Global Global Policy Studies & International Security

A More “Democratic” Turkey? Part 2

Last week we discussed how Turkey’s unique style of democracy came into existence. In the second part of this series, we will explore the underlying problems and repercussions of the recent referendum vote where 58 percent of voters supported a referendum that limits the political power of the military and places the judiciary square in the palm of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party.

Western electorates are not like the Turkish one. In the West, the fundamentals of Jeffersonian democracy hold strong because the hedge against a manipulative, weak, unpopular, corrupt, etc. government is the ever-present promise of elections. In the United States, this fear of elections (more specifically a fear of getting voted out of office) has led to the 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year election cycle that is arguably not healthy. This is the exact opposite problem that Turkey faces today.

Well-organized, grassroots campaigning in rural and poor areas of Turkey has solidified a religious base for the AK Party. Previously not very interested in politics, these Turks have been drawn into the electoral process by the promise and, in most cases, delivery of services for the poor: cleaner cities and functioning bureaucracies. To their credit, the AK Party has delivered these things and there is a reason why they continue to be popular amongst a section of this largely religiously conservative population. This group is much more concerned about their continued ability to get government services than the threat of fundamental Islam creeping into politics, thus allying Turkey closer to Crown Prince Abdullah than Prime Minister David Cameron.

The problem is that, unlike in most Western democracies, a viable political alternative to the AK Party does not seem to exist. Given their chance to shine in the 1990s after the untimely death of one of Turkey’s great modern secular leaders, Turgut Özal (a pious man of meager, rural origins who himself kept the military out of politics not by constitutional referendums but by moving the country progressively more towards Westernization and modernization), the secular parties drowned in their own corruption and ineptitude, turning many people off of politics and, more importantly, opening the necessary political space for a well-organized group led by savvy politicians to thrive.

The secular parties (ideologically representing about 60 percent of Turks in my estimation) are themselves divided, much as are many Western democracies, into groups representing all sections of the political spectrum (left, center left, center right, etc.). The difference is that in Turkey they are divided into many more parties (easily over 20), with the “full of talk, not of action” Cumhuriyet Halk Party (CHP) bumbling in the lead, filling the ‘best of the worst’ opposition role with about as much gusto as Al Gore at a dinner party.

So if a viable political alternative to the AK Party does not exist, i.e. a check and balance played by most opposition parties in Western democracies, who will ensure that the government truly maintains the path towards modernization, fulfilling the dream not only of Ataturk but of millions of Turks who enjoy the many freedoms largely not afforded to citizens during the Ottoman days of yesteryear? Who is the check? Who ensures the balance?

Thanks to fragmented and futile secular politicians who have repeatedly failed to capitalize on rising unease against the increasing Islamization of the AK Party, there remain few options. Without the military and judiciary, the last bastions of Kemalism in public Turkish life that have controversially (and to their discredit not always fairly) maintained the course of Turkey towards the West, those options become basically non-existent, opening the floodgates for the AK Party to do almost anything they please.

Among other things, this referendum takes these powers, the only watchdog elements left in modern Turkish politics, away from the military and the judiciary. The AK Party can thus place party loyalists on judiciary benches across the country and systematically take the power of the military away from the secular generals and put it into the civilian hands of nepotistic AK party cronies.

Last month President Obama pointed to the vote as evidence of the “vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy,” as did an unnamed New York Times editorialist. While popular in the West, the referendum essentially kills Turkey’s unique style of democracy that has consistently ensured the continuation of secularism by maintaining the separation between mosque and state. Who says such Jeffersonian ideas are well-suited for a complicated geo-political place like Turkey? Perhaps, given the aforementioned complexities in Turkish political life today, democracy a la turca is the best version for Turkey.

Almost as an afterthought, the editorial in The New York Times says that “to work, (the changes brought on by the referendum) will also require Turkey’s political leaders to exercise restraint.” And if they don’t exercise restraint? What then? Who will stop them from moving Turkey down the path of theocracy? A European Union that has repeatedly distanced itself from Turkey? An America that desperately needs to appease one of its last allies in a region that today remains overtly hostile to any U.S. involvement?

What about a Saudi Arabia, a Libya or an Iran that has everything to gain from the increased involvement of Islam in Turkish politics? Will they encourage Turkey’s Islamist leaders to exercise restraint?

I don’t think so.

While the referendum is popular in the West and amongst a majority of Turks, I believe many are failing to see the larger picture and, most importantly, they are opening the floodgates to Erdogan and his cronies to institutionalize their brand of Islamic “democracy” under the cloak of Western “democracy.” This referendum could lead to increased radicalization of opposing political and religious elements in Turkey. In a worst case scenario, an unchecked AK party and lack of military and judiciary watchdogs could lead to open revolt in the streets led by secularists who do not see any other way to protect their way of life.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

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