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Turkey in transition: reality and image

Gunes Murat Tezcur
24 April 2009

The visit of Barack Obama to Turkey on 6-7 April 2009 at the end of his week-long European tour - the United States president's first to a Muslim-majority country - is just one of many current signals of the considerable global interest in Turkish domestic politics and foreign-policy choices. Indeed, Turkey is often regarded by many as one or other kind of "model": on account of the way this Muslim-majority nation conducts its democratic governance, maintains its secular regime, manages its prospects for membership in the European Union, pursues its mediating role in the middle-east and Caucasus conflicts, and (most ambitiously) represents a standing rebuke to the "clash of civilisations" paradigm.

Güneş Murat Tezcür is a native of Turkey who teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He is a scholar of Turkish and Iranian politics, Islam and democracy, ethnic conflict, and Shi'a Islam

Also by Güneş Murat Tezcür in openDemocracy:

"The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation" (13 October 2005)

"Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom" (23 January 2007)

"Turkey divided: politics, faith and democracy" (4 May 2007) "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

"Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)

"Turkey after Hrant Dink" (18 January 2008)


The very fact that Turkey seems to offer itself as an example of "how to do it" - and by so many global actors with conflicting outlooks, from western politicians to Muslim political activists - itself seems significant. But from the inside such external projections acquire a different flavour. The foreign observers who recycle these familiar images may think that they offer a key to the complexity of Turkish society; in fact they often correspond to pre-existing political cleavages within Turkey, and are absorbed and mediated in ways that leave this complexity untouched. In the process, the projections of outsiders can serve to obscure the actual issues that are central to Turkey's social and political arguments.

The implication of this process is that to dissect these images and how they are absorbed and mediated within Turkish society is essential to getting a fairer sense of the achievements and limits of democracy and the struggles for human rights and freedoms in Turkey today.

The slice of reality

It is striking to recall that until the rise of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi  (Justice & Development Party / AKP) - which culminated in its arrival in power with the election of November 2002 - the dominant political image of Turkey in the west was one of secular elites containing radical Islamic movements and seeking integration with western structures. This coloured the judgment of events; for example, the military's show of force in 1997 that toppled the then coalition government run by the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) - one of the AKP's Islamist predecessors - did not receive much international criticism, as it was perceived mainly as a rebuttal of the "Islamic menace" that would if allowed to develop curtail basic freedoms and reorient Turkey's pro-western foreign policy.

In the early 2000s, the prevailing image of Turkey as the leading regional bastion of a benevolent and instrumentally useful secularism came under fire. The AKP - established by a group of politicians targeted by the 1997 "soft coup" - came to offer a new image of Turkey that was absorbed and given a smooth coating by outsiders: an overwhelmingly Muslim country that simultaneously proves that Islam and democracy are quite compatible and continues to enjoy sound (if, as over the Iraq war, occasionally tense) relations with the western powers.

At a domestic level, this view of Turkey translated into one of a conservative society with democratic aspirations that was challenging the rooted authoritarian practices of secular elites. The association of the AKP with "Muslim democracy", and the notion that "Muslim democrats" in and supported by the party were an effective antidote against "Islamic radicalism", proved highly effective in gaining many adherents in the international arena. 

In both cases, the ready embrace of these visions of Turkey involved a radical simplification that - especially - failed to do justice to the democratic struggles taking place in the country. 

First, the image of secular elites protecting Turkey's precarious democratic achievements in the face of radical social forces can only be sustained by ignoring unpleasant facts: such as that the military junta that had seized power in 1980 used Islam as a weapon against then-popular leftist movements, and that under civilian rule in the 1990s the security forces committed gross human-rights violations in their war on the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Second, the image of the democratic aspirations of a Muslim society represented by the AKP being blocked by an authoritarian state elite depends on a comparable evasion of the facts: such as that the ruling party's advocacy of rights is mainly restricted to its core constituency, and that the party's internal workings are characterised by disciplinarian and corrupt practices.

The record of power

The reductive and distorting tendency of simplifying political images could be avoided if a more promising perspective is adopted. This would focus on assessing whether major political actors in Turkey pursue with any consistency policies that contribute to the expansion of human, social, political, and economic rights in the country. 

Such a perspective would have three benefits. First, it would overcome the false dichotomies of "secular-liberal elites" vs "religious-oppressive society", and "secular-authoritarian elites" vs "religious-democratic society". Second, it would distinguish between issues that are central to democratic campaigns in Turkey and issues that are trivial. Third, it would help to shift attention from futile discussions based on vague descriptions such as "pro-Islamic" or "secularist" to more productive discussions of how the actual platforms and policies of major political actors actually contribute to greater collective and individual rights.

From this perspective, all major political forces have poor records. The AKP arrived in government amidst an economic downturn and widespread public discontent with the established parties. Its early performance included stabilising the economy, achieving sustainable and substantial economic growth rates, increasing the scope of social and political rights, and convincing the European Union to open negotiations on eventual Turkish membership. 

The party's pro-EU orientation had two elements. The first involved strategic interests. The party leadership hoped that a Turkey becoming integrated into the EU would decrease the political autonomy of the armed forces, consolidate civilian governance, and contribute to religious freedoms. The second involved the AKP leaders abandoning anti-western and anti-semitic platforms, and developing a new discourse that emphasised Turkey's role as overcoming the gap between "civilisations". Turkey's Also in openDemocracy about the future of Turkey:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)

Safa A Hussein, "Turkey's Kurdish tightrope: a view from Iraq" (5 November 2007)

Soner Cagaptay, "Turkey and the Kurds: everybody's problem" (5 November 2007)

openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007)

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink: memory and hope" (17 January 2008)

Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's 'Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (15 April 2008)

Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008)

Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's military-political contest" (3 November 2008)

Hakan Altinay, "Recep Tayyip Erdogan: the Mandela test" (17 March 2009) membership of the EU would, it was felt, catapult the country to the leading position in the Muslim world see Gareth Jenkins, Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? [Palgrave, 2008]).

However, the AKP's reform had lost its momentum by 2006. The European Union - most prominently leading states such as Germany and France - has shown no great appetite for Turkey's membership. But the reasons also include legal and political trends inside Turkey. Data collected by the reputable Turkish Human Rights Association demonstrates that human-rights violations steadily decreased in 1999-2005. No major improvement has occurred since then; 2008 actually saw a deterioration in human rights. State security forces have continued to conduct extra-judicial killings and to react with disproportionate and lethal violence to social protests with impunity.  The government has failed systematically to address the concerns of Alevi and Kurdish popular organisations. It has also been dismissive towards labour rights.

On a more positive note, the AKP has given its unwavering support to the civilian judiciary that unravelled a conspiracy by criminal organisation intent on overthrowing the government. The organisation - known as Ergenekon - included retired and active military officers, and is accused of orchestrating a "strategy of tension" that involves assassinations, bomb-attacks, and media manipulation in order to undermine public trust in the government and make authoritarian solutions seem attractive (see "Turkey's Dark Side: Party closures, conspiracies and the future of democracy", European Stability Initiative, April 2008).

The AKP in exposing the Ergenekon project may have acted out of self-interest. But the judicial case has generated an intense and healthy public discussion regarding the involvement in politics of clandestine and quasi-state organisations, and the Turkish military itself (see Yigal Schleifer, "Turkey: The Military, Pillar of the Secular Tradition, Finds Itself on the Defensive", Eurasianet, 23 October 2008).

The change from within 

The policies of a major political actor on a different side of the spectrum, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People's Party / CHP), may appear more puzzling than those of the AKP. This is because the party seeks to represent the most cosmopolitan, westernised and secularly oriented of Turkish citizens. Yet until very recently, the party offered only lukewarm support to Turkey's application to join the European Union, and did nothing to counter growing Euroscepticism at popular level.

Furthermore, the CHP neither consistently pursued a right-based agenda nor showed commitment to basic democratic procedures. It never explicitly took a stand against military intervention in politics; it also enthusiastically supported judicial activism in the political arena in hope that judges could restrain the AKP, even if such verdicts lacked democratic legitimacy. The party has also been apprehensive of those parts of Washington's policy towards Turkey that it perceived as seeking to promote "moderate Islam" at the cost of eroding Turkey's secular heritage. 

The CHP's peculiar combination of authoritarianism and timidity has in the 2000s stemmed mainly from its fear of permanent electoral marginalisation.  The CHP leadership has simply lacked a strategy to end the AKP's hegemony at the polls. But since the events of 2008 - when the constitutional court decided not to ban the ruling party, and when the Ergenekon anti-AKP conspiracy began to unravel - there are some signs that the CHP has realised that the ballot-box is the only way to replace the AKP government.

The CHP leadership has made some attempts to use its anti-corruption and social-welfare message to gain inroads to the AKP constituency in urban peripheries. The setback for the AKP in the local elections of 29 March 2009, even it remained the largest party, is a small sign of light for the opposition here (see Gareth Jenkins, "Turkey: AKP pays the price", ISN, 1 April 2009). At the same time, the CHP remains oblivious to Kurdish demands for greater cultural and political rights, and it backs restrictions on religious freedoms.

The Turkish and Kurdish nationalists also espouse platforms that are hardly compatible with the expansion of rights. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) reacts to any suggestion of political reform with great suspicion. The party has also shown no interest in addressing infringements of basic human rights and demands from marginalised groups. For its part the Kurdish nationalist Demokratik Toplum Partisi (Democratic Society Party / DTP) lacks autonomy vis-à-vis the PKK insurgents. The party acts as a legal front for the insurgent leadership, and has been unable to replace the strategy of armed struggle with one of non-violent civil disobedience in demanding greater cultural and political rights.

This broad depiction of major political agents in Turkey offers a somewhat bleak picture. But it still leaves open the possibility of major democratic change, if by a more circuitous route than the direct agency of political leaders. For if there seems at present little common ground between them, Turkey's main actors do seek greater rights and security for their constituencies in what all accept is a pluralistic socio-political environment; and the very pursuit of their own "parochial" interests in this context could create a momentum of change as an unintended consequence.

The AKP's local-election experience is a sign that Turkey is in a new political phase. None of Turkey's main players are powerful enough to impose their wishes over the others; all need to search for elusive agreement and engage in coalition-building. So far, it is the promise of EU membership that has provided the main impetus for Turkey's democratisation. As old certainties continue to dissolve, the big question now is whether domestic power struggles can generate a self-initiated and self-sustained process of democratisation. In that event, a new Turkish reality will again move beyond the "models" intended to capture it.

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