How the Competitive Authoritarian Rules Become “Acceptable”: Turkey and Hungary

Competitive authoritarianism is a hybrid form of regime which combines “a democratic access to power” with the “authoritarian exercise of power.”[1] In this sense, the main feature of electoral/competitive authoritarianism is its relation to democratic institutions that are viewed as the principal means of exercising political authority.[2] Democratic institutions can be used to contest for power, but these regimes lack democracy in the sense that the playing field is heavily skewed in favor of the incumbents. In other words, there is competition without fair practices.[3] Moreover, civil liberties and rights are only nominally secured: although, independent media, civic and opposition groups/parties exist, they can be restricted. Opposition politicians, independent judges, journalists, human rights activists, protestors, government critics are subject to persecution, arrest, and in some cases, violent attacks including heavy tax punishments to oppress “others.” In populist perspective, these “others” are the scapegoats that are accused of instabilities of the regime. Therefore, significant actors of competitive authoritarianism have the potential to increase their support in instrumentalizing blameable aspects of others.

The world politics has been surrounded with more excited and arousing political actors emerging from new dynamics. As we know, many regimes had to fail in their endeavours in democratization because of the leaders and the dominant political figures that sought to entrench their rule. Unless they accept leaving their offices, their authoritarian rule becomes stricter with their repeated victories and populist rhetoric. All the while, they are emphasizing that they represent “the national will,” which stems from having the majority of votes from the electorate against “evil sides.”  While these political actors are gaining more support in their countries, we see their tenacious authoritarian practices coupled with “the dark side of populism.” High level of electoral support based on “national will” provides a self-confidence and justification in order to disclose authoritarian preferences. Many political leaders began to adopt populist implementations and discourse that may be seen favourable regarding the democratic promises. On the other hand, their elected positions have enhanced capabilities to behave as competitive authoritarians. Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary are emblematic of the process of populist figure construction.

In competitive authoritarianism, the leaders have a dominant party as their instrument to ensure victories and bind allies to the ruling coalition. Moreover, they may bring more liberal policies to the agenda as a commitment to be followed after the elections; but it does not necessarily mean that they will follow their promises during their terms. After the elections, even the taken-for-granted freedom of expression can be deplorably undermined. In other words, emergence of democracy is not a solution in order to prevent undemocratic tendencies in some countries, which can nevertheless appear through seemingly legal and legitimate domestic decisions, policies, and controls. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former mayor of İstanbul, served as the Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, and now he is the President of Turkey. In addition, Viktor Orban has served as the Prime Minister of Hungary between  1998 and 2002; he was elected in 2010 for a second time under FIDESZ  (The Hungarian Civic Party) which is a nationalist/conservative political party. Still, Orban holds the power in Hungarian politics after 2014 elections.

When Hungary was in full financial crisis, Orban could acquire a positive electoral result for his second term. He emphasized the plans to improve the economy which included the introduction of a flat-rate 16 percent income tax. Orban has gained appreciation as a savior that always works with citizens when they feel danger or threat. Financial obstruction and existence of “strangers” provoke concern in natives regarding their living standards, howver, because of Orban’s staunch stance, people feel secure about their relative positions in the society and in the economy. Furthermore, when Germany opened the borders for Syrian refugees due to the conflict in their homeland, Orban emerged as a “gatekeeper” by portraying himself as the “unique” and “heroic” leader against unregistered immigrants. This “heroic” decision included the building of a razor wire and putting water cannons on the border. In universal morality, Orban’s “gatekeeper” position would be perceived as “evil;” but rising fear and sense of threat within societies that kindled enmity against different groups and the populist discourses of politicians created an opportunity for Orban to play strategically. Being a “gatekeeper” was preferred in the protective and nationalistic sense, highlighting the “us versus them” division and the huge gap between natives and the excluded groups. “Defending the borders is a national responsibility,” stated Orban in a conference that led to a covering for all authoritarian practices while creating a “good guy” look. Do people buy these expressions? Probably no, but people expect to be secured and immigration proves to be a huge block in cultural, economical and social integration of distinct groups in a country. Also, Orban has been successful in illustrating his leadership style as a brave man who is protective of his country against international institutions such as the IMF and the European Commission.

The first good guy’s rule demonstrates some contradictions between democracy and his protective leadership in the country. The Media Council, which was established in 2010 and which aimed to regulate the media content, grants high fines to journalists for not complying with their rather unclear and irrational requirements.[4] In addition, high fines for claims of violation of media laws, which reach toward 700.000 Euros, have affected media outlets, journalists, reporters, and editors in a negative light. The United States Department of State asserted that the Media Council “fined 66 media outlets a total of 80 million Hungarian forint that makes 360.000 dollars.[5] Moreover, since 2011, the Orban government tries to curb the powers of the constitutional court through changing the process of nominating judges, increasing the number of judges, narrowing its power to the reconsideration of laws regarding the budget, limiting the initiative of NGOs or others to ensure constitutional rights if they are affected from a violation.[6] In other words, we can see that opposition actors and media have confined within an authoritarian wall. Despite the appearance of competitive authoritarians as “saviors,” we see that “good guys” are prone to authoritarian practices when they are faced with “dangers” against their regimes.

The other good guy is not different. Since 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ensures persistent electoral success that probably links to the charismatic appearance of Erdogan. Different sobriquets have been used for Erdogan, such as: “the Chief” or “the Captain” that represent his grandiose from supporters’ perspective. He has been successful in emphasizing solidarity with the oppressed, excluded, and victimized people by focusing on common grievances. In 2016, we have a charismatic leader who has the potential to represent the people and who shares various commonalities. After all the claims on his corruption and violent and unfair policies, even after the attempted coup of July 2016, he was able to continue his rule. The previous elites have been accused in terms of their role in failures and unskillfulness, which intensified the common anger and also the fear within the society. Therefore, internal demonized “other” has been labeled as the traitor of the popular will. Erdogans’s main argument is that his party is the only party that was able to suspend the state of emergencies which had been applied for many years in different provinces in Turkey. The last attempted coup d’état aroused the long-forgotten fear and concern, which were perceived as the remnants of another era, among people as they witnessed jets and helicopters and came across tanks in the streets. However, Erdogan highlighted the responsibility of the government in calling “people” to fight against “evil mindset.” We see another “responsibility for the country” that  is demonstrated as a “need” with which the citizens have to comply.

Competitive authoritarianism includes violations of human rights, restriction on media and unequal conditions for the opposition. During the heaviest and the most violent moments, people lost their chance to get information because of the broadcast bans in Turkey. The AKP government ignores the opposing journalists, not responding to their questions or not even hearing them. The government maintains harassment, censorship, firing and forcing the resignation of lots of reporters in connection with critical expressions against the AKP.

As we remember, Erdogan has tried to strenghten his power by calling Gezi protestors as “chapulcus,” he was obviously trying to construct a moral understanding by creating an “us and them” divide. The oppression against “chapulcus” highly affected Turkey’s situation as Erdogan was insisting to follow his own decisions in order not to lose his power against protestors. Erdogan and his supporters had spent incredible effort in order to be seen as “superior” and “powerful” whose notions, values, and expressions should be more acceptable. The protection of the Turkish regime is always a priority, nearly always at the expense of basic individual liberties. Gezi Park Protests in June 2013 can be seen as the largest urban social movement coupled with the extreme levels of police brutality. The participants were against the demolition of trees for the construction of a historical military barracks (Topçu Kışlası). Thus, demonstrators gathered in the park with their tents and stayed there to indicate their environmentalist and peaceful reaction. However, the response of the government was brutal by a massive police attack, using tear gas and water cannons. Widespread police violence triggered people’s reaction and the little demonstration was transformed into “Gezi Resistance” expressing “occupy Gezi” slogans. It should be noted that the Gezi protests were related with the increasing authoritarian tendencies of Erdoğan and interference with peoples’ life styles. Özbudun argues that “Gezi Park was the last straw that broke the camel’s back”.[7] During the Gezi protests, 8 people died, 11 were blinded by gas canisters, 8163 people were treated with injuries and traumas. However, struggling for democracy did not bring it. Conversely, the ruling party began to challenge democracy. Before the coup attempt’s consequences such as enlargement of custodies to thirty days, closure of associations, universities, unions, foundations, dormitories, schools, and the discharges of public servants and academics by decree law; the conditions were not better than this. The dark side of politics and authority has surfaced with the declaration of state emergency; the government “temporarily” suspended the implementation of its obligations emanating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in line with the declaration of a state of emergency.

In short, “good guys” have projected themselves as a savior; however, their repressive policies prevent a free living space if people do not belong to their side. Partiality generates different camps, but the majority stay calm due to a need for stability because of the insecurities and uncertainties they have. The conjuncture allows for a wide acceptance for right-wing implementations creating authoritarian embracement that will dampen our living spaces if we do not take an active part and ignite “hope.”

Tuğçe Erçetin

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[1] Sebastian L. Mazzuca, “Access to Power Versus: Exercise of Power: Reconceptualising the Quality of Democracy in Latin America,” Studies in Comparative International Development, (2010), p.45.

[2] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes,” Journal of Democracy, Vol.13, No.2, (April 2002), p.51-65.

[3] Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p.5-9.

[4] “Wrong Direction on Rights: Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws,” Human Rights Watch, (May 2013), p.25-26

[5] US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices –

Hungary, p. 20,

[6] “Wrong Direction on Rights: Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws,”.

[7] Ergun Özbudun, “AKP at the Crossroads : Erdoğan’s Majoritarian Drift,” South European Society and Politics, Vol.19, No.2, (2014), p.158.


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