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Democracy under pressure worldwide: 'Türkiye is a textbook example of how countries become autocracies'

What is the state of democracy in developing and transition countries in 2024? Terrible, according to the BTI Transformation Index: only 63 out of 137 countries surveyed are still democracies. Assistant Professor Seda Gürkan examined the waning democracy in Türkiye for the index.

For 20 years, Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index (BTI) has measured whether and how developing and transition countries are developing into democratic market economies. Never before have there been so many countries where opportunities for citizens to participate politically have deteriorated. For instance, elections have become less free and fair in 25 countries, the right to assemble has been curtailed in 32 countries and freedom of expression has been restricted in 39 countries. This gradual democratic decline can pave the way for authoritarian regimes, a trend illustrated by countries such as Bangladesh, Mozambique and Türkiye.

'Türkiye has turned into a moderate autocracy.’

The democratic decline of Türkiye

Assistant professor Seda Gürkan has been following developments in Türkiye for years and wrote the research report on Türkiye for the BTI Transformation Index. Türkiye’s observed democratic decline does not surprise her: 'Türkiye has always been an "illiberal democracy", a country that hides undemocratic practices behind formal democratic institutions and procedures. But after Turkish President Erdogan replaced the parliamentary system with a highly centralised presidential system following the 2017 referendum, all democratic principles have been undermined. Over the last decade, Türkiye has therefore turned into a moderate autocracy.’

Türkiye’s democratic decline, according to Gürkan, is a textbook example of how countries become autocracies. Gürkan: ‘The Turkish case illustrates both the way autocrats operate and the process of autocratization. It demonstrates that once the process of autocratization starts, it is very difficult to reverse the process, and that this is a step-by-step process. Democratically elected leaders first attack the media freedom, civil society and judiciary’s independence, then they seek to change the constitution to consolidate their power. During this process, autocrats use populist strategies and polarizing discourse.’

'Strengthening and protecting civic forces and institutions is pivotal for democracy.'

The importance of civil society and free elections

Yet there is reason for hope, in Türkiye where Erdogan's party has just suffered a historic defeat in local elections but also in other developing and transition countries struggling with democratic decline. The BTI shows that civil society working with elective politicians and constitutional courts can ensure that elections in a country remain fair and with integrity. Strengthening and protecting these civic forces and institutions is therefore an important strategy to strengthen a democracy.

Since 2006, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) has analyzed and evaluated on a biennial basis the quality of democracy, economic performance and governance worldwide. The assessment is based on detailed country reports written by nearly 300 experts from leading universities and think tanks across more than 120 countries. The BTI is the only international comparative index that measures the quality of governance using self-collected data and offers a comprehensive analysis of political management in transformation processes.

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