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Riding the democracy train: incumbent-led paths to autocracy

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In the twenty-first century, democracies are most often weakened, and even die, not by coups but by manipulation from within by democratically-elected officials. Yet, while democratic breakdown has become increasingly common, significant variation exists in the strategies deployed by would-be autocrats. Although some engage in unconstitutional power grabs, an increasing number of incumbents instead deploy constitutional methods to consolidate their power. How do incumbents decide how far to ride the democracy train, and whether to attack democracy unlawfully, or subvert it legally from within? This paper explores this question by presenting a simple formal model to adjudicate between these two incumbent-led paths to autocracy. The model implies that leaders who retain military support can successfully conduct an executive coup yet prefer lawful means to grab power when they enjoy high popularity. Choosing the constitutional route to dismantle democracy provides aspiring autocrats with a guise of legality as well as expands their power beyond even the self-coup option. Using the insights of the model, the paper examines how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who boarded the democracy train as a democratically elected leader but continued his journey toward a fully authoritarian destination, orchestrated his autocratic takeover of Turkish democracy. The article contributes to existing literature by examining the strategic decision-making process that underlies incumbent-led subversions of democracy, while casting light on the increasing trend of legal subversions of democracy.

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Fig. 1

Source: Lührmann and Lindberg (2019)

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  1. Erdoğan’s live speech with the mentioned remarks can be found at the following video:

  2. The figure relies on data collected and coded by Lührmann and Lindberg (2019). Following Lührmann et al. (2018), and their classification for the Regimes of the World (RoW), cases that score less than or equal to 0.5 on the Electoral Democracy Index (EDI) are classified as autocracies. Thus, only the autocratization episodes that results in such an EDI value are regarded as constituting episodes of democratic breakdown. The data is broken down by two periods to highlight the difference in forms of democratic breakdown between before and after the end of the Cold War.

  3. Maeda (2010) differentiates between two forms of democratic breakdown, based on the ‘origins of the processes’. While exogenous terminations of democratic regimes are executed by external actors and lead to incumbents’ removal from office (usually through a military coup), endogenous terminations of democratic regimes are carried out by democratically elected incumbents within the government.

  4. I follow Svolik (2019) in employing the term executive takeover as an abbreviation for incumbent-led forms of democratic breakdown. It is important to note that while Svolik (2015) uses the term to refer to self-coups, I use the term as an overarching expression to refer to the two different forms of incumbent-led democratic subversion that are of interest in this paper.

  5. The words ‘self-coup’, ‘executive coup’, ‘palace-coup’ and ‘autogolpe’ are used interchangeably throughout this paper to refer to the same phenomenon.

  6. For a discussion of how democracies emerge through a series of incremental constitutional reforms and exchanges with further insights on constitutional paths to autocracy, see Congleton (2010).

  7. While there has been much attention paid to understanding and conceptualizing ‘democratic backsliding,’ scholars have not yet reached a consensus on how to define this phenomenon (see Waldner & Lust, 2018). For the purposes of this paper, I follow Haggard and Kaufman (2021) and refer to backsliding as a type of executive takeover whereby democratically elected incumbents purposely employ the constitutional process in an attempt to undermine democracies.

  8. I opted to not include the opposition as a player in the game as it is reasonable to assume that the opposition is not going to support the incumbent in his legal quest for more power. Trivially, if the opposition were to lend support, the reputational costs associated with this action would be too high for the opposition that it would never be her preferred/best response action.

  9. I follow Przeworski in assuming that “the dream of all politicians is to remain forever in office and to use their tenure to do whatever they want”. (2019, p. 172). Relatedly though, the answer to why then we don’t see every incumbent engaging in such takeovers is not as straightforward. While this paper remains agnostic to such questions, the literature has put few ways forward. Notably, if we assume that all leaders are power-maximizers, it could be the changes in the contextual conditions ranging from historical experiences to recent developments in economic, political and/or cultures scenes surrounding the leaders that present opportunities—for a subset of them—to change the rules of the game to work for them (Norris, 2017; Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018; McCoy & Somer, 2019; Lieberman et al., 2019; Svolik, 2020). On the other hand, an alternative explanation does not regard all incumbents as pragmatic leaders. In that case, it’s not the circumstances that present opportunities for certain leaders; it rather has more to do with the type of the leader as well as the political culture that contribute to their predispositions in their quest for more power (see Congleton, 2020a, 2020b).

  10. The institution of g as a distinct parameter from b allows the payoff received from the constitutional path to exceed 1.

  11. Whether or not a referendum is needed to officiate the incumbent’s proposal is contingent upon the type of “constitutional” change the leader has on his agenda. Above all, the consensus holds that amendments to a country’s constitution itself are harder to achieve than other legislative reforms as they require more loopholes to pass. There is no set-in-stone, universally accepted rule that applies to all countries. However, in a majority of the countries, amending the constitution requires the proposed provisions to be supported by super-majorities within the legislature, and about 40 percent of the countries around the world require a referendum to enact constitutional changes (Ginsburg & Melton, 2015).

  12. For the purposes of the paper, an autogolpe is considered to be successful only if the incumbent is able to hold onto power after announcing his autogolpe. Since he would presumably lose his entire hold on power when he is forced to resign following his autogolpe, the outcome can not be counted as a successful consolidation of the incumbent’s power.

  13. Peru’s Fujimori exemplifies an empirical application of such a situation. Fearing a coup himself, Fujimori prioritized his relationships with the military right after he arrived in office.

  14. Przeworski (1988) defines tutelary democracy as a “regime which has competitive, formally democratic institutions, but in which the power apparatus, typically reduced by this time to the armed forces, retains the capacity to intervene to correct undesirable states of affairs”.

  15. The Council was formed as a part of the 1961 Turkish Constitution, which replaced the nation’s earlier Constitution (1924) following the 1960 coup d’état. Its establishment subsequent to the first intervention by the armed forces was considered as the military’s institutionalization of its control over civilian politics. In the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, the newly written 1982 Constitution strengthened the Council’s authority further by substantiating its executive powers. In particular, the democratically elected civilian government was instructed to prioritize the propositions issued by the military-dominated Council. For a detailed list of the reforms see Sarigil (2014).

  16. On the night of 27 April 2007, the office of the Chief of General Staff on behalf of the Turkish Armed Forces issued a statement on its website, criticizing the 2007 presidential elections. The statement came to be known as ‘e-memorandum’ was widely interpreted as a warning towards the AKP government, which the military accused of threatening the secularism embodied within the Turkish Republic upon the nomination of Abdullah Gül who retained strong roots in political Islam and whose wife would become the first ‘first lady’ of Turkey to wear a headscarf. While the internet memorandum was perceived as an indication of future military intervention, it also emphasized the military’s extra-legal role in Turkish politics (Bardakçi, 2013). The statement declared that “[The Turkish Armed Forces]....are an absolute defender of secularism....It will display its attitude and action openly and clearly whenever it is necessary....It is the legal responsibility and duty of the Turkish Armed Forces to protect the secular and unitary nature of the Republic. The Turkish Armed Forces are strongly dedicated to fulfilling this duty” (Sarigil, 2014, p. 14). It was later removed from the website in August 2011.

  17. According to the Constitution of 1982, the President was elected by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Through a referendum held in October 2007, the Constitution was amended for direct election of the president by popular vote—instead of by the parliament. The electoral reforms were introduced by Erdoğan’s government in the wake of the political crises preceded by the 2007 Turkish presidential election. Following the annulment of the first attempt to elect a successor president by the Constitutional Court in late April along with the e-memorandum, the AKP called for a snap election to be held in July 2007, rather than November of the same year, in order to reach the required quorum to elect its candidate Abdullah Gül as the president. The election resulted in a resounding victory for the incumbent AKP as it received more than 46 percent of the vote. While Gül was elected president in August 2007 during the third round of the second attempt of 2007 presidential election, Erdoğan who succeeded Gül in 2014 became the first president to be directly elected by popular vote.

  18. The AKP had 316 seats in the parliament, falling short of the 330 seats needed to reach three-fifths majority.

  19. Upon his election to presidency in 2014, Erdoğan had to forgo his position as the head of the AKP. However, despite his formal resignation as the leader of the party, he openly stated during his presidential campaign that he will not remain neutral, if elected president (DHA, 2014). Prior to his reinstatement as the head of AKP in 2017, Erdoğan was frequently criticized for violating the impartiality clause necessitated by the 1982 constitution that was in effect at the time.

  20. The Good Party (İyi Parti) was established in October 2017 under the leadership of the dissident members of the MHP who opposed Bahçeli’s support for the constitutional amendments. While its founding members actively campaigned against the amendments before the party was formally established in the wake of the 2017 constitutional referendum, it went onto form an electoral alliance with other opposition parties that campaigned against the constitutional amendments in the run-up to the 2018 general elections.

  21. These claims appear to be accurate as an electoral alliance between the two parties was formed only a year after the referendum. The partnership proved to be fruitful for the MHP, as it fought to preserve its political power following the fragmentation of its voter base due to the establishment of Iyi Parti.

  22. Turkey’s constitution requires the approval of a two-thirds majority (367 out of 542 total seats) to adopt laws related to the Constitutional amendments. If instead a three-fifths majority (330 out of 542 total seats) is reached and the law is not sent back by the president for reconsideration by the parliament, the law on constitutional amendments then “shall be published in the Official Gazette and be submitted to referendum. Laws related to Constitutional amendment which are submitted to referendum, shall require the approval of more than half of the valid votes cast” to enter into force. See

  23. In the November 2015 Turkish general election, AKP received 49.5 percent while MHP received 11.9 percent of the popular vote—allowing their total vote share to well surpass the 50 percent benchmark. Furthermore, using public opinion data, Aytaç et al. (2017) found that partisanship highly correlates with the public support for a presidential system in Turkey.

  24. For a detailed analysis, see the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Referendum Observation Mission Final Report (2017).

  25. Because \(a \in (0,1)\) and \(p \in (0,1)\).


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The author is grateful to Genevieve Bates, Alexandra Chinchilla, Monika Nalepa, Evgenia Olimpieva, and Susan Stokes for their priceless comments and advice. The author would like to thank the editor Roger D. Congleton, members of the Dissertation Improvement Group at the University of Chicago and attendees at the 2018 APSA Annual Conference for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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1.1 Proofs for equilibria

The solution concept used is the Subgame Perfect Nash Equilibrium (SPNE). Solving backwards, the selectorate will only support the incumbent’s proposal when its expected utility from supporting exceeds the utility it receives from when it does not support the incumbent. This occurs when \(g \in s\) of the selectorate: \([0, 1 + \frac{a(p-2)}{p}]\). To ensure that \(g \in (0,1)\), it must be the case that \(\frac{a(p-2)}{p}<0\) which is true by assumptionFootnote 25 and \(\frac{a(p-2)}{p}>-1\) which occurs when \(p>\frac{2a}{a+a}\).

Given s, the incumbent’s best response is to propose g. In order for the incumbent to choose constitutional over unconstitutional, the payoff he receives from the constitutional needs to be greater than the payoff he obtains from the unconstitutional. This occurs when \(c \ge 1 + \frac{3a-p(2a+1) - b}{m}\). To ensure that \(c \in (0,1)\), it must be the case that \(-1<\frac{3a-p(2a+1) - b}{m}<0\) which occurs when \(\frac{b+m}{3}<a<\frac{p+b}{3-2p}\) and \(p<1-\frac{b}{3}\). Note that when \(p > \frac{3a-b+m(1-c)}{2a+1}\), the leader will always choose constitutional over unconstitutional as the utility obtained from the constitutional will exceed the utility received from unconstitutional even when the costs associated with an unconstitutional power grab (c) is trivially small. Let \(g* \equiv 1 + \frac{a(p-2)}{p}\).

Proposition 1

Assume \(\frac{b-m}{3}<a<\frac{p+b}{3-2p}\) and let \(c\ge 1 + \frac{3a-p(2a+1) - b}{m}\). For \(\frac{2a}{a+1}<p<1-\frac{b}{3}\), \(((\textit{constitutional}, g^*), s)\) is an SPNE where support region is \(s = [0, g^*]\).

Proposition 2

Assume \(\frac{b-m}{3}<a<\frac{p+b}{3-2p}\) and let \(c< 1 + \frac{3a-p(2a+1) - b}{m}\). For \(\frac{2a}{a+1}<p<\frac{3a-b+m(1-c)}{2a+1}\), \(((\textit{unconstitutional}, g^*), s)\) is an SPNE where support region is \(s = [0, g^*]\).

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Çınar, İ. Riding the democracy train: incumbent-led paths to autocracy. Const Polit Econ 32, 301–325 (2021).

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