The great tragedy of Turkish Democracy is that it was born, survived and has advanced without democrats. For long most secular Turks have wholeheartedly welcomed the non-democratic interventions of the military and the judiciary to halt the advance of the Islamists. The relentless campaign against Islamists and other religious groups in the mid-1990s are not distant memories.
Let us not be deceived by their present discourse. Islamist Turks were not different either. His videos from the 1990s are available in Youtube. Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, used to have a very instrumental view of democracy, not an objective in and of itself, but a means towards something else.
Erdogan landed in jail in 1999 not after a heroic battle to democratize Turkey. He was accused of inciting ethnic and religious hatred in a public speech, delivered in a southeastern city of Turkey, Siirt, on December 6, 1997. It was unfair and unjust to put him in jail for that speech. But, his speech can hardly be described as a democratic manifesto or even a call for a more democratic Turkey.
When he re-entered politics as the leader of newly found Justice and Development Party, Erdogan declared that he changed his former Islamist anti-democratic and anti-secular views. Most secular Turks did not believe in him. But, many others did. Most ordinary Turks did not care at all: they simply wanted to punish all politicians in the parliament and desired a strong government.
When Erdogan’s party formed a single party government after November 2002 national elections, Erdogan’s jailers must have been shocked. But, they were not deterred either. The President of the Republic, high-ranking generals and judges, and university presidents and professors used every opportunity to criticize Erdogan and preach publicly and privately the fundamental Kemalist principles he was expected to respect. Erdogan was cornered from every angle.
Erdogan survived that period by undertaking the most ambitious democratization drive in modern Turkish history. Some previous popular leaders, such as Adnan Menderes and Turgut Ozal have made contributions to Turkish democracy, but neither can match Erdogan’s contribution.
Yet, it was not complete. Despite the huge progress made under Erdogan governments, Turkey was still a democracy with serious flaws. Certain fundamental freedoms were still not fully respected and protected. The problem was at the root. The political system was operating under a constitution written by the military.
A civilian constitution was Erdogan’s promise. In June 2011 National Elections, Erdogan scored another decisive victory. Having already silenced and subdued his arch-opponents, the Kemalists situated in the military, the judiciary and the universities, Erdogan was now commanding a great public support. It was a position no Turkish political leader has ever enjoyed.
Many believed that it was an opportune moment to take the final step towards liberal democracy. It was indeed.
The problem was that despite his contributions, Erdogan has never been a sincere democrat. Many of his supporters did not want to see this and turned a blind eye. But, he has given us several clues of it. Several journalists, such as, Emin Colasan, Bekir Coskun and Ece Temelkuran, lost their jobs simply due to Erdogan’s pressure on media bosses. Even a sympathetic figure, Ahmet Tasgetiren, attracted the wrath of Erdogan and lost his job in Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to Erdogan.
In the most recent case, another Yeni Safak columnist, Ali Akel was fired from his newspaper after criticizing Erdogan’s handling of an unfortunate and tragic event, in which 34 Turkish citizens were killed mistakenly by the Turkish military.
Erdogan was to deliver a great good, liberal democracy, for which these relatively minor mistakes could be forgiven and ignored. To the dismay of many of his supporters, however, since the beginning of his third term, Erdogan has not taken any substantive step to deliver that good. For worse, he himself has become the most serious block in front of further democratization in Turkey.
It seems now that Erdogan has never understood and appreciated the significance of dismantling anti-democratic elements within the Turkish State. They became Erdogan’s problem because they were against Erdogan. Starting in 2007, Turkey’s clean-hand operations greatly pacified these elements in large part thanks to Erdogan’s strong political support.
After nine years, Erdogan apparently believes that the whole state apparatus is now under his full control.
Therefore, he appears to have lost his interest in the operations. First he passed a controversial law in late 2011, which reduced the penalty for corrupt practices in the Turkish soccer league. It was a big blow for those who dreamed a more clean Turkey.
In February 2012, Erdogan passed another law to protect state bureaucrats appointed by the prime minister. According to this law, any court investigation involving these bureaucrats would require the approval of the prime minister.
Erdogan’s most recent initiative generated more controversy. A few days ago he expressed his extreme displeasure with state prosecutors who run the clean hand operations and heralded that he is going to reduce their powers.
There is a growing opposition in the Turkish civil society to dissuade Erdogan from taking this step. But, practically, there is no one in the parliament or in the party who can stop Erdogan. In his media appearance, Erdogan seemed determined. Once this step is taken, the clean-hand operations will for sure suffer a serious setback, with negative implications for the future of democracy in Turkey.
It should be crystal clear to everybody that from the very beginning all Erdogan cared was political power. Once he attained it, democratization was just an instrument to stay in power. After his third election victory, Erdogan began to feel pretty secure in power. Why should he lead further democratization?
Unless Turks must pay for it, he will not take any initiative in that direction.
That price is ‘American-style presidential system.’ Erdogan has long voiced his desire to turn Turkish parliamentary system into a presidential one.
Some of his supporters already began to voice the same out loud. Many are likely to join the chorus in the future. Whether the Turks will pay Erdogan is yet to be seen. But, for sure, that is going to be Erdogan’s next battle.
What we should get from this is rather simple. The story of Turkish democratization is a long and troubled story. Even after 60 years, it is not finished yet. And, Erdogan seems to be willing to put at risk all gains acquired under his governments.
This is truly sad. Erdogan presented an enigma for all of us. He was an Islamist, but played a critical role in the most ambitious democratization drive in modern Turkish history.
I once asked a question to a prominent Turkish intellectual. ‘Why do you think that some secular Turks still suspect Erdogan’s intentions?’ He was unequivocal. ‘They are Orientalists.’
Erdogan’s failure will have even wider implications. As the Arab World began to tackle the question, whether Islamists can become forces of democracy in their countries, the only successful case will give credit to the Orientalist claim that Islamists are just barriers to democracy in the Islamic World.
Birol Baskan is an Assistant Professor of Government at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University.