Democracy in Turkey: Cautionary Tales from the Neighbourhood

Popularized in the media under the misnomer of the ‘Arab spring’, the events that have shaken the Middle East throughout the past year provided the much-taunted Turkish foreign policy of ‘zero problems’ with a thorough reality check. Next to exposing the necessity of a different foreign policy paradigm, the developments in the region in 2011 also serve as cautionary tales about democracy for the political establishment in Ankara.

The spectacular toppling of Ben Ali (Jan. 14th, 2011) and Mubarak (Feb. 11th, 2011) served as an unexpected reminder of the consequences of the lack of legitimacy, coupled with socioeconomic injustice and political stagnation. It was to be the inspiring, yet somewhat misleading, prelude to a succession of popular uprisings stretching from the Maghreb to the Gulf, successively engulfing Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria in violence as embattled regimes attempted to reassert control, brutally crushing protesters.

On March 17th 2011 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 (March 17th, 2011) authorizing member states to “take all necessary measures … to protect civilians” in Libya. Only a few days before, Western-backed Saudi Arabia had sent its troops into Manama, crushing the protests. The anecdote illustrates the reality of international politics in all its duplicity. Incidentally, the looseness with which NATO-countries interpreted Resolution 1973 now serves as an excuse for Russia and China not to pass a single critical resolution against the Assad regime in Syria.

Meanwhile, having called on Mubarak to step down within days, it took several months for Prime Minister Erdoğan and his government to express a similarly firm condemnation against Gaddafi and Al-Assad. Here, the personal relations fostered with dictators took longer to unravel, as Turkey sought to reposition itself, seeking to a central role at the international level.

For Turkey, one of the key lessons of last year is that the Turkish democratic model cannot be a blueprint or an export product for these (hesitantly) democratizing states. Clearly, the Arab peoples will have to develop their own form of governance. Here, the Turkish experience with democracy, as an ongoing process, may inspire its Arab neighbors, showing how democratic principles can function in a predominantly Muslim country. However, the recent experiences of (many) Arab states may equally be a warning to the Turkish government of the pitfalls of the abuse of power and the dangers of losing legitimacy. In this context, the manner in which political dissidents and minorities are treated functions as a solid measure of democracy, whether it be applied in the Middle East or Europe. Viewed from this perspective, there are two concrete issues that will require the full attention of the AKP-government in 2012 to safeguard democracy in Turkey.

Firstly, the Kurdish issue remains the main challenge of contemporary Turkey, both in its violent dimension (i.e. the conflict with the PKK), and with respect to the rights of the Kurds of Turkey. The recent accidental bombing of 35 Kurdish smugglers (Dec. 28th, 2011) along the Turkish-Iraqi border illustrates how the local population remains the inevitable victim of the fight between the PKK and the Turkish army. It is a tragic reminder of the human cost and failure of a militaristic approach. Instead, goodwill gestures by the Turkish state to its Kurdish citizens, for example through a sincere effort to draft an inclusive and rights-based constitution, will yield more results.

The second major issue in Turkey concerns the rule of law. The reality of the matter is that the special courts investigating the Ergenekon, Balyoz and KCK cases have incarcerated thousands of opponents of the current Turkish government, including activists, journalists and military officers. Whether out of political motivations or institutional (judicial) shortcomings, these individuals are being held indefinitely, pending a verdict. Next to the human tragedies, this practice generates a malicious spinoff, actively curtailing freedom of speech, and passively through its deterrent effects and self-censorship.

For a long time the AKP-government could refer to the struggle for power, with the ‘old’ establishment, including the army, prohibiting it from acting freely in the political arena. However, those days are now over. The AKP-government is now in firm control of Turkey’s political institutions and asserted its dominance over the military. In June 2011, as the peoples of neighbouring countries were struggling for their rights and liberties, the AKP’s democratic mandate to govern was extended, with support of half of Turkey’s electorate. This impressive mandate gives the AKP a large measure of power and freedom to govern Turkey and shape policy. However, it also confers an equally large responsibility on this party to uphold the rights of all people in Turkey. This responsibility extends both to the Kurdish issue and the rule of law. Surely, there is a shared responsibility, also for other political players, including the opposition parties, such as the secularist CHP, the nationalist MHP and pro-Kurdish BDP. However, the AKP-leadership, as the most powerful, democratically elected government since the 1950’s should take the lead, proportional to its influence. This way it will safeguard both its own legitimacy and democracy in Turkey.

Anne Poorta

Please cite this article as follows:

Poorta, Anne (March, 2012), “Democracy in Turkey: Cautionary Tales from the Neighbourhood”, Vol. I, Issue 1,  pp.6-7,  Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London: ResearchTurkey (http://researchturkey.org/p=176)

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