Turkey's democratic shortfall: is Prime Minister Erdogan the main problem?

International observers have always nurtured mixed feelings towards Recep Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister: is he a resolute champion of democratisation, or an Islamist with hidden authoritarian tendencies? The answer might have less to do with his personal traits than with the system he operates within.

Turkish PM Recep Erdogan. Demotix/Sadik Güleç. All rights reserved.Turkish PM Recep Erdogan. Demotix/Sadik Güleç. All rights reserved.

Turkey's resurgence in international politics might have brought welcome publicity for the country, but it has also pushed the fragile state of its democracy under a spotlight. International media has widely covered the recent crackdown on various domestic forces opposed to what is commonly regarded as Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's gradually Islamizing and Putinizing rule. Organisations such as Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have rightly criticised the Turkish government for mass arrests of journalists, political activists and increased police violence against anti-government demonstrators. 

These and other acts of persecution are hardly signs of a flourishing democracy. Given that for decades Turkey has been upheld as one of a few viable attempts-in-progress to consolidate a democracy in the Middle East, the recent developments are quite alarming. But against the common line of analysis, the distressing picture does not necessarily prove that AKP has abandoned its earlier democratisation agenda. Turkey's democracy is indeed facing a crucial test. However, the intricate problem cannot be explained away in terms of a moderately Islamic government gaining strength and confidence to gradually wipe its rivals off the political map. The answer as to why under AKP Turkey no longer appears on a path to a fuller democracy has to do with more systemic issues than with relative strength of any one party or ideology.

Take the increasingly authoritarian tone of Prime Minister Erdogan. This is not necessarily an indication of his hostility towards democracy as a goal or ideal. His undemocratic reactions could be symptoms of apprehension common among participants of any game of politics with high stakes and unstable rules, where fear can easily outweigh commitments to institutional reform. The further aggravating factor in the Turkish case is that the Prime Minister, and many other members of his cabinet are prominent representatives of the generation that was subject to the gruesome persecutions of the 80s and 90s.

Many members of AKP have experienced what it means to be unfairly discriminated against for long years before the party was founded in 2002. Those experiences, no doubt, have given them a unique perspective not available to their counterparts comfortable with the secular establishment (e.g., politicians and journalists close to the military and judiciary). In their early years of power this also lent much-needed credence to AKP's democratisation agenda. The flip side of the coin, however, is that victimisation produces other psychological propensities besides the welcome disposition to justice. Mistrust in one's environment – in this case, political institutions, opponents, any social force that one cannot control – has proved a huge impediment to democratic consolidation.

The Prime Minister as a public figure personifies these conflicting tendencies to openness and democracy on the one hand and fear of uncertainties that democratisation must produce on the other. He tries to blame his government's slow pace in carrying out much-needed reforms on the opposition – frequently complaining about how his political rivals (mainly MPs from the Republican People's Party) are not constructive and do not have the integrity to call a spade a spade.

The official rhetoric is indicative of a dangerous blind spot in Prime Minister's vision of democracy. As some of the greatest theorists of democracy from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Dewey have shown, democratic politics is not something that the noble and the knowledgeable can teach adolescents in schools; on the contrary, it is an art that one can master only through practice. For this reason, the government's job is to allow oppositions to be unconstructive, to criticize unfairly. Although a degree of civility is certainly necessary, amicable relations between party leaders should not be mistaken for the institutional trust and good will that democracy requires. Just as friendly relations between politicians across the aisles are not necessarily signs of a healthy democracy, name-calling in the parliament does not have to signify a defective one.

The above helps us to see some of Prime Minister Erdogan's motives more clearly, but it does not relieve him from his responsibility to take the right course of action. Since political trust and faith in the democratic process are not qualities that parties could be expected to develop on their own, the job of stimulating this process falls unmistakeably onto the current government. In other words, AKP may not be the only force to blame for the frail state of Turkey's democracy, but they will certainly deserve the lion's share of the blame if they continue to withhold the political will necessary for putting Turkey back on track to what Prime Minister refers to as "advanced democracy".

What Turkey needs is a new democratic constitution in which all groups will find reflections of values and goals that they cherish. Examples abound: to mention a basic yet fundamental one from the US constitution, a diehard libertarian, a secular left democrat, and a devout Catholic all find something they deem fundamentally worthy in the First Amendment that separates religion and the state and upholds freedoms of political expression. The AKP government has to take more initiative in order to discover this kind of procedural common ground between groups that currently see each other's power as an existential threat rather than merely a matter of political nuisance. 

Turkey has quietly arrived at a historic crossroad. Whether it moves in the right direction and emerges from this transformation as a success story will ultimately be decided by how little or great faith power brokers have in democratic institutions. For nearly two decades, despite the continuing influence of authoritarian elements, the country has been building up on many requirements of a healthy democracy. Its interest groups, civil society organizations, diverse media, and multiplicity of political parties have brought Turkey closer to the western democracies than neighbouring examples of authoritarianism. However, tough measures taken to cure Turkey's authoritarian malaise will not lead to advanced democracy because, let alone augmenting, they further deplete the scarce supply of intangible yet crucial ingredients of democracy such as trust in political institutions. 

About the author

Aslan Amani holds a PhD and MSc in Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BA in Political Science from the University of Toronto. He has taught political theory and political science in England and Canada, and is currently working on a book manuscript on democratic theory.