Whither Turkish Democracy?

Last week, Turkey’s governing party, the AKP, held its 4th general congress and reelected Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan. An excellent orator, Mr. Erdogan addressed many issues regarding the consolidation of Turkish democracy, regional instability, economic and financial issues and gave significant hints regarding whether he will run for the presidency or not.  Local and international media focused on how Mr.Erdogan’s Turkey has become a conservative democratic model for other Muslim nations with its political and economic success. However, few paid attention to Erdogan’s exclusionary language and what alternative policies could be implemented to solve the Kurdish question, Alawite problem, freedom of speech and other shortcomings of his “conservative democracy” model.

Unchallenged by alternative solid political and economic programmes by opposition parties, the AKP is more concerned about how to maintain its power by renewing its own ranks, sometimes by co-opting promising opposition figures: in their words – recruiting young, eager minds to serve the nation.  All of these changes are as a result of Mr. Erdogan wanting to run for the presidency since he thinks stability is what Turkey needs to be among the major powers and would like to hold the presidential office until 2023. The new constitution is being written but it’s not clear how the Turkish nation will be defined and whether it will become more inclusive by referring to the distinct identities of the various different communities.

Moreover, there are significant problems regarding freedom of speech and religion, language rights and state repression. Despite progress in certain areas, it seems AKP’s focus is on achieving a stable and growing economy rather than a working democracy, human rights and EU accession. This is not unique to Turkey, the European Union as well as emerging illiberal democracies in the Arab countries  have focused on the economy rather than fulfilling their citizens’ legitimate demands for democratic ideals. Nevertheless, Mr.Erdogan’s bitter language on the Kurdish question – despite his statements that new negotiations with the PKK are in the pipeline – his not inviting Alawites to the congress, his exclusion of some ultra-secular newspapers from that congress – these all add up to evidence of how Turkey is moving away from implementing democratic reforms and becoming a modern, pluralist nation.

Furthermore, nobody, including major European newspapers has mentioned why Mr.Erdogan did not refer to EU accession and how the government is planning to re-route the EU train. Ironically enough, no EU official attended AKP’s congress whereas the new Egyptian President Morsi, KRG’s President Barzani and Hamas leader Mesal all delivered speeches. This does not necessarily suggest that Turkey is changing its axis but it shows how EU and Turkey are losing faith in their relationship, especially after the economic crisis.

Unfortunately, as anticipated, the Syrian civil war has somehow spilled over to Turkey. The Turkish parliament’s resolution to allow Turkish army forces to enter other countries’ territories for various reasons should not be considered as a declaration of war, however. Instead, it is designed to show Syria that Turkey is capable of protecting its own territories and that Turkey will not remain indifferent to this conflict if it influences Turkey’s internal security and stability. Nevertheless, the resolution was prepared to renew Turkey’s long-term operations in Northern Iraq against the PKK.  The text does not specify any territory or time limit which means Turkey might launch operations not only against the Assad regime but also against a PYD-controlled potential Kurdish state in Northern Syria.  This might trigger a series of conflicts between different actors in the region, causing a domino effect.

AKP’s tendency to focus on economic and political stability by ignoring the implementation of democratic reforms cannot be explained only by internal dynamics. Lack of any opposition, coupled with a lack of interest in civil society are significant causes, but at the same time there is growing concern about the implementation of liberal democracy throughout the whole of Europe and Middle East as democratic ideals remain rhetoric rather than practice. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war is not desired by Turkish civil society, but this it seems is the price you have to pay if you wish to be an economically and politically stable regional power.