It would be quite superficial to claim that the AK Party government, which was "democratic" in its first term, turned "authoritarian" later on. After all, the party was not entirely democratic in its early years either. Nor is it completely authoritarian now. In both terms, the party passed a number of laws and engaged in various practices that contradicted one another. Roughly speaking, the government has traditionally been more democratic in areas where it enjoyed a sense of control. In turn, they displayed authoritarian tendencies if and when they sensed that the situation was getting out of hand.
Nowadays, too, does the government continue to simultaneously take steps hinting at its democratic and authoritarian tendencies. There are, for instance, two bills on the government's legislative agenda right now that point to entirely different directions: With regard to the Kurdish question, the government has finally established a binding legal framework for the peace process and thereby equipped the country with the legal basis to take revolutionary steps toward democratic reform. The bill empowers the government to engage any political and social actors at home and abroad in order to make progress toward - and deliver a meaningful solution as well as develop projects and open these initiatives to political debate. The legislation will make it possible for the PKK to participate in peaceful politics and for the militants to enjoy their rights as citizens. In this context, it would not be surprising for the release of imprisoned militants and a limited amnesty to come up. Moreover, the legislation promises to finally introduce legal safeguards for NGOs working on the matter as well as bureaucrats and politicians engaging in direct negotiations. After all, Turkish law remains capable of jailing everyone working on the Kurdish question. Past amendments to the country's laws proved largely ineffective since the courts could refer to other provisions to reach the same verdicts. As such, cleansing the legal system from discrimination requires a complete renewal of the country's constitution.
The government thus made a bold move since it is easy to claim that the legislation violates the Constitution. In the past, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have repeatedly applied to the Constitutional Court which have struck down similar laws in the past. The AK Party officials, however, outwitted the opposition by introducing the bill right before the presidential election to prevent opposition lawmakers from taking another step to discriminate against Kurdish voters. The move was so effective that CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had to voice support for the bill, albeit with some reservations.
The government's timing as well as the legislation's contents and its significance as a statement of the ruling AK Party's willingness to tackle the issue, attest to the party's commitment to democratic principles with regard to the Kurdish question and questions of citizenship. The same party, however, recently introduced a bill on college administrations which had hardly anything to do with democracy. The bill stipulated that the controversial Board of Higher Education (YÖK) would appoint the trustees of private universities – which would presumably have a negative influence on the autonomy of universities and inevitably extend into the academic affairs of these institutions. Luckily, the ruling party agreed to take out the above-mentioned sections but the question remains why the government would even consider such a move. After all, the ruling party had not expressed an interest in taking more authoritarian steps regarding universities. If anything, many breathed a sigh of relief under the current president of the Board.
The bill obviously was related to the ruling party's ongoing dispute with the Gülen Movement, which controls almost twenty private colleges that emphasize the student body's affinity with the movement and their ideological training as much as academic scholarship. The institutions thus help train an educated "army" to serve in a political dispute. Or such is the government's take on their activities anyway. The reality, to be fair, is not entirely different, but it is absolutely unacceptable for the government to jeopardize the institutions of all universities based on this assessment. It would seem that describing the AK Party as either democratic or authoritarian will remain, at least for some time, quite challenging.