Democracy in Turkey

<a href="">José María de Areilza</a>. Professor. IE Business School

29 May 2007

Turkey faces one of its worst political crises in recent history, as the political tension grows between secular and Islamic parties, including the threat of military intervention. Europe can use the EU trump card to help strengthen Turkish democracy.

Turkey is undergoing one of the worst political crises in its recent history. The country is embroiled in tensions between the moderate Islamic party in government-- the Justice and Development Party or AKP led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan--and various secular political forces, which are divided amongst themselves but enjoy the backing of the army. The crisis was sparked by the parliamentary vote to elect the President of the Republic.

The president, who has always adhered to the secular Kemalist ideology, has real executive power. That’s why the decision of the AKP to nominate current Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Gül as head of state prompted the opposition to boycott the election. Its deputies walked out of parliament, thus depriving the chamber of two thirds of its members. Coupled with warnings from the military that it would not tolerate Gül’s election ultimately led the party to withdraw his candidacy.

In response, the EU entreated the Turkish army to keep clear of politics and to observe democratic rules, arguing that this hands-off policy would be clear proof of Turkey´s desire to become a democracy. The military sees itself as the absolute guardian of the secular values on which the Republic was originally founded in 1923. The powerful Turkish army has intervened at least four times in the last 50 years, helping to determine who would govern.

Finally, in this latest crisis, and amidst wide-spread popular protest against the steady Islamisation of the country, the Constitutional Court voted in favour of Erdogan’s opponents by requiring a quorum for the presidential election. This provisional end to the crisis led the government to call snap elections for 22 July. Meanwhile, the AKP has grown stronger and wants to promote a constitutional reform that calls for the president of the Republic to be elected by universal suffrage and for his powers to be redefined. Many analysts seem to agree that these early elections will only delay a deeper crisis and greater instability farther down the road.

Clashing visions of democracy
The Turkish crisis can be understood, in simple terms, as a clash between two sectors of the country that maintain conflicting and imperfect visions of democracy. On the one hand are the moderate Islamists, who make up a clear yet small parliamentary majority that won only 34.2% of the votes in 2002. These religious moderates want to exercise their rights and elect a president who shares their ideas. Their mid-term religious agenda, however, is not aligned with fundamental liberties and the secular values of the Turkish Republic. Thus, the various secular parties oppose this moderate Islamic majority and wish to preserve the Republic’s essence, while seeking to shield the office of the Head of State from Islamism. Unfortunately, by backing the attitudes of a secular republic, the army reaffirms its active role in politics. If necessary, it will step in to challenge the power of the Islamist parliamentary majority.

The paradox of the Turkish crisis is that the only way that the two opposing sides can meet and find common ground is by becoming more deeply committed to democracy. Democracy will enable each party to move forward legitimately with its program and it will establish the limits on political excesses. Advanced democracy, as shown during the 20th century, consists of "finding a balance between the fear of a few and the fear of many", as one of the great North American political scientist once said. In other words, it is a question of preventing the majority from trampling the rights of minority groups while keeping the minorities from governing by usurping the position of the majority.

In Turkey today, the challenge is to discern where the real majority lies, given the dispersion of the secular vote and the obstacles to Kurdish participation in politics. But let’s suppose, as the latest election results suggest, that there really is an Islamist majority and a Republican minority. In that case, a decision by the army to forgo political interference, and the islamisation of key aspects of political life, would lead to a deadlock between these groups and guarantee the functioning of the system, thus helping to promote democracy.

External pressure, exerted in an intelligent way, particularly from Europe, represents another means for solving the Turkish crisis. The army’s submission to civil rule, a deep understanding of religious freedom and freedom of religion are necessary conditions if Turkey is to join the EU. The road to political and economic modernisation in Turkey began in 1923 and it approached its destination in October 2005 with the opening of negotiations for joining the EU.

Since then, Ankara’s refusal to recognize Cyprus, a full member of the EU, and Turkey’s failure to implement certain human rights reforms, specially those regarding freedom of expression, have brought negotiations to a standstill. Complicating things even more are the shortsighted attitudes of the French and the Austrians, who have announced a veto of Turkey´s adhesion, which is unlikely to take place before 2014. It is necessary to inject a fresh dose of common sense and pragmatism into the process of bringing the two sides together. And once again, it is important to use the European trump card as an incentive for continuing the country´s internal transformation.


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