Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

A More “Democratic” Turkey? Part 1

The Turkish electorate just resoundingly passed a referendum with 58 percent of the vote that could very well end Turkey’s definition of democracy. Turkish democracy is not like other versions of democracy; well, maybe not until now.

This week we will discuss how Turkey’s unique style of democracy came into existence. Next week, we will delve into why I believe this referendum is the most troubling development in Turkish politics in recent memory.

The Man. The Vision.

Modern Turkey, born out of the progressive vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after World War I, bears little resemblance to other nations formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. This difference could be because it was the center of the Ottoman Empire and change came quicker to the seat of power; or, more likely, it could be due to the revolutionary visions of Ataturk.

As Stephen Kinzer points out in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future , Iran and Turkey went through almost simultaneous revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century. Reza Shah, Iran’s revolutionary leader, imposed modernism and Western principles upon his people without asking, much as Ataturk did in Turkey. The difference is that Ataturk was able to institutionalize his vision of a more representative ‘democracy’ of sorts that would transition over time once people got used to the idea, while Reza Shah had trouble letting go of the power he had obtained.  Ultimately, Shah’s lust for power led to a political crisis in Iran, one that led to the political rise of previously underground religious fundamentalists. The rest is history.

In the last few years of his life Ataturk was not extremely involved in politics, choosing instead to trust in the institutions and people he had put in place while he enjoyed, how shall I say, his more indulgent personality traits. Knowing that Turkish culture was deeply rooted in a political Islam that was not always (and might never be) compatible with the Western ideas for which he fought so fiercely, he put in place several checks and balances that would ensure the continuity of his vision of Turkey’s future. These checks include an independent judiciary and military that would not succumb to the pressures of communism, Islamism, etc.

Right about now you might be telling yourself that my description of Ataturk makes him seem a bit megalomaniacal, touting his vision of the future as the only way forward despite fierce objection from almost everyone in the country at the time save a few close military and civilian advisors.

Alas, you would be right.

Ataturk did what he thought was right for the long-term future of Turkey and his beloved fellow Turks after spending much of his life hob-nobbing with intellectual elite in Paris, London, Istanbul, Beirut, etc. He knew that his ideas were revolutionary and, as humans, we are naturally against change, especially in the short term. So he just did it largely without consultation, using the military as the steadying force behind his ideas.

The difference between Ataturk and Reza Shah, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Hitler and other revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, is that Ataturk was right and has led Turkey to be what it is today. His ideas, and the techniques he used to institutionalize them, were exactly what Turkey needed coming out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Travel to Turkey and you see the fruits of his “vision” everywhere: in the Starbucks, in the youth showing off the latest Parisian fashions, on Istanbul’s bustling Istiklal Caddesi, in the street protests, and in the hearts of Turks (like me) who yearn for the continuation of our society of western openness to compliment Turkey’s own rich cultural heritage. You see it in the eyes of Turks young and old, male and female, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, walking the streets of our cities with confidence and without the fear of reprisal.

It took at least a generation after Ataturk’s death for people to truly embrace this modern, Western way of life; but there is a reason why Turks are so vehemently nationalistic, so protective of their secularism, so proud of being a unique social, cultural and political entity on the world stage. Most Turks – most likely including most of the 58 percent – enjoy the freedoms their modern state affords them and would not welcome a Saudi- or Iran-like limited existence. I guarantee that even those that voted for the referendum would not want to go down the path of these theocracies that regularly limit human rights … not after having lived in the Turkey I know and love.

That’s why the results of this referendum — and the fact that it was conceived by Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party in the first place — are so troubling.

Read about the underlying problems and repercussions of the referendum in the second installment next week.

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