“Over the past decade, Turkey has simultaneously become more European, more Muslim, more democratic, and more modern,” says a new Council on Foreign Relations–sponsored Independent Task Force. This development confirms that the rise of the religiously oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) party “is not inconsistent with democracy, modernization, or economic liberalism.”
“Yet, for all the positive political change that the AKP oversaw in 2003 and 2004, Turkish leaders have sometimes resorted to authoritarian measures to intimidate and curb opposition to their agenda,” notes the bipartisan group, chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and directed by Steven A. Cook, CFR’s senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies.
Turks have demonstrated that they are capable of undertaking a wide range of political and economic reforms, the group contends in the following extract. But in light of recent concerns about democratic reversals, the Task Force recommends that the United States and Turkey’s other partners in the Community of Democracies offer support and advice toward reenergizing its political reform program, including contributions from leading democracy assistance groups.
More than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, political and military considerations are making way for a new agenda for US-Turkish relations that reflects not just changes in the international system but also Turkey’s remarkable transformation from a military-dominated society to a fledgling democracy and rising power in a greater Middle East experiencing unprecedented upheaval.
To be sure, Turkey’s transition is not yet complete. Journalists and government critics are arrested in troublingly high numbers and progress on concluding a new, more fully democratic constitution has been unnecessarily slow. The government has not gone beyond small, initial steps to better integrate its Kurdish minority. While economic growth has been impressive—on the order of 6 percent per year over much of the past decade—much of the dynamism has been fueled by buoyant consumer spending that is unlikely to be sustainable. Concerns also remain within and outside Turkey about the influence of Islam in the country’s politics.
The Task Force offers recommendations on how the United States can support Turkey’s continued emergence and build a deeper working relationship that acknowledges Ankara’s growing importance. It encourages the United States and other democracies to urge Turkish leaders to follow through with their commitment to writing a new constitution that better protects minority rights and basic freedoms.
Today Turkey is more democratic, prosperous, and politically influential than it was five, ten, and fifteen years ago. Although left out of the exclusive club of countries widely regarded as rising powers—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and, most recently, South Africa (the BRICS)—Turkey very much belongs in the category of economically successful countries that are emerging global powers. If current trends in Turkey persist and the international system continues to undergo a redistribution of power, Turkey will in the coming decade be among the most important actors in the broad region surrounding and beyond it.
Some trends are worrying, however: the prosecution and detention of journalists, the seemingly open-ended and at times questionable pursuit of military officers and other establishment figures for alleged conspiracy against the government, the apparent illiberal impulses of some Turkish leaders, the still-unresolved Kurdish issue, and the lack of progress on a new constitution. How these issues are resolved will have a major impact on the future of Turkey and its democracy. Indeed, for all the positive political change that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) oversaw in 2003 and 2004, Turkish leaders have sometimes resorted to authoritarian measures to intimidate and curb opposition to their agenda.
The AKP’s rise intrigued political activists in the Arab world, who wondered whether any lessons were to be learned from Turkish Islamists’ accumulation of political power in an officially secular political system. For both Arab liberals and mainstream Islamists, the AKP had something important to offer. From the perspective of Arab liberals, if the AKP could be emulated in the Arab world, it would go a long way to resolving a central problem of Arab politics whereby citizens were often forced to choose between the authoritarianism of prevailing regimes and the perceived theocracy of Islamist groups. Indeed, an Arab AKP-type party would give people a way out of this dilemma, providing hope for a more democratic future. For Islamists, the AKP provided a lesson on how Islamists could not only overcome barriers to political participation, but could also come to power and, with broad public support, embark on a wide-ranging program to dramatically remake a once-hostile political arena.
The United States needs to recognize that today it is dealing with a dramatically changed Turkey and, as a result, that the bilateral relationship between Washington and Ankara is undergoing fundamental change.
American officials, members of Congress, and other observers must jettison their stereotypes of Turkey. In particular, the decline in the role of the military in Turkish political life does not mean that Turkey is inexorably headed toward theocracy or movement away from NATO. The rise of the religiously oriented AKP party is not inconsistent with democracy, modernization, or economic liberalism. The United States must not view the sum of U.S.-Turkey relations through the narrow prism of particular issues, whether they be Armenia, Israel, or ties to NATO.
The United States and Turkey have resources, assets, and skills that will be complementary in places that have not historically been areas of U.S.-Turkey cooperation, including helping various Arab countries achieve democratic transitions; ending the bloodshed in Syria through the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and the creation of a democratic, cross-sectarian outcome; and dealing with the challenge posed by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for terror, and intervention in the affairs of its neighbors.
Over the past decade, Turks have demonstrated that they are capable of undertaking a wide range of political and economic reforms. In light of recent concerns about democratic reversals, however, the Task Force recommends that the United States and Turkey’s other partners in the Community of Democracies—which was created in part for precisely this purpose—offer Turkey support and advice toward reenergizing its political reform program. It would be best if the EU could, as it did in 2003 and 2004, serve as an anchor of Turkish political change, but the stalled EU membership negotiations make that impossible.
In its place, the United States and other democracies have a role to play in encouraging Turkey to write a constitution that will advance and deepen Turkish democracy. They should encourage their Turkish colleagues to ensure that the drafting process is open, inclusive, and transparent. The resulting document should enshrine the principles of both majority rule and protection of minority rights, recognizing that democracy does not mean that those with the most votes can impose their values on others.
The constitution can help establish the proper relationship between military and civilian authority—enshrining respect for the military but remaining under civilian control, free from military tutelage. It can also codify Turkey’s unique approach to the relationship between religion and the state—using Prime Minister Erdogan’s September 2011 statement in Cairo about the importance of secular politics in Muslim societies as a starting point—and thus provide a useful model for post-revolutionary Middle Eastern states struggling with this question.
The enduring protection of political rights requires that they be embedded in a system of checks and balances: not just a popularly elected parliament, but also a free press, independent political parties, mechanisms for citizens to pursue their grievances through politically neutral institutions, and an independent judiciary. As discussed earlier, this last element requires a judicial appointments process that provides public confidence in the quality and impartiality of those appointed and constitutional provisions that spell out clearly an appropriate but limited role for the judiciary that is consistent with a democratic system.
Yet a new constitution should not be the only measure of Turkish political reform. After all, given the particularities of Turkey’s electoral laws, it may not be politically possible for the Turks to write a new constitution. As a result, Washington and Ankara’s other international partners should urge the Turks to abolish or reform nondemocratic laws, regulations, rules, and decrees that, in tandem with the existing constitution, undermine Turkey’s democratic practices. These include Article 301 of the penal code, which makes insulting Turkishness a crime. Despite the limited use of Article 301 recently, it remains in place and thus contributes to persistent questions about Turkey’s democratic transition. In addition, Turkey needs to abolish the internal service codes of the armed forces that previously served as the legal justification for the military’s intervention in politics and legal provisions constraining freedom of religion, including those that prevent opening the Greek-Orthodox Halki Seminary, which was shuttered in 1971. As a final matter, Ankara should reduce the threshold for parties to enter parliament, which stands at 10 percent and limits the voices represented in the Grand National Assembly.
Turkey could go a long way toward putting to rest questions about the rule of law, criminalization of political differences, and press freedom in Turkey by ending the investigations of the Ergenekon case— either completing the legal proceedings against those accused of crimes or releasing them—and resolving the cases of the ninety-six journalists now detained in Turkish jails. Turkey should also restructure its court system to ensure timely trials that do not drag on for years, or even decades.
Finally, a major challenge to Turkish democracy is the weakness of the opposition parties—recognizing that a vibrant opposition is central to democratic political systems. A number of measures could be undertaken to address this problem and would benefit or be available to all political parties, including the AKP itself, especially when it faces the challenge any party faces in making the transition from its founders to a long-lasting institution. Indeed, as the party is now into its third term, questions have arisen in Turkey about leadership succession within the party—a particular concern if the prime minister or president leaves the political scene in the next few years. Whether part of the constitutional drafting process or not, Turkey’s political parties law needs to be brought in line with those of its fellow members in the Community of Democracies.
In addition, Turkey’s partners within the Community of Democracies that sponsor organizations such as the International Republican Institute or the National Democratic Institute should make them available to legal Turkish parties to offer technical advice on party building. They can also promote exchanges between political parties from countries in the Community of Democracies and the full range of legal Turkish parties on issues such as human rights, rule of law, and the protection of minorities. This could be part of a broader program of people-to-people exchanges, exchanges between civil society groups, and congressional and parliamentary exchanges.
The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.