Europe can save Turkey’s democracy

 09 Jun 2013 - 2:54

Reforms Brussels had set as preconditions for Istanbul to begin the process of joining the European Union represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.

 

By Steven A Cook

In the past five years, Turkey has veered from what was once a promising path of liberal democracy — and the European Union can pull it back.

The recent massive street protests in Istanbul started as a backlash against the government’s plan to develop a beloved park into a shopping mall, but they also reflect popular frustration at the country’s authoritarian turn, made clear in the rise of crony capitalism, intimidation by government forces and the centralisation of power in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was just a decade ago that then-foreign minister Abdullah Gul was telling an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the main reason his government was pursuing wide-ranging democratic reforms was the possibility of fully joining the European Union. But as that prospect has faded, so has the drive toward democracy in Turkey. Even before the AKP came to power in late 2002, the party’s leaders determined that EU membership was the best means to resolve Turkey’s perennial culture war between Islamists and secularists. 

With a legislative majority, the AKP quickly abolished the death penalty, wrote a new penal code, changed anti-terrorism laws to make it more difficult to prosecute citizens on speech alone (though critics claim the changes do not go far enough) and significantly expanded political rights. 

The country also saw tentative steps towards granting Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 18 percent of the nation’s 80 million citizens, additional cultural rights, including the right to use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education.

 The parliament also made it more difficult for the government to ban political parties and politicians — previously a common way for Turkey’s political elite to undermine their opponents.

In the most extraordinary reform, the parliament altered the composition and functions of Turkey’s National Security Council — the body through which the top brass had routinely influenced political decisions. Instead, the council was downgraded to an advisory board with a civilian leader and placed under the budgetary control of the prime ministry.

Taken together, these reforms Brussels had set as preconditions for Istanbul to begin the process of joining the European Union represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.

The changes were wildly popular throughout Turkish society — among liberals who considered themselves Europeans, business leaders, Kurds, average Turks and Islamists. The military, which had long claimed to be a vanguard of modernization, simply could not afford to undermine the AKP’s European project because of the popular support it enjoyed. In October 2004, the European Commission concluded that Ankara had met all the requirements — the “Copenhagen criteria” — to begin membership negotiations and recommended that the Council of Europe formally extend Turkey an invitation.

After such an auspicious beginning, however, relations between Turkey and Europe soured. Bureaucrats on both sides contended that the problems were related to human rights violations, the occupation of northern Cyprus and the expenses Europe would need to pour into Turkey should it become a member of the union. 

But Turks sensed that Europe was having second thoughts about the prospect of admitting a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim. Erdogan and Gul spoke bravely about carrying on with reforms through what they called the “Ankara criteria,” but as the prospect of European membership seemed to dissipate, the pace of change in Turkey slowed, and in important areas such as personal freedoms, reforms actually reversed themselves.

The pragmatism and emphasis on democracy that marked Erdogan’s early years as prime minister gave way to a policy aimed at institutionalising the power of the AKP. Constitutional changes allowed the Turkish leader to pack the courts and the bureaucracy with his supporters. Improved macroeconomic performance came with crony capitalism, as economic policies largely benefited the AKP’s support base. And Erdogan is still seeking to write a new constitution with enhanced powers for the office of the presidency, which he hopes to pursue after his term as prime minister ends. It’s easy to argue that the EU, with its sclerotic economies, has nothing to offer Turkey or that Turks, disgusted at Europe’s prejudice against Muslims, are no longer interested in joining a club that doesn’t want them anyway. 

The legacy of Ataturk’s goal of “raising Turkey to the level of civilisation” plays a role, but more important, many Turks do not see a contradiction between being Muslim and being European. One of the mystiques of the AKP during Erdogan’s first term as prime minister (2003-2007) was that it proved Turkey could be more Muslim, more European and more nationalist simultaneously. 

So it is likely that popular support for EU membership would surge in Turkey once again — if Brussels extended a welcoming hand. Reinvigorating the relationship would also be good for the EU, giving it a new sense of purpose and mission during a time when many question its future.

The European Council should take up the recommendation of the European Parliament to reinvigorate relations with Ankara. A gesture from Europe that gives momentum to Turkey’s accession could have a dynamic effect on Turks and their politics. Although Erdogan continues to enjoy significant support among Turks, there is no doubt that the Gezi Park crisis has weakened him. A renewed negotiation process that is both credible and popular will oblige him to pursue a more pragmatic path at home.

The combination of the popular appeal of Europe and Erdogan’s diminished power would compel him to pick up where he left off in 2003-04 and again take up the mantle of reform and democratic change. It might just result in a new civil and democratic constitution, and bring millions into Turkey’s streets to celebrate Erdogan rather than demand his political demise.                                      WP-BLOOMBERG

Reforms Brussels had set as preconditions for Istanbul to begin the process of joining the European Union represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.

 

By Steven A Cook

In the past five years, Turkey has veered from what was once a promising path of liberal democracy — and the European Union can pull it back.

The recent massive street protests in Istanbul started as a backlash against the government’s plan to develop a beloved park into a shopping mall, but they also reflect popular frustration at the country’s authoritarian turn, made clear in the rise of crony capitalism, intimidation by government forces and the centralisation of power in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It was just a decade ago that then-foreign minister Abdullah Gul was telling an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the main reason his government was pursuing wide-ranging democratic reforms was the possibility of fully joining the European Union. But as that prospect has faded, so has the drive toward democracy in Turkey. Even before the AKP came to power in late 2002, the party’s leaders determined that EU membership was the best means to resolve Turkey’s perennial culture war between Islamists and secularists. 

With a legislative majority, the AKP quickly abolished the death penalty, wrote a new penal code, changed anti-terrorism laws to make it more difficult to prosecute citizens on speech alone (though critics claim the changes do not go far enough) and significantly expanded political rights. 

The country also saw tentative steps towards granting Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 18 percent of the nation’s 80 million citizens, additional cultural rights, including the right to use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education.

 The parliament also made it more difficult for the government to ban political parties and politicians — previously a common way for Turkey’s political elite to undermine their opponents.

In the most extraordinary reform, the parliament altered the composition and functions of Turkey’s National Security Council — the body through which the top brass had routinely influenced political decisions. Instead, the council was downgraded to an advisory board with a civilian leader and placed under the budgetary control of the prime ministry.

Taken together, these reforms Brussels had set as preconditions for Istanbul to begin the process of joining the European Union represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.

The changes were wildly popular throughout Turkish society — among liberals who considered themselves Europeans, business leaders, Kurds, average Turks and Islamists. The military, which had long claimed to be a vanguard of modernization, simply could not afford to undermine the AKP’s European project because of the popular support it enjoyed. In October 2004, the European Commission concluded that Ankara had met all the requirements — the “Copenhagen criteria” — to begin membership negotiations and recommended that the Council of Europe formally extend Turkey an invitation.

After such an auspicious beginning, however, relations between Turkey and Europe soured. Bureaucrats on both sides contended that the problems were related to human rights violations, the occupation of northern Cyprus and the expenses Europe would need to pour into Turkey should it become a member of the union. 

But Turks sensed that Europe was having second thoughts about the prospect of admitting a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim. Erdogan and Gul spoke bravely about carrying on with reforms through what they called the “Ankara criteria,” but as the prospect of European membership seemed to dissipate, the pace of change in Turkey slowed, and in important areas such as personal freedoms, reforms actually reversed themselves.

The pragmatism and emphasis on democracy that marked Erdogan’s early years as prime minister gave way to a policy aimed at institutionalising the power of the AKP. Constitutional changes allowed the Turkish leader to pack the courts and the bureaucracy with his supporters. Improved macroeconomic performance came with crony capitalism, as economic policies largely benefited the AKP’s support base. And Erdogan is still seeking to write a new constitution with enhanced powers for the office of the presidency, which he hopes to pursue after his term as prime minister ends. It’s easy to argue that the EU, with its sclerotic economies, has nothing to offer Turkey or that Turks, disgusted at Europe’s prejudice against Muslims, are no longer interested in joining a club that doesn’t want them anyway. 

The legacy of Ataturk’s goal of “raising Turkey to the level of civilisation” plays a role, but more important, many Turks do not see a contradiction between being Muslim and being European. One of the mystiques of the AKP during Erdogan’s first term as prime minister (2003-2007) was that it proved Turkey could be more Muslim, more European and more nationalist simultaneously. 

So it is likely that popular support for EU membership would surge in Turkey once again — if Brussels extended a welcoming hand. Reinvigorating the relationship would also be good for the EU, giving it a new sense of purpose and mission during a time when many question its future.

The European Council should take up the recommendation of the European Parliament to reinvigorate relations with Ankara. A gesture from Europe that gives momentum to Turkey’s accession could have a dynamic effect on Turks and their politics. Although Erdogan continues to enjoy significant support among Turks, there is no doubt that the Gezi Park crisis has weakened him. A renewed negotiation process that is both credible and popular will oblige him to pursue a more pragmatic path at home.

The combination of the popular appeal of Europe and Erdogan’s diminished power would compel him to pick up where he left off in 2003-04 and again take up the mantle of reform and democratic change. It might just result in a new civil and democratic constitution, and bring millions into Turkey’s streets to celebrate Erdogan rather than demand his political demise.                                      WP-BLOOMBERG