The Future of Turkey Is Not All Doom and Gloom

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Supporters of Turkey's main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People's Party, react during an election rally for Turkey's November 1 parliamentary elections in Ankara, Turkey, on October 29. Umit Bektas/Reuters

Ankara's October 10 suicide-bomb attack has cast a dark shadow over Turkey's upcoming general election.

The apparent spillover of violence from Syria, coupled with deepening internal polarization and a resumption of hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has led to gloomy assessments of Turkey's political future, with some regional policy leaders and opinion formers already sounding the obituary of Turkish democracy.

It is notable, however, that only a few years ago many of the same commentators were singing the praises of Turkey as an exemplar of democracy and market economics to the Islamic world. While it is now clear that those declarations were naive, it is not the case that extreme optimism in the past warrants extreme despondency today.

A Democratizing and Secularizing Turkey

There are a number of encouraging developments that could contribute toward depolarizing Turkey's political culture and facilitate the development of a more consensual democracy, which, in turn, could reduce the conflict with the PKK and the spillover of violence from Syria.

First, Turkey's combative president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been prevented from transforming his office into a powerful executive presidency. Importantly, his ambitions were not blocked by the military but by the Turkish electorate. Voters issued their verdict unequivocally when Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in the June 7 general elections.

Secondly, Turkey's economic stagnation has largely eliminated the tools of economic populism available to restore Erdogan's dissipating popularity, with polls predicting another inconclusive outcome for the forthcoming November 1 general elections.

Economic troubles could accelerate the rate of political change already visible in the low satisfaction with politics among young people and in the migration of most religious and tribal Kurds from the AKP to the People's Democratic Party (HDP) in the June 7 general elections, despite the latter's pro-secular campaign.

Thirdly, despite Erdogan's efforts to "raise a religious youth," there is increasing evidence that young Kurds and Turks alike are more liberal and secular than previous generations. Volkan Ertit, one of Turkey's leading sociologists on secularism, notes that Turkey is witnessing widening visibility of homosexuality and increasing rates of extramarital sex alongside decreasing religious belief and the narrowing impact of the "sacred" on daily life.

Lastly, left-wing political parties in Turkey are becoming more socially democratic and less divisive by focusing on bread-and-butter issues. The secular-oriented Republican People's Party has accepted the reintroduction of headscarves in schools and government offices, and even the pro-Kurdish HDP is trying to broaden its base of support by embracing progressive Turks.

Difficult Transition Ahead

While the appeal of Erdogan and his ideology appear to be on an irreversible downward trajectory, he will not disappear quickly or easily from the political scene. He still attracts four out of 10 voters, enjoys dominant control over state institutions and is influential in foreign and economic policy.

Moreover, Syria will continue to have implications on Turkish stability, internal political polarization will not disappear overnight, and economic stagnation will remain the norm for some time.

In short, Turkey's transition to a new political equilibrium based on a more consensual democracy will be messy, painful and nonlinear. That, however, does not justify unbridled negativity on Turkey's future prospects.

Democracy takes time to mature. And time is still needed in Turkey's democratic experiment.

Fadi Hakura is an associate fellow of the Europe Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The Future of Turkey Is Not All Doom and Gloom | Opinion