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Dozens of former party elites of the ruling AKP in Turkey left and joined two break-off parties in 2019 and 2020. Their move to the opposition was driven by self-interest rather than a principled commitment to democratic values. Analysis of statements on social media before they left show they were concerned about the personalization of political power and not the repression of journalists or minorities.

 

Dean Schafer

July 1, 2024

 

In almost any regime context, the choice to defect from the party in government risks political marginalization and economic repercussions. In competitive authoritarian regimes, defections should be diminishingly rare when a dominant party enjoys what Levitsky and Way (2010) call an “uneven electoral playing field,” due to unequal access to resources, media, and the law.

Dominant parties are often headed by authoritarian leaders; for example, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India under Narendra Modi, Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) in Hungary under Viktor Orbán, or the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. These leaders draw legitimacy from their electoral appeal, centralize power around their person, and gradually dismantle democracy. Loyalty within their party helps further the consolidation of authoritarianism.

Defections by party elites can represent a significant challenge to a dominant party. When they leave, elites can take organizational expertise, material resources, and electoral influence with them to the opposition, thereby signaling the weakness of the ruling coalition.

Both self-interest and a commitment to democratic values might prompt politicians to push back against the ambitions of authoritarian leaders in their party. After all, the consolidation of power by a strong leader diminishes the agency of everyone around them, and, often goes against established political, democratic norms. Yet, party loyalty usually trumps such countervailing motivations in many country contexts, even in supposedly consolidated democracies like the United States. Therefore, understanding the factors that motivate vocal dissent and defection can help us better understand authoritarian party stability.

As a rule, we can assume that political elites’ top priority is the longevity of their career. If membership in the ruling party does not pay off, then sometimes the opposition can offer better opportunities. In such situations, democracy can provide a useful symbol to cover for rational self-interest. The Turkish case offers an illustration of this dynamic.

Defections From the AKP in Turkey

In 2019–2020, over 100 party elites left Turkey’s ruling AKP and joined two new opposition parties: the Gelecek (Future) Party and DEVA (Remedy). These were individuals who had held high positions in the party, such as governors, parliamentarians, and members of its executive council. Their actions were surprising because the AKP had dominated the economic and political system for 20 years. The party controlled the distribution of state resources (sometimes called rents). Further, Erdoğan had recently crushed the power of the military in the counter-coup purges and institutionalized vastly expanded presidential authority after successfully pushing a referendum vote in 2017. The AKP, with Erdoğan as its undisputed leader, looked set to be in power for the foreseeable future.

These two new AKP break-off parties formed an alliance with the rest of the opposition under the declared goal of restoring parliamentary democracy. Their platforms espoused a commitment to pluralistic, democratic principles. Their rhetoric suggested that defection was motivated by a principled commitment to the democratic rules of the game.

But was democracy for them a long-held value that motivated their defection or a post-hoc rationalization for self-interested behavior? It is possible to ascertain this by looking at their statements on social media and the posts they liked from before they defected to map their position on issues that are crucial for democracy—such as presidential reforms or minority rights.

 

The Digital Footprints of Defection

Political elites share a wealth of information about themselves online. Most Turkish politicians are on social media and share dozens of posts a week, going back to the early 2010s. Computational methods—text analysis and machine learning—make it possible to extract political sentiment from online behavior. I explain in another article how to use social media content to measure political elites’ commitment to democracy.

The figure below is based on Twitter data of 310 AKP party elites from 2018, the year before the defections from the AKP. It compares the attitudes of 45 future defectors and 265 party loyalists on two dimensions:

  • Support for rule by a strong leader. This dimension measures whether individuals liked Tweets that express frustration with the diminished power of parliament (much weakened under the presidential system), and critiqued the one-person rule imposed by Erdogan. On the authoritarian side, it measures whether individuals support the need for “strong” leadership unchecked by countervailing institutions.
  • Concern about media freedom and minority rights. This dimension captures whether individuals liked Tweets that either praise or criticize the role of the media as a watchdog and agent of democratic accountability. It also captures whether individuals express concern with minority rights.

 

Figure 1. Two Dimensions: Support for Rule by a Strong Leader – Media Freedom and Minority Rights

Each dot represents an individual party elite. The X-axis measures their enthusiasm for—or criticism of—rule by a strong leader and the sidelining of democratic institutions like parliament. The Y-axis measures their commitment to media freedom and minority rights on a democratic-authoritarian scale. The large dots indicate the average score for each group. We can see that, before they joined the opposition, defectors from the AKP were distinguished by their criticism of rule by a strong leader. However, there is no meaningful difference between them and party loyalists on the media and minority rights dimension. On these latter, crucial issues, they were not more democratic than loyalists of an authoritarian party.

Those who defected were concerned about the integrity of institutions that facilitated their access to power, but not with media freedom or minority rights. This pattern shows that their motivations for leaving the opposition were not grounded in a principled defense of democracy, but rather, were self-interested.

Party elites’ pushback can act as a backstop against the accumulation of power by authoritarian leaders. However, it is less likely that resistance from party insiders will occur in response to the repression of civil liberties or government crackdowns—so long as that repression does not affect them directly. In this way, elite defections do not necessarily mean a return to a healthy democracy but are a source of regime instability in the grey zone between democratic breakdown and authoritarian consolidation.

 

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Dean Schafer a is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute.

The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Photo credit: SerkanSenyuz via Shutterstock

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