Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why Turkey and Turkish Civil Society Matter

Far too many Western political leaders, thinkers, and donors, especially here in Washington, have come to think of Turkish democracy as a “mission accomplished,” or at least, a project "near complete.” The sad state of affairs is indeed the opposite, and mostly sadly, it is this premature attitude that could turn Turkey back toward its authoritarian past rather than build on the democratic successes it has achieved in the past 15 years.

As American think-tanks bandy about a “Turkish model” as some ideal path for the newly emerging Arab democracies to follow, the real state of Turkish political affairs remains a mystery to all too many. In fact, Turkey now has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world, including China. And, like China, a new Internet regulation that goes into effect Aug. 22 will set up an online filtering and surveillance system by which every Turkish citizen will be followed by the government using an online profile. These developments are all the more disturbing given the ongoing Ergenekon investigation, which while supposed to bring down the infamous Turkish “deep state,” instead has been used as a political tool to go after the ruling AKP government’s political enemies.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish conflict, which the government’s “Kurdish opening” was to finally bring to a close by granting Turkey’s Kurdish population of 15 million plus people cultural and minority rights, has ground to a halt. Prime Minister Erdogan just over a year ago recognized the “Kurdish problem” as a democracy problem, but has since denied its existence. Last summer saw the largest escalation of the conflict since the 1990s, and given the government’s recent nationalist posturing, it is highly unlikely that the problem will be resolved.

Most important of all is Turkey’s stalled European Union accession process, the primary fuel behind the rapid-pace reforms that constitute Turkey’s democratic successes at the turn of the millennium. However, more than four years have passed since Turkey began accession negotiations, wherein the country has made little progress in fully meeting the EU’s Copenhagen criteria for democracy and human rights. Indeed, as Dilek Kurban notes in yesterday’s post, progress has actually become regression. Turkey now has a repressive Anti-Terrorism Law in place that has landed thousands in prison without adequate legal redress and torture, illegal detention, and impunity remain problems just as daunting as they were before the AKP entered power in 2002.

The main problem, more than any other, is a ruling party that has distanced itself from the liberal democracy it once embraced to in its place champion a majoritarian conception of rule by the people where minorities, opposition figures, and political dissenters are becoming less secure in their rights by the day. Democracy, as the AKP understands it, is rule by the majority—it is electoral authoritarianism dressed up to look nice for Western audiences keen to fondly fixate on the notion of an Islamist party that has somehow come to champion a long oppressed majority while adopting liberal values. However, the AKP is not liberal. While there is plenty of truth that the majority of conservative Muslim Anatolia has been repressed throughout the history of the country’s history, now it is the majority who is comfortable to reign over the minority.

There is no resolving the Madisonian dilemma—the inherent conflict between majority rule and individual liberties—for the ruling AKP government. There is only a will to power—a will evinced by Prime Minister Erdogan’s designs to create a presidential system. As The Economist noted in its controversial editorial endorsing the CHP and which now has the prime minister fuming about Zionist-driven conspiracies, if the AKP is to unilaterally push through a new constitution, it could end up being worse than the greatly amended one currently in place.

Ironically, if the United States and Europe do not move fast to realize what is happening inside Turkey, the world will lose a country that really could serve as a democratic example to the Arab Middle East. The AKP government made tremendous progress when it first came to power in 2002, and it could be said that the party’s first years in office provided the best government in the history of the Turkish Republic. However, a lot has happened since and the model is at risk. If Turkey’s democratic progress is ultimately lost, then there will not only be the lack of a democratic success story in the region but a failure that could set back Islamist/conservative democrats in other Muslim countries who otherwise have good chances of making democracy work. And, as recent survey research attests, Arabs are paying attention. (66% of Arabs surveyed at the end of last summer said they viewed Turkey as a democratic model.)

What is to be done?

Now is the time for action. The EU accession engine that powered the AKP’s early reform efforts is imperiled by the Greek Cypriot presidency, which will commence in just a little more than a year from now.  This means the Turkish government, which will still be led by the AKP whether the party gains a super majority or not, must make serious progress toward accession. The country is in a race against time. And, no matter what happens in June elections, movement toward a new constitution, or at least major constitutional reform, will be on the plate.

In this context, Turkish civil society will prove key to saving Turkish democracy just as it did during the optimistic years after the EU accepted Turkey’s application for membership in 1999 and major reforms started coming down the pipe. The authoritarian tendencies of Turkish political parties, not exclusive to the current party in power, need to be countered by civil society.

When the AKP tried to make adultery illegal in 2004 and ignore legislative proposals that would reduce the sentences for honor killings and rape in certain instances, it was a highly mobilized network of women’s groups that pushed the party to do the right thing. Many of these groups had become empowered thanks to donor money and expertise, and they fought the good fight, and well, won.

Though Turkey is now confronting a different set of challenges, support for civil society is just as critical now as it was then to support these groups. And, what kind of support exactly? What is needed are not requests for proposals that nearly prompt groups to apply for money, but rather funds for genuine projects grown out of grassroots understandings of political expediency. Turkish civil society groups should be encouraged to do more to work together, as women’s groups did in 2004, and even more importantly, engage political parties, the government, and the state (listed here in an ascending order of difficulty).

Support for strengthening political parties and institution-building has been enormously successful in Turkey, and to some extent, has resulted in the recent democratic turn by CHP we have seen of late, but without funding civil society to keep political parties in check and goad them to respond to democratic demands, little will get done.

And, the impact?

The AKP has accomplished tremendous feats in its time in power, but the party has grown too strong while civil society has lagged behind. Now confident that it is the voice of the majority, without an active, challenging, forward-looking civil society to remind it of its earlier liberal promises, the party will be doomed to failure—and, with it, Turkish democracy. It is no coincidence that civil society and liberalism emerged together in the history of other countries’ political development, and the two go together in Turkey as well.

If Turkish civil society, adequately funded and attended to, can take the mass protest movements we have seen in response to the government’s plans to pass draconian restrictions on Internet usage and round-up journalists and actually organize this anomic political mobilization into smart, organic political engagement with politicians, the result would prove not only beneficial to the longevity of Turkish democracy but also serve as an example to the Arab world.

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