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Turkey’s Path to Democratization: Barriers, Actors, Outcomes
Mar 1, 2015

A rich cultural melting pot and a bridge between East and West, Turkey’s emerging democracy faces challenges and uncertainty in the years ahead.

Positioned almost in the heart of one of the most politically and socially active regions of the world, Turkey is a lucrative soil for political scientists. Historically, Turkey boasts of being the home of the first known human settlement and some of the largest empires and civilizations in history, including the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Situated at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Turkey has always featured a rich cultural mosaic of ancient faith traditions and diverse national heritage. Its transition from an absolute monarchy to constitutionalism and then to republicanism has not been an easy one, and democracy, in the true sense of the word, has yet to appear in the horizon. However, Turkey is a significant testing ground for the compatibility of Islam with democracy; its success or failure in bringing them together draws worldwide interest. I hope that Turkey’s Path to Democratization is a useful reference for those interested in Turkey and the wider region.

With the recent advance of globalization, commentators, researchers, and journalists of all stripes and many nations have concerned themselves with Turkey’s hard road to democratization. Is it still underway? What are the hindrances or blockages? What are the motivations and roles of civil society groups in this evolving democracy? What is the current stance and role of the military, given Turkey’s recent history of recurring military coups d’états? Will Turkey ever succeed in gaining admittance to the European Union?

In addition, as a result of the frequency and extent of military action in the Middle East, much has been made in the media of Turkey’s real or imagined role as an intermediary in the shifting world order. Turkey’s role in NATO clearly interacts with Turkey’s constantly changing relations with its neighbors in the region. Is Turkey moving West – or is it turning to the East? What are the implications for Turkey and the region of the relatively new “state” of Northern Iraq—now commonly known as “Kurdistan”?

Paradoxically, many foreign “experts,” while insisting that Turkey is an “outsider” to the “European tradition,” insist on measuring events in Turkey according to a variety of yardsticks crafted by that tradition. In fact, as with every country, there are vital areas in which Turkey’s history and recent conditions are specific and cannot be evaluated according to measures commonly used when discussing most Western European societies. There are yet other respects, still largely unexamined by foreign commentators, in which Turkey’s history is very similar to other European societies. In the twentieth century, for example, Turkey suffered under a military regime similar to those endured by Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece, and much of South America – and for similar reasons. This similarity is rarely acknowledged outside of Turkey, let alone examined. Thus, Turkey is viewed through a number of distorting “orientalizing” lenses, and all its troubles attributed to “Islamism.”

However, to understand contemporary social phenomena in Turkey, one needs to understand the changing circumstances in which the attempt was made to establish, and then hold on to, a nationalist, laicist, and Westernized republic after the end of the Ottoman Empire. With respect to the emergence, dynamics, and outcomes of social and political movements in Turkey, the political system, its institutions and processes, and the larger social and cultural ethos all constitute highly significant material factors. Thus, it is necessary to trace the seeds of collective action in Turkey to the early Republican years, when a new state and society formed. To this end the book starts with a brief history of the early years of the Republic of Turkey.

A few months before this book went to press and just before local and metropolitan elections in March 2014, the police in Turkey laid charges against more than 40 people for bribery, rigging state tenders, violating the laws on construction in protected sites, forgery, and smuggling gold to Iran (breaching international sanctions). This was not the first time rumors of corruption had touched the government, but this time the investigation involved government ministers and their families. The then-Prime Minister Erdogan immediately swung into action to stifle the investigation.

Without any disciplinary procedure, several thousand members of the police and bureaucracy, and over a hundred judges and prosecutors, were dismissed. Many more civil servants were reassigned to other regions or cases. Simultaneously, as in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the Prime Minister directed a highly pugilistic rhetoric at a selection of scapegoats to deflect public attention toward foreign “foes” (Turkey’s allies and trading partners, such as the US and Israel) or minority groups labeled as the “enemy within” (in this case, the Hizmet movement; on other occasions, it has been the Kurds, the Alevis, etc.).

While a number of public officials dared to brave the Prime Minister’s ire and publicly contradict his claims, evidence of corruption continued to leak on the internet. In response to this defiance, the government issued an order to close down Twitter and YouTube in Turkey.

At the same time, although the Speaker of the House questioned the extent to which the executive was interfering with the judiciary, the ruling party managed to push through Parliament a bill extending the executive’s power over the judiciary, undoing the constitutional reforms of 2010—reforms which had been endorsed by the Venice Commission, the European Union, and, indeed, by the public in a referendum.

In the course of the election campaign, there were mass resignations from the AK Party among local councilors; and 10 Members of Parliament have resigned from the AK Party so far. I was among them.

In spite of this political turbulence, the populace prioritized economic stability and growth over financial probity, and the AK Party won 43% of the vote in the local elections on a turnout of 80%. This was perhaps not so surprising. The opposition parties in Turkey were still demonstrating their lack of capacity to produce viable policy alternatives, even at the level of local services. Thus, the various civil society organizations which expressed their concern were reduced to asking the public to vote against something negative (corruption), rather than for something positive (a raft of alternative policies or principles).

Despite heavy criticisms levied against Erdogan, especially due to his style of ruling and addressing others, his party won the local elections and then later, in August, he was elected as President. Thus, Turkey becomes an interesting field of experiment where the society is split into two polarized groups: those who oppose the government and those who support it at all costs. While the former ones are extremely concerned for democracy and basic human rights, the latter seems to be ready to suspend all these rights for the sake of another term for the government.

These events have thrown up new questions. The “heroes of the periphery” seem to have swallowed whole the political strategies of their former foes. Will the “new elite” be even more protectionist than the old? What will be the outcomes in the next few years?

The aim of this book is to provide some background from an “insider” perspective for journalists, academics, researchers, and students who study Turkey’s internal and external relations and who look to the country as an experiment of democratic evolution. I also hope it will be illuminating and interesting for the general reader.