The latest episode in Turkish politics is instructive on the role of the opposition in democratic forms of governance. The Opposition features as perhaps the most important institutional guarantee of a democratic regime; it helps ensure accountability by providing the threat of losing office. In systems where the opposition is no more than window dressing, the governing party remains unaccountable. Take away the real possibility of the alternation of power, and all we have left is one-party rule. The party knows that it can get away with virtually anything, hence it becomes more daring and acts with fewer reservations in terms of pursuing personal and ideological ends. The Turkish experience since 2011 epitomizes such a source of instability in budding democracies.
For a long time, Turkey was the poster child for secular and Muslim democracy and was upheld as a model for the rest of the Muslim world. The fact that an Islamic party (Justice and Development Party, a.k.a. AKP) led the way in the most recent democratization drive only buttressed this perception. Turkey obtained official candidate status to the European Union, and accession talks are under way. As part of this process, many reforms aimed at establishing a pluralist, rights-oriented democratic system have been undertaken. Ethnic and religious minorities are re-gaining rights, which had been heavily suppressed for decades under the strict nationalist regime. Military tutelage over the civilian democratic process was greatly curtailed. All indicators were pointing in the direction of a consolidation of Turkey’s democracy after a long, hard-fought process. And, all of this was happening, ironically, under the leadership of an Islamic party; it is ironic because, historically, Kemalist leaders bragged about secular modernization and ‘westernization’ and how Islam was a thing of the past.
This was, of course, until the 2011 electoral victory of the AKP, the party’s third consecutive victory. The AKP campaigned on a platform vowing to initiate a new constitution that would usher in a new era in Turkish history, one in which pluralist democracy and individual rights and liberties would be firmly institutionalized. In other words, democracy would firmly become the only game in town.
The AKP won 50% of the vote, a large proportion in any parliamentary system. Despite its significant parliamentary power, popular demand for it, and no major opposition forces, the party never demonstrated serious ownership of the drafting of the new constitution. The draft of the constitution never even came close to materialization. Instead, some half-hearted efforts in committees made sure that the idea remained stillborn.
The post-2011 period also marks the beginning of a new, absolutist form of governance. With no major source of opposition either from the military or from the official opposition, it was only social forces that could feasibly mount any political challenge to Prime Minister Erdogan’s rule.
In the summer of 2013, a spontaneous, societal opposition came into existence around a relatively insignificant environmental issue, the protection of Gezi Park, which is located in the heart of Istanbul. In response to PM Erdogan’s characteristically uncompromising stance and suppression of these demonstrations, Gezi Park protests turned into a societal outlet of opposition to the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic governance. The tension came to a head at the end of 2013 (December 17) when multiple corruption allegations and investigations surfaced. These allegations initially alleged that four ministers in Erdogan’s cabinet were involved, at which point it became evident that the PM himself, and his family, was fully involved in an extensive corruption scheme, over a period of several years.
The initial response by the Prime Minister and his party was to deny the charges. However, within a very short period of time, there emerged a wholesale effort to 1) blame an Islamic movement (the Gulen Movement) with establishing a ‘parallel’ state within the bureaucracy, 2) reassign hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers and chiefs to different location. Most significantly, those prosecutors and police chiefs involved with investigating the corruption scandal were immediately reassigned; and, 3) several bills were passed in the parliament, undermining the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches and violating basic freedoms such as the freedom of information.
These efforts clearly served to divert attention from the main issue, which was widespread and endemic corruption, as well as being an attempt at preventing any progress in the investigations.
Two misconceptions surround the unfolding of the AKP in Turkey, as an Islamic party. On one hand, the entire issue since December 17 is cast in the form of a conflict between two Islamic groups, i.e. the AKP and the Gulen Movement. This framing works perfectly for the image that the AKP and PM Erdogan want to create - by creating an imagined enemy, the AKP aims to solidify its support base and close ranks.
Secondly, many describe this deteriorating scenario in terms of the AKP gradually steering away from democracy back to its Islamic roots. It is true that the AKP emerged from such a background, thanks to a split from the Islamist Welfare Party line in 2001. Since then, the party has upheld an Islamic/conservative position in several key policy domains.
Nonetheless, the AKP’s authoritarian turn since the 2011 elections has more to do with the poor institutional foundation of Turkish democracy and the lack of a viable opposition party/bloc in parliament. In other words, whether the AKP is Islamist, Muslim democratic, social democratic, or communist is irrelevant. The unscrupulous, corrupt, and undemocratic actions and policies of the AKP and some of its members emanates from the conviction that no accountability exists on the horizon, and that no imminent danger of losing elections lies ahead. As Lord Acton once said, “power tends to corrupt, absolute power absolutely corrupts.”
The upcoming local elections on March 30 and the presidential elections in August are of the utmost importance. They carry the promise of reinstating Turkish democracy and of putting the country back on track en route to European Union membership, whilst at the same time avoiding a dreadful detour to Shanghai.
A strong showing by the opposition parties would breathe new life into the democratic process. It would send a strong message for prospective incumbents about the centrality of democratic accountability; simultaneously, Turkish democracy would be able to mature by overcoming its formidable institutional weakness.