“As the Arab Spring settles into a long season of attrition, the Turkish example of a Muslim-majority nation engaged in a process of self-generating reform has acquired new potency,” notes a leading observer.
The ruling AKP government is “grasping for control of almost every social sphere from sport to science,” one report suggests, and the Turkish model’s democratic credentials are being questioned by observers who fear that premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism is due to the diminishing pull of the European Union’s gravity model of democratization.
“Turkey as a vibrant democracy and dynamic economy under the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democrats, may in the course of this decade become a casualty of the European Union’s chronic introversion,” writes Middle East analyst David Gardner:
The EU has lost its transformative power in Turkey. Just as the country’s Arab neighbours and western allies have woken up to the geostrategic value of Turkey’s ability to straddle east and west, the EU has surrendered its own ability to drive forward a liberal agenda in Turkey through the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party.
The prospect of EU membership was the engine of reform during the first term of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, enabling him to neutralise the army, long the final arbiter of Turkish politics. Democratic renewal started going into reverse as soon as that engine stopped running. There are more than 100 journalists – apart from 50 generals – in Turkish jails. Mr Erdogan is increasingly intolerant of criticism and disdainful of consensus. His AKP government is grasping for control of almost every social sphere from sport to science.
“Increasingly authoritarian and rarely challenged by his circle of sycophants, Mr Erdogan is used to getting his own way,” The Economist observes, suggesting that the AKP leader is playing a dangerous game by making religious sectarian mischief from the Syrian crisis:
Since AK won a third consecutive term last summer, Mr Erdogan has been pandering to his pious base. He recently rammed through controversial legislation allowing middle-school students to enroll in imam hatip schools, where Muslim clerics are trained, and to study the Koran in state schools. These days, when Mr Erdogan attacks Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP leader, he draws attention to his membership of the minority Alevi faith.
He has even suggested that Mr Kilicdaroglu opposes intervention in Syria out of a sense of kinship with Mr Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, often seen as a close cousin to Turkey’s 15m-20m Alevis. The Alevis practise a liberal form of Shia Islam and have long faced discrimination.
The conflict in Syria does pose a genuine risk of provoking sectarian tensions in Turkey, “which could, in turn, complicate any international intervention against Assad’s regime,” writes Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
The major sticking point is the Alevis, a syncretic and highly secularized Muslim offshoot based in Turkey that has often defined itself as a minority group persecuted by the country’s Sunni majority. Should the conflict in Syria turn Sunni on Alawite, Turkish Alevis may find themselves empathizing with the minority Alawites in Syria and, by extension, with the Assad regime. More than that: They could actively oppose any intervention organized by their own government.
“Unlike in Iran, where Shiism has reinforced a theocratic orthodoxy, Alevis have been part of a culture of dissent in Turkey,” notes Istanbul-based analyst Andrew Finkel. “Alevis are sometimes regarded as the front line in the defense of Turkish secularism inasmuch as they are treated with condescension or at best overlooked by the conservative mainstream.”
Nevertheless, the AKP’s success “has less to do with Islam than with voters’ disillusionment with other political parties,” says Finkel, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:
Instead, the AKP has defined more openness about religion in public life as part of a larger struggle to make Turkey more fully democratic. At the same time, the party appears to be winking at its supporters and their conservative and religious inclinations. The body language of officials says, “Trust us, we’re on your side” (a recent, hastily conceived education reform, for example, was designed to give a lease of life to Islamic parochial-style schools). This continues to prompt suspicion that the party has a hidden Islamic agenda. The party, however, has been in power for nearly a decade and has had ample chance to show its hand.
“Turkey is interesting precisely because it is a place to study the transition of a minor country into a great power,” writes Stratfor analyst George Friedman:
Great powers are less interesting because their behavior is generally predictable. But managing a transition to power is enormously more difficult than exercising power. Transitional power is keeping your balance when the world around you is in chaos, and the ground beneath you keeps slipping away.
The stresses this places on a society and a government are enormous. It brings out every weakness and tests every strength. And for Turkey, it will be a while before the transition will lead to a stable platform of power.
The current attacks on freedom of expression are especially disturbing given that Turkey’s democratic development was in large part predicated on the emergence of an independent sphere in civil society.
“Successive governments of Turkey wisely did not attempt to introduce full democracy all at once, but instead went through successive phases of limited democracy, laying the foundation for further development, and, at the same time, encouraging the rise of civil society,” the eminent historian Bernard Lewis observed.
This process may be seen in many different aspects of life in the country, as, for example, in the newspaper press, which is certainly free, and which one hopes in the course of time will also become responsible, and in trade unions, about which one might make the same observation. Of interest in this connection is the decision made by the then prime minister of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel, to restore to the trade unions assets that had previously been placed under a sequestration order. This was not because he regarded the trade unions as political supporters of his–indeed, they were quite the reverse–but because of the realization that the existence of such powerful and entrenched interests is a safeguard for democratic institutions, which other interests might otherwise seek to curtail, suspend, or destroy.
While the democratizing effect of the EU’s accession process may have diminished, the country’s economic integration with the EU remains an impediment to Turkish Putinism, says the FT’s Gardner:
There are 14,000 EU companies in Turkey, and many of them transfer technology. If the boundlessly ambitious Mr Erdogan wants, say, an aerospace industry, he needs Europe. Turkey, moreover, has no oil. As an open economy it has to earn its living in the marketplace, and the EU is still by far its biggest market.
“This is not, thank God, a rentier economy,” says the academic. “We cannot behave like Putin’s Russia. The fact we have to make a living sets a floor against [the extent of] authoritarianism, but how do you break through the ceiling above to full democracy?” His answer is re-engagement with – and by – the EU.
“Having conquered the bastions of the old establishment, the AKP now faces temptations of its own,” Finkel concludes:
Like Frodo Baggins, it knows it has to throw the ring of power back into the fire. But, for the moment, it feels comfortable keeping the ring on its own finger. Whether Turkey develops institutions that are worthy of its new status will decide the country’s future.