Dictatorship in disguise is no laughing matter.* This pernicious form of politics looks like a democracy. Upon closer inspection, interactions between the practices of everyday politics produce something else entirely; the whole is different than the sum of its parts. In the system as a whole, these practices make a caricature of democracy; they take freedoms, and steal young lives, while still contributing to leaders' success.
It is hard to think of a fate worse than that of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, who died from fatal wounds after being shot in the head with a tear gas canister, on his way to buy bread during the Gezi protests. Or a fate worse than that of his family and friends, and those who mourned with them, but were chastised and insulted. It is difficult being witness to this sort of inhumanity and hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that supports the staying power of a dictatorship.
Research is burgeoning about practices that look democratic, but do not achieve democracy. A catchy nomenclature is Scheppele's new term "frankenstate," inspired both by the (un-)constitutional practices of Hungary's Viktor Orban, and by the creativity Mary Shelley, whose undead monster Frankenstein was made of the parts of perfectly unmonsterlike people. Frankenstates are sewn together with pieces of democratic legislation that create an authoritarian monster. And that regime, is, for all intents and purposes, legal.
The widening scholarly literature on this topic was heralded by legal and political comparativists, who analyze how democratic-looking institutions function without reaching for a democratic state. Political scientists like Jennifer Gandhi on legislatures and parties, Ellen Lust-Okar on elections, Tamir Moustafa on courts, Simpser and Ginsburg on constitutions, and Amaney Jamal on civil society organizations, among others, began with nominally-democratic institutions. Scholars are now turning to praxis: how does the dictator in disguise work?
This, of course, happens in regimes across the political spectrum, even in "established democracies" (pregnant chads, anyone?). These practices are on the rise, partly because they are a learned response to international democracy promotion agendas from the European Union, or the National Endowment for Democracy. Stealth authoritarianism is difficult to diagnose, because the legal use of democratic-lookalike features to entrench power is much more immune to criticism or protest.
The ability of autocrats to fall back on internationally-backed requirements for having employed these practices or undertaken "reforms" gives political opposition very few options for redress that do not have the potential to backfire, either enhancing the regime's power and legitimacy, or undermining their own. The incumbent claims democratic intentions; the opposition looks weak, and the legal tools for fighting back are the very same ones that the incumbent applies at its own discretion. The opposition grows persistently weaker, and, as one colleague has very eloquently pointed out (at least in Turkey, if not everywhere) without opposition, there is no democracy.
While the abuse of the incumbents' discretion to apply the law in whichever way it suits them underlies each of these practices, dictators in disguise have a few tools in their repertoire that I apply below to Turkey under the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP). With convenient alliteration, they are: distraction, distortion, and domination.
In a nice "they-did-all-the-work-for-us" sort of way, the AKP's "Silent Revolution" of democratization neatly catalogs their pro-democracy rhetoric while attempting to deflect attention away from their advance as a dominant party. The distraction technique, I would argue, is also the purpose for the implementation of the "participatory" constitutional reform process in Turkey (chronology and commentary here), particularly after the 2010 constitutional referendum, which pretty much accomplished all that was necessary constitutionally to pave the way to a dominant-party regime. However, the participatory reform process allowed the party to create some space for discontent that actually had no real uptake into the deliberative process at the Parliamentary level in the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission (TBMM's Anayasa Uzlaşma Komisiyonu).
Dictators in disguise also use legal means to distort information and limit expression. For example, Erdogan has sued hundreds of individuals in libel lawsuits against dissidents to create a culture of self-censorship, from prominent authors and journalists to artists and students (who regretfully called him "Lightbulb Tayyip").
The latest round of libel suits resulted from leaks into the media during the 17 December 2013 corruption scandal. In this scandal, Erdogan, several ministers, and members of their families were implicated in the corrupt possession of millions of Euros. Journalists were harassed, fired, and intimidated. What was left of free press was decimated. Beyond distortion and distraction, the third weapon of dictators in disguise is domination of the democratic process through adoption of self-dealing policies.
Finally, dictators in disguise subvert the principle of democratic majority representation for domination. Common tactics include "manipulation of electoral laws such as voter identification laws, electoral barriers to entry, and campaign finance laws, to disenfranchise the opposition and raise the costs of unseating the incumbent" (Varol, p.33-34). Under the AKP, changes to districting laws (2972) and voter registration laws (298) from 2003 and onwards have manipulated district lines, voter identification, and media campaign laws. With upcoming Parliamentary elections in 2015, there is more to look forward to, with more electoral changes in the works.
We must take into account the learning that has occurred in these so-called hybrid regimes. In response to international democracy promotion agendas that use "rule-of-law 'checklists'," political elites in democratizing countries can check a box for the components of an independent judiciary, for free and fair elections, and for other institutions and their supporting policies that exist on paper. The use of the policy process to adopt, implement, and reform actually has two purposes: one that uses legal discourse to create just enough democracy to prevent loss of power, and another that uses legal instruments to create just enough authoritarianism to keep consolidating it.
I write about contemporary events and my hope that persistence wins over intractability.