Turkey cannot be a global power until it is a stable democracy

On the rise of Turkey, its messy foreign policy, and the AKP's internal 'enemies'–Richard Falk's discussion with the Turkish PM provokes more questions than answers.

Bülent Gökay
17 December 2014

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.

soma subcontractor protest.jpg

The names of miners who died are laid out at a protest in Istanbul following the Soma mine disaster, the worst such disaster in Turkey’s history, and one that raises questions about the so-called taşeron (subcontractor) system. Demotix/Şebnem Köken. All rights reserved. 

Richard Falk’s detailed conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu offers a window into the thinking and self-perceptions of the ruling elite at a critical moment in this increasingly important regional powerhouse’s troubled history. Clearly intending to deal with many of his critics and various speculations regarding the origins of his party’s policies and general direction of his country’s immediate future, Davutoğlu provides scrupulous mini essay-like responses to Falk’s questions. However, these responses provoke more questions than they answer.

Although there are many points that I could draw on as examples of the kind of provocation which unfolds as a result, I want to briefly discuss four below.    

1) The AKP’s 'record of economic success' 

Davutoglu claims: “During our years, the world economy has been mainly declining, but despite a serious economic recession our per capita income has actually increased rather dramatically.” 

The AKP's success and popularity during the past 12 years is indeed closely linked to the fact that the Turkish economy has achieved significant growth during the past 10 to 15 years. With an impressive growth spurt, Turkey has been placed among the top 10 emerging economies in the world alongside the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Turkey's per capita income tripled within the decade that the AKP has been in power.  

The AKP's leaders seem to have taken the credit for Turkey’s economic rise personally. However, it should be obvious to anyone who understands how the global economy works that this economic progress is to be attributed to a longer term–maybe decades long–period of development. If we take account of the projections made by major global institutions like the UN and the IMF, or analyses put forward by key academic experts, such as Paul Kennedy, Turkey was clearly already, by the early 1990s, being heralded as one of the top 10 emerging stars.

Such projections were based on the population dynamics, growth potential and geographical capacities of these states and an identified major shift in the world economy for the benefit of a number of emerging economies–BRICS and others–including Turkey. Even in 1987, there was a reference in a major work to this economic trend. So, to some extent, the AKP government could be said to have found itself in the right time and the right place, rather than creating the conditions that led to the country's economic growth. 

Even though the relationship between the economic/social development of a country and the democratization of its political system is considerably more complex than a simple one-to-one relationship, there is a fragile but essential link between being a strong economic power and establishing a stable democratic system in the long run. One does not survive long without the other. 

Today, Turkey is a rising economic power, with its internationally competitive companies turning the youthful nation into an entrepreneurial hub, tapping cash-rich export markets in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, while attracting billions of investment dollars in return. But all this progress will require a stable and functioning democracy to survive. It is not possible for Turkey to be a respectable and responsible world power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including freedom of expression and democratic rights. There is no exception to this. All existing evidence from the transition countries point to this same conclusion. Turkey will become a real global power only when its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.

2) Turkey’s 'active foreign policy'

The prime minister claims that the AKP's foreign policy “became a success story not only for the state, but also for individual Turkish citizens”. 

It is certainly the case that Turkey's foreign policy reflects a more active and confident approach on the part of the government in the past 10 years, in parallel to the country becoming more prosperous and increasingly stronger in the global arena. A policy, which popularly came to be known as “zero problems with neighbours”, has been the centrepiece of Davutoğlu's 'new' foreign policy agenda. Before the escalation of the Syrian crisis, the new proactive foreign policy of the AKP government achieved some success: Ankara first developed close relations with the Syrian regime to the level of a strategic partnership, and closer economic and political ties were initiated with Iran and Russia.

But the situation in Syria proved much more complicated and difficult for Ankara to handle. The crisis has exposed weaknesses in Davutoğlu's claims that Turkey is a significant regional power working for peace and stability. With the Turkish authorities providing the so-called rebels in Syria with an unchecked and poorly overseen support base in Turkey, Turkey has effectively become a warring side in the bloody civil war in Syria. Turkey’s Syria policy has become an unmitigated disaster, and Davutoglu’s nicely crafted analysis has turned into quite a mess: 'strategic depth' is now a great strategic failure. 

In Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood regime having fallen from power and Turkey's prime minister openly taking sides against the new (military) regime, Turkey's prestige as the stable and strong regional negotiator evaporated into thin air. Many in the region, and beyond, now consider Turkey as standing on the side of a Sunni crusade against the Syrian regime. Starting with its "zero problems" policy, Turkey has ended up antagonizing almost all its neighbours and moving rapidly to a situation of "zero friendship" in the Middle East. Davutoğlu's government now faces a Frankenstein’s monster, as the growth of IS in Syria and Iraq is increasingly threatening Turkey’s internal stability. 

3) The 'parallel state' and a 'Gülenist conspiracy'

Davutoğlu refers to 'the parallel state' in some detail, meaning the influential movement led by the exiled religious leader Fetullah Gülen, and blames “Gülen loyalists” for infiltrating “into positions of influence in the government bureaucracy”.  

Once Freud used the term "narcissism of small difference" to explain that in a relationship, there can be a need to find, and even exaggerate, small differences in order to preserve a feeling of separateness and self. In other words, one's social (and political) identity often lies in small differences, and this difference is asserted against what is in common in order to achieve a superficial sense of one's own uniqueness.

The current ongoing conflict between the AKP leadership and the Gülen movement reminds me of this term. Despite the intensity of the clash, in particular during the last six months, I do not see any significant principal differences between two camps, neither on ideological or political grounds. Both groups are pro-Islamic, in favour of faith-based communities worldwide, and both share a common belief in the free market economy, private entrepreneurship, cherishing upward-socio-economic mobility.

Both sides share the same conservative frame of reference on almost all social and cultural issues. More important, the bulk of the supporters of both sides emanate from the same group of people: the lower and middle classes in Anatolia, who had been marginalized by secular regimes since the beginning of the republic, despite the fact that this group has always represented a clear majority of Turkey's population.

So, in my opinion, the current conflict stems from a power struggle in the commanding heights of the establishment, and is not necessarily fuelled by different political, economic and ideological interests. Therefore, it is rather superficial to present this as a major conflict. What is at stake are positions of power in the state structure in order to safeguard certain key political and economic interests.

4) 'We are accountable because we won three elections'

Davutoğlu refers heavily to his party’s success in three consecutive elections by increasing its majority, and presents this as a clear indication of his government’s accountability. 

Democracy is not only about elections every four or five years. It is essentially a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their leaders accountable for their policies and their conduct in office. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They are the highest form of political authority, not their elected political leaders. Power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily. Within a democracy, the people are free to criticise their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. Elected representatives at the national and local levels ought regularly to listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions. 

However, after a period of 12 years under AKP rule, we see in Turkey an increasingly authoritarian, more explicitly religious, and obsessively neoliberal system. This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring with terrorists, and pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists. This increasingly authoritarian stance seems to have been sanctioned because millions of people, 53 per cent in the most recent elections, in Turkey’s representational democracy, had given their power to Davutoğlu’s party.

But with the emergence of the recent protest movements, which began in Taksim Gezi Park one and a half years ago, a line has been crossed. The young protesters in Taksim Square have already achieved a significant goal: to show the urgent need to go back to basics and ensure that the fundamental tenets of individual freedom and democracy function in Turkey. If a significant number of people are not allowed to express their views freely and to demonstrate peacefully and if their attempts to express their opposition are met with such heavy brutality, then this is not a proper democracy.

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