Doubting democracy in Muslim Turkey


Turkish flag crumpledIn light of the civilian uprisings that are rattling the Middle East, much has been made of the republic of Turkey as a model for reform and democratisation in the Muslim world. By any measure, Turkey is the most successful Muslim democracy, however, if the Turkish experience is indicative, then the process of establishing robust and viable democracies in the Middle East will be long and slow.

Elections on 12 June saw the third successive electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP), cementing the mandate of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and reaffirming popular approval for his economic development and democratisation agenda.

Emerging in 2002, the AKP won its first decisive majority after a long period of Turkish political instability notable for weak coalition governments and military interventions. Successive elections have seen AKP increase its majority. However, some observers regard the AKP's dominance as heralding the spectre of Islamism rather than representing the ongoing evolution of Turkey's democratic credentials.

The AKP undoubtedly has its roots in Islamic political activism. It grew out of the ashes of the Refah Party, which temporarily held power under Necmettin Erbakan, the prime minister ousted by the generals in 1997 in the most recent military coup.

That the Erbakan government was deemed to have violated the principle of secularism that underpins the Turkish constitution, sets alarm bells ringing for those who see Erdogan as intent on the same. And Erdogan's efforts at rapprochement with neighbouring Syria and Iran have caused some pundits to opine that Turkey is 'turning east'; some diplomats even asked how the West had 'lost' Turkey.

Yet despite its ideological foundations, the Erdogan government has displayed consistent pragmatism rather than proselytising zeal. Under AKP stewardship Turkey finally began EU accession talks in October 2005. Various human rights issues have also been addressed, ostensibly with a view to expediting EU membership, nonetheless the result has been some freeing up of the public sphere.

Erdogan has also sought to promote a more pluralistic milieu within the country tackling the 'Kurdish question' and seeking reconciliation with Armenia. Little tangible progress has been made, however discourse is now more inclusive and less defined by nationalistic parameters.

On the economic front, the AKP government has proved a steady hand during an uncertain time. It kick-started the economy after a crash in 2001, facilitated the expansion of the private sector and weathered the global financial crisis. In fact, such is the AKP's economic stance that some observers depict it as a standard centre-right party, albeit one with a Muslim core constituency.

Now topping the AKP's political to-do list is the rewriting of the Turkish constitution, a document formulated by the military in the wake of the coup of 1980, which gives the generals considerable scope for intervention in the political domain. A revised constitution should realign the pillars of the Turkish polity, empowering public and legislative bodies so that the prospect of 'military tutelage' no longer hangs over Turkish democracy.

For those prone to scenting 'Islamist' conspiracies, the prospect of an openly observant Muslim government rewriting a constitution spells disaster for Turkey: such pundits portray an AKP-sanctioned constitution as a first step towards the country becoming the 'next Iran'. Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian streak and intolerance of criticism has only heightened these fears; critics claim that further empowered he would become the new 'sultan', unaccountable and unmovable.

The election of 12 June has resulted in the happiest of all possible outcomes: Erdogan has won a convincing mandate but not the three-fifths parliamentary majority that would allow the AKP to unilaterally rewrite the constitution. Rather, the AKP will need to reach consensus with their political opponents; the rewriting of the constitution will necessarily be achieved through consultation with a diversity of voices rather than an imposition of the will of the government.

Since winning the election Erdogan appears to have lifted his political vision from the domestic sphere, reigniting the issue of reconciliation with Armenia and, in recent days, speaking out forcefully against the Syrian regime's crackdown on its own people.

A consensual reworking of the Turkish constitution will be a noteworthy precedent for the building of democratic institutions that must inevitably follow in the wake of the popular uprisings across the Middle East. Erdogan already enjoys acclaim on the 'Arab street', not least because of his criticism of Israel, and in speaking out against Assad's 'savagery' he is likely to broaden his own appeal.

If, in fostering a truly pluralistic, robust and inclusive Turkey, Erdogan can illustrate a replicable model for Middle East polities, one that reconciles Islam with the exigencies of the modern world and the demands of democracy, then perhaps he is indeed the world statesman that his supporters claim him to be. 

William GourlayWilliam Gourlay is a post-graduate student at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University, Melbourne. Over the last 20 years, as backpacker, teacher and journalist, he has been a serial visitor to Turkey. 

Topic tags: Turkey, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Necmettin Erbakan, Refah Party



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Existing comments

A valuable comment on the on-going democratic events.

Equally worrying is the fact that the government has swolled holus-bolus a Western-style 'economic growth at any price'mantra. Apart from the huge disruption to many Turkish people's lives, the degradation on the country's - and adjoining ones - is turning out to be enormous. A real matter of concern.
Len Puglisi | 22 June 2011

Erdogan is the first Turkish prime minister to bring the military under civilian control.This is no mean achievement in a nation where the military were regarded as the protectors of secularism. Under his leadership Turkey's economy has become one of the strongest in the world. However the Kurdish and Cyprus issues still remain unresolved. The notorious art 301 of the Turkish penal code "insulting Turkishness" must be repealed where countless Turkish journalists, writers, authors and academics have been imprisoned for expressing opinions that are contrary to the official view of the government.

I hope that Mr Erdogan will have the courage to recognize the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Genocides as way of coming to terms with his ancestors recent dark history 1914-23. I remain hopeful that under Erdogan Turkey is slowly moving in the right direction.
Terry Steve | 22 June 2011

A good article. Western Govts backed by big business interests have prolonged the failure of democracy in many countries in the Middle East. Turkey is increasing and improving its democratic credentials and thereby credibility in the region. Middle eastern countries will also take a while to get to higher standards. None of these have been provoked by the west or western commentators. The Arab Spring is a wholly Arab phenomenon.

The hypocrisy of the EU with Turkey shows that the middle East needs to unify asap including with Iran and Pakistan. I sadly think there are too many western pressures trying to keep the middle east weakly led.
Zeki Murad | 23 June 2011

When I was on holidays in Turkey three years ago I got a pretty good idea about what liberal Turks feel about Mr Erdogan. Our young Turkish guide,a fierce democrat and published historian,showed his utter detestation for the Turkish prime minister by refusing EVER to refer to him by name.

One of the PM's tactics, which Safet explained to us,was to call elections at the time of year when educated, liberal,"middle class" citizens took their holidays outside of Turkey. Mr Erdogan a "world statesman" - I don't think so.
Claude Rigney | 23 June 2011

Claude, it may be that your tour guide, besides being a fierce democrat is also fiercely anti-Erdogan. Ballots under Erdogan have happened throughout the calendar year rather than at any particular middle-class holiday season: a general election on 22 July 2007, a referendum in October 2007, a referendum in September 2010, and this year's general election on June 12.
WJGOU | 26 June 2011

Great read, thanks. Turkey is a country well worth watching these days. Its actions are not as simple as extreme supporters and detractors would have us believe. There lies great potential in Turkey - both as a model for other Muslim democracies and as its own story. This article captures that well.
Ashlea | 27 June 2011

Great read, thanks. Turkey is a country well worth watching these days. Its actions are not as simple as extreme supporters and detractors would have us believe. There lies great potential in Turkey - both as a model for other Muslim democracies and as its own story. This article captures that well.
Ashlea | 27 June 2011


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