Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Backward

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), or in Turkish, Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi, came to power in late 2002 and went to win two more elections in 2007 and 2011, gaining a larger and larger share of the vote. No government since the 1950s had managed to achieve such a feat. A year ago, the AKP and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an seemed poised to extend their dominance of Turkish politics for a decade or longer. A year later, however, in the aftermath of protests in early summer and a massive corruption scandal, uncertainty reigns. Erdo?an and his party appear to have become unhinged. In fits of complete paranoia, they and their supporters have started to accuse everyone, especially Western allies and interests, for attempting to overthrow them.

Eleven years after one of the most stunning electoral victories, the promise and accomplishments of Erdo?an and the AKP risk are being undermined by their reaction to public protests and government corruption. The danger they confront is completely of their own making. What started as a bold attempt at transforming Turkey both economically and politically is succumbing to the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Erdo?an. What ultimately threatens the system is precisely the inability of the AKP and Erdo?an to deliver on meaningful and institutionalized reforms designed to truly democratize the country.

A Tale of Initial Progress

Make no mistake about it: Turkey has dramatically transformed since the arrival of the AKP. It is economically much more prosperous; it is one of the leading emerging market economies; its exports have mushroomed from barely $2 billion in 1980 to $150 billion; its middle class has expanded dramatically to encompass previously excluded segments of society; Turkish Airlines has become a major world-scale airline with over 250 destinations and Istanbul is becoming a major international hub for travelers; and its banking sector has withstood the turbulences that swept the global financial sector in 2008. Whereas before it had no footprint in foreign policy, the AKP government has inserted itself into global politics, although not always as smoothly as its policy makers may have wished.

The Turkish state is also more service oriented and citizen friendly. It exerts itself less over the population than the government of the previous era. Erdo?an, as a former mayor of Istanbul, understood that the secret to good governance was to bring services to his constituents. Under his tutelage, health services were revamped, hospitals made accessible, and all kinds of primary care introduced. Similar steps were undertaken to improve the educational system. For example, the government created entirely new educational institutions while also increasing funding for universities. The AKP also developed grand scale projects designed to improve the country’s poorly conceived infrastructure. Many of the projects were made possible because of the economic boom. As Turkey became richer, foreign capital flowed in, enabling the financing of such endeavors.

Erdo?an and the AKP were free-market friendly and understood that the role of the state was to facilitate the accumulation of capital by improving physical and social infrastructure. Foreign policy was tailored to help Turkish businesses expand their reach, find new markets and globalize production. These economic achievements allowed Erdo?an to expand Turkey’s influence first in the region and then internationally. His earlier efforts to resolve the Cyprus question won him plaudits from both Europe and the United States. Consequently, the European Union unthinkably opened negotiations with Ankara.

Among the reforms instituted was the de-politicization of the Turkish military, an institution that, for better or worse, dominated Turkish politics since its first overt political intervention in 1960. While the officers contributed to their own downfall, the AKP used the judicial system to put the army on the defensive and ultimately achieve significant civilian control over it. Perhaps for the first time in living memory, Turkish political parties are negotiating the political landscape without the specter of the military hanging over their head.

Finally, Erdo?an undertook immense risks by tackling Turkey’s most serious problem, the Kurdish Question. He not only improved relations with the Kurdish government in northern Iraq, but also opened negotiations with the main insurgent group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan in Turkish). While the final resolution of the Kurdish Question still remains distant, Erdo?an has, at the very least, succeeded in getting the guns to fall silent. Erdo?an’s Kurdish overtures have moved the process along in a way in which it will be difficult to turn the clock back. Resolving the Kurdish question is one of the most critical steps along the democratization front; in the past, in its effort to resist Kurdish aspirations, the Turkish state engaged in a policy of denial and suppression, leading to numerous revolts.

In sum, the Erdo?an administration brought about a new approach to state-citizen relations that dramatically improved services available to Turkish citizens. Today, nations actively seek to be economic and political partners with Turkey. After the beginning of the Arab Spring, Turkey was touted as the best model for the burgeoning Arab democracies. Finally, Turkey took steps along the Kurdish front that no previous government dreamed of initiating.

Missteps and Shortcomings

In May/June 2013, protests erupted over the Istanbul municipality’s attempt to build a shopping mall on one of the few green spaces left in the city center. These Gezi park protests were suppressed with considerable police brutality. In addition, the December 2013 corruption scandal implicated four cabinet members and had the potential of expanding to Erdo?an’s family members.

The government in both cases responded with fury. By suppressing all forms of dissent, it undermined the very institutions that it had promised to develop and nurture. It made a mockery of the rule of law as well as free speech. Opponents were branded traitors and tools of foreign powers while police investigators were removed from office or transferred. Gezi protester deaths were never investigated despite ample evidence of misconduct by security forces. Moreover, pressure was exerted over media owners to fire journalists, editors and columnists who disagreed with the AKP and Erdo?an.

In short, the behavior of the AKP government mirrored that of previous governments that were under military tutelage. The military while exercising power behind the scenes also fired journalists, engaged in cover-ups, ensured the judiciary prosecuted  “enemies of the state and regime” and saw foreign plots behind many developments in its region. The main difference between the military and AKP is that the military rule resulted in thousands of deaths in the Kurdish areas, while the AKP shifted the focus to negotiations and away from violence.

The government reaction to the protests and the corruption case demonstrated that the AKP’s greatest shortcoming was its reluctance to introduce a genuinely liberal and democratic constitution to institutionalize the party’s accomplishments. Instead it focused solely on ending the military’s tutelage over society and politics. The changes the AKP made to the constitution were episodic, chaotic and without guiding principle. This is despite the fact that on numerous occasions the AKP promised it would introduce a new constitution to address the demands of its Kurdish population but also to undo the traditional construction that privileged the state at the expense of the individual. Despite its claims that it was trying, the AKP and Erdo?an preferred piecemeal changes and refused to push for a national debate on the new constitution. In the 2011 elections the ruling AKP was returned to power with almost 50 percent of the vote, an indisputable accomplishment. Still, all the political capital garnered from the elections was squandered.

The Chemistry and Implications of AKP Rule

The AKP pleasantly surprised all when in 2002 it projected an all-encompassing message. Contrary to fears that it would pursue an Islamic agenda, its first order of business became the integration of Turkey into the global political economy. This meant not just economically, but also politically.

But if the AKP had a not so-secret agenda, it was to weaken the power of the Turkish military. Accomplishing this goal turned out to be more difficult than expected. For one, the military generals sought ways to rid the country of what they considered an Islamist government. The conflict turned into an epic struggle in which the AKP garnered a coalition willing to part with the military-imposed doctrine of secularism, ethnic purity and the deification of the state. The AKP built a coalition with liberal Turks, a religious order headed by a preacher on a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gülen, and elements of the Kurdish community.

The showdown culminated with two dramatic developments. The first in 2007 was the brazen attempt (and misstep) by the military high command to prevent the AKP government from forwarding the candidacy of its foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, to the presidency. In a series of clumsy moves, the generals provided an opportunity for the AKP to call their bluff by scheduling national elections. The elections concluded with a resounding defeat for the generals; the AKP increased its share of the vote from 34 to almost 47 percent. Following the electoral results, the Turkish judiciary, itself a die-hard member of what remained of the old coalition, initiated a court case designed to ban the AKP on the basis that it had engaged in unlawful Islamic politics. That also proved feeble and ill conceived and was abandoned. The officers were also faced with a humiliating series of trials that saw many active and retired colleagues convicted of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. The final coup de grace came when the AKP and the Gülen movement retaliated against the judiciary with a series of constitutional changes approved in the 2010 referendum that cleansed the judicial hierarchy of its old elements. All in all, it was an ignominious fall for the officers.

Similarly, the AKP did not try to revamp the judicial system aside from the 2010 referendum. The Turkish judicial system is an arbitrary one; it tends to judge people not on the merit of the case but on the perception of the accused. Historically, people perceived to be enemies of the state have been persecuted for crimes that others would not be. The military establishment preferred it that way and could, through its influence on judges and prosecutors, keep the barbarians (read Islamists and Kurds) at the gate. The same arbitrary judicial system, in the hands of the AKP and Gülenists, was used to prosecute and imprison officers.

Despite the ongoing peace process, the single largest victim of arbitrary justice was once again Kurds. More than 8,000 Kurds were swept up in dragnet accusing them of belonging to a series of illegal organizations. With trials delayed, many of them have been incarcerated for as many as five years. In this sense, the old system has continued to exist and Erdo?an and the AKP have condoned these detentions.

The same is also true of the press. The Turkish press has traditionally suffered from individual owners using their own media outlets as political and economic weapons against governments or business rivals. When the military was dominant, the owners tended, for the most part, to receive cues from the army brass. The AKP changed the orientation of the press but not its essence; anti-AKP owners were gradually replaced by AKP supporters, creating a press corps subservient to the government’s wishes. Journalists critical of Erdo?anhave found themselves jobless as a result of government pressure. In many ways, the press is far more managed today than it was under military tutelage.

There are two important reasons that account for the lack of constitutional and judicial reform. The first has to do with the nature of the political party and opposition system in Turkey. Turkish political parties have tended to become the fiefdom of their leader. It is rare for a leader to be replaced even after disastrous election results. Those who want seats (or a chance to compete for one) in parliament must remain in the leader’s good graces. Consequently, parties have atrophied over time, Erdo?an just so happens to be one of the most successful party leaders ever. His complete domination of the AKP means that no dissent is tolerated and complete obedience to him is prized. For example, Erdo?an has claimed that the most recent corruption case was in fact a coup orchestrated by Western Powers, among them the United States, Israel and some European countries. As irrational and absurd as that claim may have been, everyone in the party, cabinet and associated media have parroted it to no end. In fact, one member of parliament went so far as to argue, “if it is homage or complete obedience [to Erdo?an] so be it, we stand behind him to our death.”

This behavior is replicated in the opposition parties. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, CHP, is only now showing signs of revitalization. However, its main failure has been to offer serious opposition to the AKP, as its leadership has been dismal. The absence of a coherent opposition, able and willing to not only organize at the grassroots level and also offer an alternative vision, is probably the most serious weakness of current Turkish politics. As a result, the AKP has been able to dominate the political space without any accountability—save for elections.

The irony is that today the most effective opposition comes from the Gülen movement. The weakness of the opposition is what has catapulted the movement. The AKP and the Gülenists originate from two different traditions in Turkish Islam. While historically not allies, they joined forces after the onset of the AKP because both wanted to domesticate the Turkish military and both shared a similar view of the Turkish political economy. With the institutionalization of the economy and the defeat of the military, the two movements have parted ways, each perceiving the other to be a threat to the constitutional order. The AKP perceives the Gülen movement as an insidious force that has penetrated the bureaucracy and government whereas the Gülenists view Erdo?an as dominant and authoritarian.

The second reason for the lack of reform is the personality of Erdo?an. His approach to reform has been purely driven by his own ambitions and needs. Constitutional reform became a bargaining chip to achieve his number one goal, transforming Turkey into a presidential republic with himself at the helm. If this were to become reality, he would be the first president elected by popular vote and not by parliament. However, Erdo?an overplayed his hand and underestimated the opposition in the country. Having squandered his chances to institute a presidential system, his interest in genuine constitutional reform waned. Instead, by making changes in the margins, he has manipulated the system to his short-term benefit. In effect, he has turned the country into a one-man, one-party republic.

Two Steps Forward Two Steps Backward

Turkey today is more open and democratic in many respects. This is partly thanks to Erdo?an’s initial reforms, the military’s missteps and the weakening of the state bureaucracy. The fact that Turkey is more prosperous has also strengthened civil society organizations. New NGOs have mushroomed; some are pro-government while others are independent. Furthermore, technology has provided new opportunities and outlets for the circulation of information. Information, of course, works both ways: there as many dissenting voices as there are supporters of the government. Still, this augurs well for the future.

On the other hand, in the absence of real and institutional reforms, these changes can be rolled back in time. Moreover, many of the steps Erdo?an has taken, especially in his direct intervention in the judiciary and the media, have demonstrated that he is not that different from the military officers who dominated politics before his ascent to power. Just like previous governments, the AKP and Erdo?an have been unwilling to be tolerant of critics and criticisms from others who do not share their views. In fact, new laws and regulations issued by the Erdo?an government have served to roll back many of the early democratic gains. Not since the beginning of multi-party rule in 1950 has a government exercised as much direct control on the media as the AKP has succeeded in doing through sheer intimidation and manipulation. Whether it is a proposed Internet law or the sacking of police officers, prosecutor or journalists, the government has in effect started the roll back process.

Political change happens slowly; new institutions need time to mature to become effective. It appears that the AKP after a promising start failed to bring about the kind of change the country desperately needs. As a result, Turkey has a long way to go before democracy is truly institutionalized. The time it has wasted in the process will be very hard to earn back.