How Democratic Is Turkey?

Not as democratic as Washington thinks it is.


It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park — an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square — is driving the unrest.

The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.

The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul’s Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that “excellent model” or “model partner,” is also, as many put it, “more democratic than it was a decade ago.” There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.

Shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002, a debate got under way in the United States and Europe about whether Turkey was “leaving the West.” Much of this was the result of the polite Islamophobia prevalent in the immediate post-9/11 era. It was also not true. From the start, Turkey’s new reformist-minded Islamists did everything they could to dispel the notion that by dint of their election, Turkey was turning its back on its decade of cooperation and integration with the West. Ankara re-affirmed Turkey’s commitment to NATO and crucially undertook wide-ranging political reforms that did away with many of the authoritarian legacies of the past, such as placing the military under civilian control and reforming the judicial system.

The new political, cultural, and economic openness helped Erdogan ride a coalition of pious Muslims, Kurds, cosmopolitan elites, big business, and average Turks to re-election with 47 percent of the popular vote in the summer of 2007, the first time any party had gotten more than 45 percent of the vote since 1983. This was unprecedented in Turkish politics. Yet Erdogan was not done. In 2011, the prime minister reinforced his political mystique with 49.95 percent of the popular vote.

Turkey, it seemed, had arrived. By 2012, Erdogan presided over the 17th-largest economy in the world, had become an influential actor in the Middle East, and the Turkish prime minister was a trusted interlocutor with none other than the president of the United States.  Yet even as the AKP was winning elections at home and plaudits from abroad, an authoritarian turn was underway. In 2007, the party seized upon a plot in which elements of Turkey’s so-called deep state — military officers, intelligence operatives, and criminal underworld — sought to overthrow the government and used it to silence its critics. Since then, Turkey has become a country where journalists are routinely jailed on questionable grounds, the machinery of the state has been used against private business concerns because their owners disagree with the government, and freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure.

Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations for these deficiencies, from “it’s the law” and the “context is missing,” to “it’s purely fabricated.” These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP’s simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Yet somehow, Washington’s foreign-policy elite saw Turkey as a “model” or the appropriate partner to forge a soft-landing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.

In the midst of the endless volley of teargas against protesters in Taksim, one of the prime ministers advisors plaintively asked, “How can a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote be authoritarian?” This perfectly captures the more recent dynamic of Erdogan’s Turkey, where the government uses its growing margins of victory in elections to justify all sorts of actions that run up against large reservoirs of opposition.

The most obvious way this pattern has manifested itself is in the debate over the new Turkish constitution, which Erdogan had been determined to use as a vehicle to institute a presidential system in which he would serve as Turkey’s first newly empowered president. When the opposition parties voiced their fervent opposition to such a plan and the constitutional commission deadlocked in late 2012 — missing its deadline of the end of the year to submit its recommendations — Erdogan threatened to disregard the commission entirely and ram through his own constitutional plan. He floated the idea again in early April 2013, but softened his position as it became clear that there is significant opposition to his presidential vision even within the AKP.

Turkey’s new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP’s majoritarian turn. Despite vociferous opposition, the law was written, debated, and passed in just two weeks, and Erdogan’s response to the law’s critics has been to assert that they should just drink at home.

Similarly, the AKP is undertaking massive construction projects in Istanbul, including the renovation of Taksim Square, the building of a new airport, and the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, all of which are controversial and opposed by widespread coalitions of diverse interests. Yet in every case, the government has run roughshod over the projects’ opponents in a dismissive manner, asserting that anyone who does not like what is taking place should remember how popular the AKP has been when elections roll around. In a typical attempt to use the AKP’s vote margins as a cudgel, Erdogan on Saturday warned the CHP — Turkey’s main opposition party — “if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million.”

Turkey’s anti-democratic turn has all taken place without much notice from the outside world. It was not just coercive measures — arrests, investigations, tax fines, and imprisonments — that Washington willfully overlooked in favor of a sunnier narrative about the “Turkish miracle.” Perhaps it is not as clear, but over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk.

All this is why the current tumult over the “redevelopment” of Gezi Park runs deeper than merely the bulldozing of green space. It represents outrage over crony capitalism, arrogance of power, and the opacity of the AKP machine. In the media, Erdogan has encouraged changes in ownership or intimidated others to ensure positive coverage — or, in the case of the Gezi Park protests, no coverage. In what was a surreal scene – but sadly one that was altogether unsurprising to close observers of Turkey — CNN International on Friday was covering the protests live in Taksim while at the very same time CNN Turk, the network’s Turkish-language affiliate, was running a cooking show as the historic heart of Turkey’s largest city was in enormous upheaval. This dynamic of Turkish press censorship and intimidation, in which media outlets critical of the government are targeted for reprisal, has resulted in the dismissal of talented journalists like Amberin Zaman, Hasan Cemal, and Ahmet Altan for criticizing the government or defying its dictates. This type of implicit government intimidation is unreasonable in an allegedly democratic or democratizing society.

Under these circumstances, Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union’s requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey’s insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey’s lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.

The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP’s heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.

It is not just the AKP that needs to reassess its policies, but Washington as well. Perhaps the Obama administration does not care about Turkey’s reversion or has  deemed it better to counsel, cajole, and encourage Erdogan privately and through quiet acts of defiance like extending the term of Amb. Francis Ricciardone, who has gotten under the government’s skin over press freedom, for another year.

This long game has not worked. It is time the White House realized that Erdogan’s rhetoric on democracy has far outstripped reality. Turkey has less to offer the Arab world than the Obama administration appears to think, and rather than just urging Arab governments to pay attention to the demands of their citizens, Washington might want to urge its friends in Ankara to do the same as well. The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government’s actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum and is on Twitter at @mkoplow.

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