I study how democracies break down through slow and steady erosion. My current research compares the process of democratic erosion in Turkey under Erdogan, and Ecuador under Correa. Counter to mainstream arguments about "power-hungry incumbents" that "have no commitment to democracy," I argue that these recent cases are not mere instances of autocratization but inherently a re-interpretation of 'democracy' by incumbents.
I delineate that these incumbents come to power to repair what they (and their electorate) see as the faulty democracy at hand with an ideal form of democracy they envision. In this process, these leaders include the previously-excluded masses into politics. But in addition, they subvert the idea of "checks and balances" to exclude old excluders in order to ensure their inclusion does not get reversed. To prevent reversal, Erdogan and Correa flush out old elites out of state institutions and place those that share their idea of democracy. While such exclusion appears as mere autocratization, inherently this process shows a redefinition of democracy with exclusionary "checks and balances" in Turkey and Ecuador.
What is more, exclusion turns into repression when these incumbents perceive a threat towards the new democracy they build. Since the past elites are responsible for past exclusions, they are enemies of mass inclusion and, therefore, enemies of democracy. To eliminate such anti-democratic groups, incumbents preemptively crack down. All in all, rather than classic cases of democratic erosion, Ecuador and Turkey demonstrate the battle between alternative approaches to democracy and the role exclusion plays in this process.
Although I am primarily interested in the Middle East, I use cross-regional cases from both Latin America (Ecuador, Venezuela) and Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand).
Selfish Democrats: Voter Attitudes towards Democracy in Turkey
An overwhelming majority of Turks favor democracy over other regimes. Yet, the same electorate repeatedly voted for a political party that seems to erode democracy. Existing theories focus on a possible conscious choice by the electorate that favors economic outcomes while throwing freedoms and democracy in the backburner. However, interviews I have conducted with 180 Turkish voters in 2015 demonstrate that faith in democracy is not only economic. Voters are often conscious of their own freedoms and this influences their voting behavior. However, their sensitivity towards democracy and freedoms disappear when freedoms in question belong to other societal groups. Both voters of the opposition and the ruling party were inclined to ignore the past/present limitations on each other, and they defined democracy in Turkey solely based on the change in freedoms of their own group.
Erosion of Democracy in Thailand, Ecuador, and Turkey: Institutions and Strategic Alliances
When does erosion under democratically-elected politicians succeed or fail? In this paper, I look into three cases of erosion: Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. These three leaders initiated relatively similar policies of state capture that slowly led to democratic erosion with varying levels of success. The literature puts forward that certain institutions, or institutions of accountability, can present challenges to such leaders and prevent their state capture. While this is partly true, leaders can use mass popularity and political alliances as a response to these institutions in order to reshape the political arena. Alliances between political groups and movements become crucial in overcoming institutions that restrain. Majoritarian systems with access to binding referendums empower popular leaders and contribute to erosion. Such systems produce legislative majorities that strengthen the incumbent, and allow mass restructuring of the state through referendums. Yet, even in absence of such institutions, incumbents still maneuver and form political alliances that contribute towards erosion. Lack of alliances, on the other hand, can empower an anti-incumbent front. When this front unites against the incumbent, it can provoke a military coup and oust the incumbent.
Reading Elite Attitudes toward Democracy Historically: Correa and Erdogan
Consolidation as a Continuous Variable
Electoral Authoritarianism and Identity-Exclusion in Russia and Turkey (with Jessica Mahlbacher)
Identity, Representation, and Support for Democracy in Turkey
Modernization, Democracy and Asian values: The Case of Singapore