Code (2004), and reinforcement of the equality of sexes principle (2004). Most of these changes are part of nine “harmonization packages” enacted between 1999 and 2004 with the motivation to meet the Copenhagen Criteria. As such, while the reform wave shapes the early AKP years, its origins the AKP era. For a comprehensive review see Özbudun, Ergun, “Democratization Reforms in Turkey, 1993 2004,” Turkish Studies 8, no. 2 (2007): 179–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Babül, Elif, Bureaucratic Intimacies: Translating Human Rights in Turkey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 1417Google Scholar.

3 These include but are not limited to, the restructuring of the National Security Council to replace the military dominance with a civilian one (2003), ratification of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (2003), abolition of State Security Courts (2004). For more on constitutional changes and judicial restructuring under AKP, see Bali, Aslı, “Shifting into Reverse: Turkish Constitutionalism under the AKP,” Theory & Event 19, no. 1 (2016).Google Scholar

4 The most characteristic feature of the state of emergency in Turkey is that it warrants the president the authority to issue decrees by the power of law (kanun hükmünde kararname, KHK), which could limit fundamental rights and liberties. While this exception is exclusive to the state of emergency, one of the amendments voted in the April 2017 referendum lifts this precondition and expands the applicability of decrees to non-emergency times.

5 Steven Cook, “RIP Turkey, 1921–2017,” Foreign Policy, 16 April 2017,

6 Patrick Kingsley, “Erdoğan Claims Vast Powers in Turkey After Narrow Victory in Referendum,” New York Times, 16 April 2017,ğan.html?_r=1.

7 This three-day long conference, between 26–28 October 2017, was funded and organized by the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program at the Buffett Institute. In our conference call, we asked thirty-five participants whose research covers a myriad of disciplines and methodologies to reflect on the question “How did Turkey get here?” by examining the entanglements of law and politics in their respective research area such as mass-media, the environment, urban politics, gender, human rights and the state. Unfortunately, given the briefness of this paper, we are not able to engage with all here.

8 For a critique of the discourse of “the Turkish Model” see Tuğal, Cihan, The Fall of the Turkish Model: How the Arab Uprisings Brought Down Islamic Liberalism (New York: Verso, 2016)Google Scholar.

9 See Çakır, Ruşen and Baskısı, Mahalle, Professor Dr. Serif Mardin'in tezlerinden hareketle Türkiye'de İslam cumhuriyet, laiklik ve demokrasi (Istanbul: Dogan Kitap, 2008)Google Scholar.

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11 Proceeding the collapse of the 2009 peace process, these trials refer to mass arrests of Kurdish politicians, elected officers, and civil society leaders on the basis of being members of the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union), according to the state, a dual-state organization founded with the ultimate intention of forming an independent Kurdish State.

12 Yeşim Arat, “Liberal Means to Conservative Ends: The Gender Perspective on the AKP's Authoritarian Trajectory from Reform to Emergency,” paper presented at “Law and Politics in Turkey: Reform, Athority and Emergency,” 2017 Keyman Annual Conference, Northwestern University, Chicago: 26–18 October, 2017. Hereafter Keyman Conference.

13 Arat, “Liberal Means”; İdil Elveriş, “Seven Years of Reform, Capture and Control: The Council Of Judges and Presecutors in Turkey,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

14 Arat, “Liberal Means.”

15 Zengin, Aslı, “Mortal Life of Trans/Feminism Notes on “Gender Killings” in Turkey,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 3, no. 1–2 (2016): 266–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Esen Ezgi Taşçıoğlu, “States of Exception: Legal Governance of Trans Women in Urban Turkey,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

16 Hakyemez, Serra, “Margins of the Archive: Torture, Heroism, and the Ordinary in Prison No. 5, Turkey,” Anthropological Quarterly 90, no.1 (2017): 107–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yonucu, Deniz, “The Absent Present Law: An Ethnographic Study of Legal Violence in Turkey,” Social & Legal Studies (2017), doi.10.1177/0964663917738044CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fırat Bozcalı, “The Unresolved: Killings, Criminal Investigation and the State Illegibility across Turkish-Iranian Border,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

17 Yonucu, “The Absent Present.”

18 Mert Arslanalp and Deniz Erkmen, “Mobile Emergency Rule: Protest, Law, and Authoritarian Consolidation in Contemporary Turkey,” paper presented at Keyman Conference. For further elaboration of the term “mobile emergency rule,” see Deniz Erkmen “When Extraordinary Is the New Ordinary: Protests, Law and Authoritarian Consolidation in Turkey,” The Blue Review, 28 August 2017,

19 Onur Bakıner, “Sources of Impunity in Turkey,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

20 Özgür Sevgi Göral, “Failed Reconciliation, Impossible Justice: The Case of Temizöz and Others,” paper presented at Keyman Conference; Mecellem, Jessica, “Human Rights Trials in an Era of Democratic Stagnation: The Case of Turkey,” Law & Social Inquiry 43, no. 1 (2016), doi. 10.1111/lsi.12260Google Scholar.

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22 Bakıner, “Sources of Impunity”; Babül, Bureaucratic Intimacies; Hayal Akarsu, “Proportioning Violence: Ethnographic Notes on the Contingencies of Police Reform in Turkey,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

23 Timur Kuran (@timurkuran), 10 December 2017, 10:54 pm. Tweet: “In 2012, Istanbul was #1 out of Europe's top 30 cities in real estate investments. In 2017, it is #28. Consequence of lawlessness, regional instability. . . . #Hurriyet via @Hurriyet.”

24 Karaman, Ozan, “Urban Pulse—(re) Making Space for Globalization in Istanbul,” Urban Geography 29, no. 6 (2008): 518–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kuyucu, Tuna ve Ünsal, Özlem, “Urban Transformation as State-Led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies 47, no. 7 (2010): 1479–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lovering, John and Türkmen, Hade, “Bulldozer Neo-liberalism in Istanbul: The State-Led Construction of Property Markets, and the Displacement of the Urban Poor,” International Planning Studies 160, no.1 (2011): 7396CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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30 Erensü, Sinan, “Turkey's Hydropower Renaissance: Nature, Neoliberalism and Development in the Cracks of Infrastructures,” in Neoliberal Turkey and its Discontents: Economic Policy and the Environment under Erdoğan, eds. Adaman, Fikret, Akbulut, Bengi, and Arsel, Murat (London: IB Tauris, 2017)Google Scholar.

31 Elif Babül, “Managing Reform through Emergency: Politics of Hospitality in Turkey,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

32 Baklacıoğlu, Özgür, “From ‘Guesthouses’ to Removal Centers: Europeanization of Immigrant Detention in Turkey,” in Detaining the Immigrant Other: Global and Transnational Issues, eds. Furman, Rich, Epps, Douglas, and Lamphear, Greg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)Google Scholar. İkizoğlu-Erensü, Aslı, “Notes from a Refugee Protest: Ambivalences of Resisting and Desiring Citizenship,” Citizenship Studies 20, no. 5 (2017): 664–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Orçın Ulusoy, “Turkey as a Safe Third Country?” Border Criminologies Blog, 29 March 2016,

34 Aslı Bali, “From Reform to Emergency: The Use and Abuse of Constitutionalism in Turkey's Political Trajectory,” paper presented at Keyman Conference.

35 In fact, our critique is valid for some of those who saw the AKP government as having a hidden agenda from the very first day as most of those early opponents, too, refused to take the interplay between reform and repression seriously by casting reform merely as window dressing and denying their political role.