How democratic is Turkey?

Ceylan Ozbudak
Ceylan Ozbudak
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“The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of bourgeois stupidity” Gustave Flaubert complained in his letter to George Sand in 1871. In the 1800s, democracy could be described in such simple terms. But as time progressed, so did the demands and perceptions. Today, talking about democracy demands more than providing every citizen the power to vote.

This week Turkey welcomed the news to be invited to join the Development Assistance Committee (DAC ), known as the “club of rich countries.” Erik Solheim, the newly elected chair of the OECD, stated that the Turkish aid provided to Africa and to Somalia in particular drew their attention and demonstrates the significant progress Turkey has made. According to OECD DAC figures, the total amount of Turkey's official development aid in 2012 was $2.5 billion, a 99 percent increase in 10 years. In 2002, Turkey's aid totaled $86 million and $1.3 billion in 2011—the assistance provided by other OECD member countries decreased 4 percent in 2012.

Surely this proves Turkey now has a foreseeable stability in economy and diplomacy, which is a contribution to its perception as an advanced democracy in the Middle East. With the recent report from JP Morgan, pointing out to Turkey as a reliable country with a relatively stable economic future for investments, Turkey riveted its place in terms of being a solid economy. As I pointed out to her moral foreign policy choices in the ever-shifting Middle East environment, Turkey stands as a credible partner in terms of foreign policy issues.

One thing our politicians fail to consider is: perception is the only reality in politics.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Nevertheless, can we say Turkey proved itself to be a fully-fledged democracy? Everyone in Turkey has the right to vote in the free and fair elections, participate in independent political organizations, rights to access information and services, private property, free markets. But what about individual liberties and freedom of women? If the amount of money we made lately made us a better democracy, the oil-rich Gulf States would be the pioneers in human rights by now.

When we consider the role of freedom: all advanced democracies share a common belief in participation, competition, and liberty. Yet there are real differences in how countries define each of these categories. Civil liberties may be expanded or restricted without calling into question the democratic nature of a country. By international standards, many of the U.K.'s policies for civil society are exemplary. However, there are concerns about constraints on civil liberties - particularly restrictions on free assembly and media coverage. Today, it’s safe to say no model of democracy can claim universal acceptability. The question of ideal democracy produces many subjective answers. For instance, full freedom of speech in the public is highly welcomed in the U.S. while restrictions on public insult is considered a part of civil communication in many European countries and Turkey. Measure of democracy and liberties depend according to societies.

No democratic tradition

Positive story so far. But (and there is a but) I have to say Turkey still doesn’t have its own identity in democracy, nor does it have a democratic tradition. As we progress in general terms, in terms of finesse in democratic culture we are being more aware of our gaps every day. Of course steps are being taken to fully amend the constitution and make a more pluralistic, more peaceful society. Turkey’s constitutional problem possess a major challenge to democratic consolidation, however, in the latest democratization package, there were regulations for many ethnic and religious groups, especially for Kurdish people such as the right to education in different languages at special schools, lifting of the legal barriers for the use of Kurdish town names and permission to advertise in different languages and dialects.

One thing our politicians fail to consider is: perception is the only reality in politics – as our former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış so eloquently stated. If you look like an Islamist and talk like an Islamist, you will be known as one no matter how many freedoms you provide to your society. Passing an alcohol restriction fully in line with EU countries does not make AK Party an Islamist party but letting bigoted scholars talk about the indecency of pregnant women walking on the streets, does. Letting hijab wearing women go to universities and enter governmental institutions does not make AK Party an Islamist party, but criticizing a host on tv for her revealing clothes, certainly does. In terms of legislation, there is no gender segregation in Turkey, only positive one towards women. But if a society can still comment on women’s clothing and not men’s, how much equality of genders can we talk about in a society? If the dissents can find one leak in civil liberties, doesn’t it justify all other criticism? Still to this day neither the party nor the person who publicly criticized the ladies outfit apologized.

Where does AK Party stand on the secularism issue? To assess the AKP’s attitude toward secularism, one must distinguish between the two conceptions of secularism prevalent in contemporary Turkey. One may be called ‘assertive secularism’ whose ultimate aim is to privatize and individualize religion and to ban or limit its visibility in the public space. The other, ‘passive secularism’ which is prevalent in most Western democracies, ‘implies state neutrality towards various religions and allows the public visibility of religion … Passive secularism opposes any established doctrine that defines the “good” for its citizens, either religious or nonreligious, whereas assertive secularism regards secularism itself as an established doctrine to be promoted. Secularism is not separation of religion and state, but ‘separation of religion and worldly affairs. It means separation of social life, education, family, economics, law, manners, dress codes, etc, from religion.’ The AKP’s ideology is in conformity with passive secularism, but not with an Islamist worldview, which aims at Islamicizing the society by using the coercive power of the state.

Sitting at the edge of Muslim world, Turkey occupies a unique space resembling a well roasted coffee blend consisting of Muslims, Christians, Jews and a blend of ethnicities such as Greeks, Arabs, Kurds, Georgians and so on. As a country in the midst of Afro-Eurasia’s landmass, it may be defined as a central country with multiple regional identities that cannot be reduced to one unified character. Democracy in such a plural society can be maintained only through highly consensual arrangement, recognition of cultural differences, a high level of toleration, and mutual guarantees. As Turks, we are grateful for the last decade but we need more than a stable economy, reliable diplomacy, jobs or simply trains, which are running on time. We need our government to address issues concerning civil liberties with more sensitivity.

Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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