Following the downturn in US-Turkish relations and the recent re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Turkish Republic, only this time with enhanced powers, some have begun to ask what happened to Turkish democracy?
But the question is misplaced. Sure, Turkey has certainly drifted from liberal democratic politics in recent years; however, the reality is that Turkey was never, ever, a democracy. It is worth having a brief historical recap in order to remind western journalists, politicians and wonks as well as some of their self-deluded Turkish counterparts of this fact.
The idea that Turkey is a democracy is a western construct. It is an invented and artificial idea based on the hopes of western policy makers (and some wishful thinking Turkish intellectuals) who, in the post 9/11 war on terror, thought they needed an example of a modern, western friendly and democratic Muslim country in order to convince the Muslim world that they were not at war with Islam. This construct was given additional impetus after the misnamed Arab Spring of 2011. Again, the international community wanted to point towards a model or example of a Muslim democracy. They pointed to Turkey, but they shouldn’t have.
Following Turkey’s establishment in 1923, Turkey was under the one-man rule of its principle state-builder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Secularist, reformist, revolutionary, moderniser and visionary, Kemal-Ataturk was, however, no democrat. There were a couple of short periods when he experimented with a two-party system, but when the politics of the opposition drifted in a direction not to his liking, he swiftly did away with it. Following his death in 1938, Kemal-Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu took over the mantle. Elections took place in 1946 which the ruling party won in a landslide because, quite frankly, they were unfree, unfair, and undoubtedly rigged. It was not until 1950 that free and fair elections finally took place and even brought about a change of government. Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party became Prime Minister. However, ten years later the military ousted him in a coup. Incensed by Manderes’ handling of the economy, his creeping autocratic nature and his popular appeals to Islam, they decided he needed to be gone for good. One year after the coup Menderes was hanging by the neck.
And like a kid with an open packet of Oreos, the military just couldn’t help itself. It staged another intervention in 1971 and another in 1980 after urban political violence was tearing the country apart. Until 1983 Turkey was led by a military junta. In addition to arresting hundreds of thousands of citizens, executing dozens and the many incidences of torture, the men in uniform oversaw the drafting of the 1982 constitution. They also vetted political candidates ahead of the 1983 elections. Even after return to “normal” civilian politics, the military retained control of nearly all institutions of state through informal networks and by heading supervisory bodies. Nothing could happen from foreign policy to television broadcasts if it were against the will of the generals.
The main challenge to the military’s grip over power was the rise of Welfare Party and its leader and Necmettin Erbakan who became Prime Minister in 1996 and advocated an openly Islamist foreign policy. No problem for the boys in uniform. In 1997 they gave Erbakan an ultimatum which made him obliged to resign. He was then banned from politics and so was his party.
But hold on a minute. As far removed from democracy as the above might sound, it doesn’t relate to the whole of the country. While all this was taking place, the southeast was a different case altogether. The 1920s and 30s were marked by insurrections and brutal crackdowns by the full arm of the state. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly dreadful as insurgency and counter insurgency claimed the lives of 40,000 citizens. Death squads roamed southeastern cities assassinating Kurdish leaders. Thousands of villages were destroyed and perhaps millions displaced. There were many instances of extrajudicial killings and torture which still remain uninvestigated let alone punished. So when you hear people talk of Turkish democracy, they are usually talking about only part of the country, the places where people go on holiday and policy makers and businesspersons visit rather than the southeast which resembled a war-zone.
It was not until October 2001 that Turkey entered a period of democratization with the first of a series of reforms geared towards EU accession. Not long after, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government. The following year, after his ban from politics was lifted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister.
This was perfect timing for the West which was in the early stages of the War on Terror. Running the show in Turkey were outwardly pious politicians whose political careers emanated from Islamist parties. They had covered wives, reframed from drinking alcohol and talked about piety, and, yet, Turkey still appeared to be pro-western and friendly. These Turkish politicians even talked the talk about democracy.
But it was all nonsense. Throughout this period, Erdogan and the AKP worked hard to undermine Turkey’s opportunity at democratization. Just a few examples to illustrate the point. In 2005, Erdogan sued Musa Kart and the Cumhuriyet newspaper for a cartoon that “insulted” him. This was while 60 academics, journalists and publishers were already in prison or facing prosecution. The onslaught against freedom of expression which would go full speed ahead ten years later had already begun. Meanwhile, the infamous article 301, which banned the insult against “Turkishness” was also in full sway and used against novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. Also, in 2004, there were serious discussions by the AKP government to criminalize adultery. Yes, you heard right – criminalize adultery! To make matters worse, the AKP got into bed with the Gulen movement who had infiltrated the judiciary and police force and laid fraudulent charges on hundreds of military officers in what turned out to be a successful bid to ouster the military’s ability to interfere in politics. It was also designed to make room for the rise of Gulenist ranks within the armed-forces. Although the military was by far an anti-democratic force, these means to supress it were contrary to the rule of law. They made a mockery of the courts.
In 2008 there was an attempt through the constitutional court to shut down the AKP for anti-secular activities. Ultimately it failed (although it did slap the party with a fine and a warning). However, in response, the AKP spearheaded the 2010 constitutional changes which began the process of eroding Turkey’s fragile system of checks and balances.
All the while, politicians and liberal intellectuals in the West and Turkey were heaping praise on Turkish democracy, and, by extension, Erdogan and the AKP. In reality, democracy in Turkey was barely in existence. And I haven’t even gone beyond 2010 when things got even worse. The myth of Turkish democracy should be understood as just that, a piece of fiction.
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