Evaluations of Turkish Democracy

If you’re not interested in Turkish politics, you can stop reading now.  Hey, what’s up Tyler, Liz, Noah, Matt, Owen, Selin, and no one else?  How you guys doing?  There have been two recent pieces evaluating Turkey’s democracy: Bush I era ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz’s “Erdogan’s Juggling Act” in the National Interest and Michael Koplow & Steven Cook’s “The Turkish Paradox” in Foreign Affairs (Foreign Affairs may require free registration to read the whole article).  With those, I’d like to add a “What Turkey’s Political-Military Trials Reveal about the Country’s Democracy“, a blog post from the spring by Harvard economist Dani Rodrik.

The worst of the bunch is without a doubt Abramowitz’s article.  While mostly factually accurate, it’s a very selective reading.  He’s a former ambassador, and what’s the saying, the generals are always preparing to fight the last war?  He focuses largely on the classic problems for the secularist state (Kurds and Islam), without adding too much new.  He claims, “Gulen-community followers keep attacking [Erdoğan] for not thoroughly demolishing the military’s political clout,” and while I don’t read Zaman or Taraf every day, I do not think they very frequently attack Erdoğan for not doing enough to weaken the military’s old guard, though they may be upset recently over the changes in the special courts concerning Ergenekon, et al., which were widely thought to be Nurcu (Gülenist) dominated.  While there are some issues the religious right would like in Turkey, I don’t think they’re pushing Erdoğan that hard.  Abramowitz also focuses on the Kurdish issue.  The  “Kurdish Opening” has been an abject failure, the Kurdish situation, on a day to day basis, is certainly better now than it was when AK was elected.  Obviously, how Erdoğan handled Uludere is idiotic and AK has continued the habit of jailing any BDP politician that they can (and from what I’ve read, they’ve really upped the arrests on youth political activists as well).  Nevertheless,  I was shocked when I was in Tatvan a few years back and the municipality had bilingual Turkish and Kurdish signs.  I literally went around asking people if that was legal.  And when I was in Diyarbakir I saw signs for Kürtçe dershaneleri everywhere, and there is that Kurdish TV channel.  It’s hard to imagine a CHP (or MHP) government encouraging that kind of progress.  So, in two of his main points, he’s not quite seeing the whole picture of what’s happening.  Sure, Erdoğan should be making more progress on the Kurdish issue, but I think his analysis of the religious situation is, in certain ways, barking up the wrong tree.

The best of the bunch is probably Koplow & Cook’s piece.  Koplow has a pretty great blog called Ottomans and Zionists covering Israeli and Turkish politics (“the two most interesting countries in the Middle East”).  Though I’ve never seen him quote a Turkish language source, he’s both well informed and insightful.  This article is no different.  He focuses on a simplified version of Dahl‘s definition of democracy: the rights of citizens to participate in civic life and contest elections.  The rights of most citizens (including the Kurds and the religious) to participate in civic life has increased.  As I said above, Turkey hasn’t done enough to allow for full Kurdish participation in civic life, but the AKP has done so much more than either of the two other mainstream parties ever would (the Kurdish language TV and radio are great examples).  As for the religious, in my research in Kayseri, this feeling of being “freed” under the AKP is pervasive.  It comes up again and again without prompting.  Other than “the tables being taken away in Asmalı”, there haven’t, as far as I can think, been any new onerous restrictions on secular participation in civic life, which is what everyone feared since 2003, 2007, 2009, etc.  What the AKP has done badly is: heavily curtail journalism.  Turkey’s always had serious self-censorship, but, starting with Doğan tax thing (which I had forgotten about) it just has gotten increasingly ridiculous.  And the endless Ergenekon/Balyoz/Bilmemle investigations… the problem with AKP is they can’t seem to understand when they’ve won, they’ve put the army squarely under civilian control, there’s really no need to keep going around arresting ex-officers.  The constant shirking of blame and responsibility for negative government actions is also hugely problematic.  The election year foibles, such as giving everyone in a village a washing machine, also seem to be not the most encouraging to true democracy.   And by going into more details of the constitutional process, Koplow &  Cook show they understand it much better than Abramowitz does.  Their conclusion, though, is a little off:

Turkey will not likely revert to full-blown authoritarianism. But an autocratic slide will undermine its international standing, built largely on its democratization. Should Turkey’s liberalization falter, the country may quickly lose that influence — suggesting that there are consequences to having it both ways.

More on that in a second.  The point is, Koplow & Cook nail the complexity of Turkish politics–democracy is on the march in some areas while simultaneously being viciously repressed in others.  I actually just included Dani Rodrik’s post because it’s a wonderful parade of horribles of some of the ways democracy is being cruelly repressed. I don’t have much to add to that other than he grew up in Istanbul and his wife’s father is one of the generals.  I have no doubt that all the immaculate detail he gives is entirely accurate.

The point of all of this though is that the focus is coming to the right place now in Western assessment of the AKP; Turkish liberals are starting to come around, too.  The problem is not that Turkey will become another Iran.  It is and will stay more secular than Egypt and the rest of the region.  People I talk to in the course of my research really do feel like the AKP freed them from secular oppression.  Really, people keep bringing that up with me in interviews when I ask about “mahalle baskısı” (neighborhood pressure).  Though the party has little measurable to end “devlet baskısı” (state oppression) of the religious besides letting headscarfed women into universities (which many of the liberals supported), the AKP’s mere symbolic presence in power has meant a lot out here in Anatolia.  At the same time, most people are also very proud that in Turkey one can choose how to live–the number of covered women with uncovered daughters really surprised me, as did how both side discuss it as a matter of personal choice and freedom. The real spectre haunting Turkey is not the Ayatollah’s Iran; it’s Putin’s Russia.  The thing is, liberalization in Russia has faltered, stumbled, and then dropped dead, but Europe stills needs Russia’s gas, so no one cares.  Its international standing is stronger today than it has been at almost any other time since the end of the Cold War.  If liberalism further falters in Turkey, America will still need Turkey as a symbolic ally.  As long as Erdoğan and AKP keeps the consent of a clear plurality of Turkish voters people (and if this economy keeps going like it has been, he will), I somewhat doubt that Turkey’s influence will decline.  That’s where Koplow and Cook are unfortunately wrong.  Koplow and Cook don’t talk about it, but a lot of the liberals here have been so worried about secularism and prayer rooms at the opera houses, they’re missing the real danger, which is to a different sort of democratic fundamentals.

What all these authors have in common is that they are right to identify the real threat that Erdoğan and the AKP present: the threat isn’t to secularism, it’s to democracy.  If we can get through this constitutional thing without a strong presidency for Erdoğan to assume and there’s a transition of power even just within the party, we’ll be sitting pretty (assuming the next in line is a technocrat like Gül or Davutoğlu and not one of the more ideological figures in the cabinet).  But if the constitution gives Erdoğan another decade in power, Turkey’s in real trouble.


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