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No True Democracy without Peace

11/07/2016 | BY ROY KARADAG

Why the decline of Turkish democracy predates the coup attempt of July and why the country nonetheless has the potential to adopt a sustainable political model.

Turkey is going through turbulent times. In the wake of the attempted coup of July 15, 2016 – fortunately unsuccessful, thereby averting the formation of a new military dictatorship – the country is headed towards an uncertain future. 

The efforts of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to deal with the collective experience of the attempted coup have proven to be seriously flawed, belying any expectation that Turkey might become a more democratic country after the attempt than it was before. These efforts are a manifestation of the massive social tensions which have encumbered the country’s political landscape for years.

A clear picture of this dynamic is offered by the recently published Turkey report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project. Although the parliamentary elections of June 7, 2015 paved the way for a minor democratic revolution, the resulting atmosphere of reform – reminiscent of the spirit of the Gezi protests of 2013 – soon faded. 

In its place, the terrorist threat of the Islamic State (IS), resumed military clashes between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army, and new terrorist attacks by radical Kurds led to the end of the peace process, expansion of military operations in the previously revitalized south-east, and renewed alienation between the AKP and liberal forces in the country.

Democratic quality in Turkey has been declining for years 

The deteriorating security conditions and the inability or unwillingness of the AKP to form a coalition government over the summer 2015 are indicative of the profound rigidity of Turkish institutions and the declining quality of Turkish democracy. The system is not in a position to translate new social realities into political channels and decision-making processes. 

The trend towards curtailment of civil rights and political freedoms, which the SGI highlights as one of the worst of all OECD and European Union countries, reflects this dynamic. In recent years, the AKP has succeeded in becoming so entrenched in Turkey’s political system that it can no longer be in its interest to cooperate with other political forces to promote democratization in the country. 

Furthermore, there are serious encroachments on media independence resulting from an elaborate system of personal and financial interdependencies between media owners and the government. This political atmosphere makes it impossible to uncover corrupt practices on the part of government officials or hold the governing party to a higher degree of accountability – indispensable steps in the implementation of democratic governance structures. 

The current system of power allows no room for independence of the judiciary either, which in 2014 was already subjected to a new form of politicization, all but stripping it of its power to stand in the way of the government’s abuses of power in 2015. This politicization is manifested in the criminalization, still ongoing, of followers of the preacher Fethullah Gülen living in exile in the US – a top priority on the agenda of the AKP government and the oppressive president Recep Tayy?p Erdo?an.

Turkey’s struggle against the Islamic State is dominated by national security interests 

In comparison to other OECD nations, Turkey is located in a turbulent geopolitical region, facing challenges which can be traced back directly to the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. By accepting over 2.5 million Syrian refugees, Turkey has already made a significant contribution to the refugee crisis, which the other European states did not have to deal with until summer 2015. Given that no end to the war is likely in the foreseeable future, the Turkish government is faced with the task of integrating Syrian refugees into its education system and labor market. 

On the positive side, in contrast to Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey did not experience a populist shift to the right opposing the integration of Syrians. While initial steps have been taken towards international coordination with the European Union with regard to the refugee crisis, the struggle against the IS is an area which remains dominated by national security interests. Although Turkey is a party to the alliance against the IS, it is primarily concerned with its own battle against the PKK and its partner organization in Syria (PYD). 

However, this approach exposes a structural weakness in Turkey’s strategy. If the government had promoted the peace process in its own country, which would also have resulted in improved democratic conditions, it would not have to be so fearful of Kurdish military successes in Syria. The search for a way out of this precarious geostrategic position will occupy Turkey for some years.

Turkey has the potential to adopt a sustainable political model 

The treatment of Syrian refugees, meanwhile, will in future depend on Turkey’s economic performance. In this regard, the picture is mixed. On one hand, the Turkish economy continues to enjoy robust growth, and the Turkish government is investing more in the research and development needed to reinforce the economic sustainability of the country’s growth model.

On the other hand, however, Turkey only succeeded in mitigating its chronic budget deficit thanks to low energy costs made possible by Saudi Arabia, rather than structural adjustments within the country’s economy. 

What Turkey lacks compared to most other OECD members, and could set the stage for long-term political improvements, is a more clearly defined position concerning the expansion of renewables and development of a new environmental policy. In this crucial field, Turkey is way behind its peers.

In spite of the failed coup attempt, Turkey has the potential to adopt a sustainable political model. But in order to do so the government must convincingly address the issues hindering social and political coexistence, and undertake real democratic reforms in order to empower hitherto excluded sections of the population. 

This will only be possible once the AKP learns to share its power so as to strengthen democratic institutions themselves. Until this happens, any positive economic developments will only benefit AKP followers, and the opportunity for lasting participation in social prosperity will be wasted.

Translated from the German by Solomon Wright

Roy Karadag is a political scientist and researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies at University of Bremen. He co-authored the Turkey report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s latest Sustainable Governance Indicators, SGI 2016.


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Study: SGI 2016
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