Turkish democracy: a flawed model

Turkey’s political leadership under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is projecting the country as a successful model of democracy for Arab states emerging from authoritarian rule. A closer look casts doubt on the claim, say Agnes Czajka and Bora Isyar.

Agnes Czajka
5 October 2011

The Arab spring has precipitated a surge in public discussions of the relevance of what is commonly referred to as the "Turkish model" for post-revolutionary north African and middle-eastern states. Many journalists, academics, politicians and representatives of civil societies have perceived Turkey to be the sole middle-eastern state able to carry out a successful democratic revolution, and championed the "Turkish model" as exemplary of what a middle-eastern democracy, and a "modern" Muslim society could and should look like.

The "Turkish model", characterised by the synthesis of ostensibly European values (such as human rights and democratic governance) with Islam, was judged to be a particularly good fit for Egypt, given the historical, socio-cultural, and political affinities between Egypt and Turkey.

The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tour of "post-revolutionary" Egypt, Tunisia and Libya solidified the support that the "Turkish model" (and Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party [AKP], which has governed Turkey since November 2002) enjoyed in the region. Scores of Egyptians welcomed Erdoğan with banners proclaiming: "Erdoğan, Egypt’s Hero," and "Turkey and Egypt: Brothers Forever." The prime minister, in turn, praised Egyptian youth for persevering in their struggle for freedom, as the Turks had done almost a century ago.

The credit for the ostensibly unique and thorough democratisation of Turkey has historically been given to the Turkish military, which, the argument goes, repeatedly defended the democratic system against its clerical adversaries. The three coup d’états (in 1960, 1970 and 1980), and the threatened (or "post-modern") coup of 1997 are, from this perspective, seen as a means of safeguarding the democratic system rather than as impediments to it.

Yet it is the recent re-election (for a third consecutive term) of Erdoğan’s AKP - a foe of the staunchly secularist army - that has, for many observers, cemented Turkey’s status as a mature democracy. In the context of a state that had been safeguarded for nearly a century by the army, the victory of a religiously-based, socially conservative, yet economically neoliberal and pro-European Union party was seen by many as a testament to the robustness of Turkish democracy and the possibilities offered by the "Turkish model".

The model's limits

That scepticism and caution should be exercised when encountering arguments about "models" and their "applicability" is almost a given, thanks to since-discredited "modernisation thesis" that dominated European and north American social and political studies for over half a century. Scepticism, however, should also be exercised regarding the assumption that Turkey can or should act as a "model" for others.

It is concerning that the quality of Turkish democracy has been inadequately examined by those proposing that its elements be replicated throughout the region. The misplaced confidence in Turkish democracy seems to us to result from the superficiality of the benchmarks against which democracy and democratisation are evaluated.

The Turkish state’s assessment of itself as democratic is often taken at face value, and the existence of structures and institutions associated with democracy are taken as its measure. The conflation of democracy with state discourses, institutions and structures results in a superficial assessment of the quality of Turkish democracy.

A closer examination of these institutions, and of the policies and practices of recent governments yields a different picture of Turkish democracy, and casts doubt on the arguments for the "Turkish model".

Elections and bans

While elections in Turkey are indisputably democratic, the electoral system and electoral politics leave a lot to be desired. Among the most blatant problems are comparatively high electoral threshold of 10%, and the persistent banning of political parties and individual candidates.

The threshold a party needs to exceed in the national vote in order to win any seats in parliament is by far the highest in Europe; the second highest, in Germany and Poland, is 5%, followed by Slovenia and Sweden at 4%. Moreover, ethnic-minority parties in Poland are exempted from the threshold requirements, while in Germany any party that secures at least three constituency seats qualifies for representation in parliament regardless of its nationwide percentage. Similarly, any party receiving 12% of the vote in any district in Sweden is exempted from the national threshold and represented in parliament.

The Turkish assembly, lacking any such exemptions, is the most unrepresentative in Europe. Minority parties, most recently the pro-Kurdish BDP and its predecessors, are the most adversely affected. It is only by fielding their members as independent candidates standing in individual constituencies that these parties have been able to gain representation in parliament. In this manner, the BDP managed to secure thirty-six seats in the most recent election. Yet, had the threshold been lower (at 5%, for instance), the BDP would have secured even more seats, and voters would have been more justly represented in the national assembly.

Kurdish and pro-Kurdish parties and candidates have also been disproportionally (although not exclusively) affected by the repeated banning of political parties, candidates, and members of parliament. Since the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923, fifty-seven political parties have at one point or another been dissolved. Since 2001, three political parties have been disbanded, and close to one hundred individual candidates and members of parliament have been temporarily banned from engaging in political activities, or have had their member-of-parliament status revoked.

The Virtue Party (FP) was banned in June 2001 when the constitutional court found it to be in violation of Article 68 of Turkey’s constitution, which prohibits engagement in actions contrary to the secular character of the republic. After its dissolution, five members of the FP were banned from engaging in political activity for five years. The People’s Democracy Party (Hadep) was banned in March 2003 when the court found it to be serving as a centre for illegal activity; forty-six members, including its president, were too given a five-year ban from politics.

Hadep’s successor, the Democratic Society Party (DTP) was banned in December 2009 for its ostensible support of the outlawed Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK; thirty-seven of its members were banned from politics for five years, and two of its MPs (including its president, Ahmet Türk) had their MP status annulled. Elected members of the DTP’s unofficial successor, the previously mentioned BDP, staged a boycott of parliamentary proceedings to protest the annulment of the MP status of two of its members elected to parliament in 2011.

The constitution

The AKP’s expressed desire to make fundamental changes to Turkey’s constitution - ratified in 1982, following the 1980 coup d’état - is often touted as evidence of the strength of Turkish democracy. Yet the desire to replace a military with a civil constitution is not in itself an adequate measure of democratisation. Not only is the content of the proposed constitution far from clear, but the process through which a new constitution is to be arrived at is of vital importance if it is to be taken as a hallmark of democracy.

The party’s lack of enthusiasm for consultation and compromise on constitutional reform was reflected during the election campaign, when the AKP urged voters to ensure that the party secure 367 - or at least 330 - seats in parliament (the former number would allow it to initiate constitutional change without a referendum, the latter only after a referendum).

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, anticipating at least 330 seats for his party, repeatedly stated in pre-election speeches that he did not see the need to consult and cooperate with others over the issue. Yet after winning only 327 seats (a number since increased by two thanks to redistribution of revoked candidates’ seats) the prime minister made a complete u-turn, and announced his desire to work with other political parties on constitutional reform.

Human and civil rights

Turkey’s democratic record is perhaps bleakest in the areas of human and minority rights. The lack of full implementation of the citizenship rights of religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey, and a weak human rights record make it a rather undesirable "model" for Egypt and other states with poor human-rights records and majority-minority tensions.

Of the forty-seven countries subject to the decisions of the European Court of Human Right (ECtHR), Turkey has been the leader in violations against the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) for the last seven years (2004-10). Since comprehensive statistics became available in 2003, Turkey has managed only once to avoid this distinction (in 2003, when in came second to Italy). With 15,206 pending applications, Turkey is second only to Russia (with 40,295 applications pending).

While the situation of ethnic and religious minorities has improved in the last two decades, it continues to be difficult. There have been advances in the recognition of the individual rights of religious and ethnic minorities, but collective cultural and social rights remain either legally unrecognised or inadequately enforced. A racialised Turkish nationhood continues to condition the manner in which religious and ethnic minorities appear in dominant discourses (namely, as "inauthentic Turks" who threaten the unity and existence of the Turkish nation). As such, public and collective rights are resisted, and minority communities face continued discrimination with regard to local self-governance, collective property rights, and freedom of political association and public expression.

The Kurdish issue is again exemplary. True, there has been progress on the legal recognition of the linguistic rights of Kurdish citizens, and (perhaps most importantly) the state’s official recognition of Kurdish identity. But the current government, not unlike its predecessors, attempts to reduce a political issue related to the rights of a minority community in a democratic society to the level of isolated problems to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. This stance, which effectively denies recognition of a collective political identity on the basis of which various rights demands and claims are made, marks the distance between the current Turkish political system and a substantive, "model" democracy.

The media

There are other vital (if "softer" or less structural) indicators of democracy that champions of the "Turkish model" seldom address.

Turkey, for instance, ranks 138th in the Press Freedom Index for 2010. This puts it in the bottom quarter, below such countries as Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. It ranks only several places above many of the countries for which it is touted as an ideal, including Bahrain, Libya, and Tunisia. At the time of writing, access is banned in Turkey to some 6,800 websites; YouTube, while currently accessible in Turkey, has been banned four times in as many years for hosting videos deemed insulting to Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the Turkish nation.

Turkey has taken significant steps toward democratisation. There is a strong civil society in Turkey, and its demands for the improvement of democratic structures and practices are supported by large elements of the population. Yet advocates of the "Turkish model" would do well to take a more critical look at the depth of Turkish democracy before seeing it as deserving of replication throughout the region.

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