Turkey's Democracy Is Currently Losing Its Way

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the International Istanbul Law Congress, Istanbul, Turkey, October 17. His main opposition party say his proposed constitutional changes are "generally reasonable." Murad Sezer/REUTERS

Situated in one of the world's most unstable strategic fault-lines, struggling with decades-long Kurdish insurgency, and with an economy that has seen impressive growth but is stuck in a middle-income trap, it is difficult to be optimistic about democracy in Turkey. The wide popular opposition to the attempted July coup raised hopes of a new national democratic consensus. However, these hopes were crushed by the witch-hunt atmosphere created by the extensive arrests and purges extending far beyond the mostly Gulenist coup perpetrators. Turkey appears to be moving away from a European liberal democratic model. But before dismissing Turkish democracy for "turning Asian" or "becoming Arab" etc, Western liberals should try to understand the specific dynamics of Turkish democracy and resist making judgments in terms of their approximation to Western models.

Where is the AKP taking Turkey? Since coming to power and facing antagonism from the established Kemalist elite, the political survival strategy of the AKP aimed to take-over the Kemalist military-bureaucratic state apparatus. This included reforms to bring the military under civilian control, which corresponded to EU membership accession criteria. Supported widely, this has been positive for Turkish democracy. Not so positive was the series of trials over 2008 to 2011, known as Sledgehammer and Ergenekon, targeting top-level military on trumped-up charges mostly engineered by the Gulenists. Nevertheless, reforms rushed through parliament after the attempted July coup in 2016 furthered civilian control over the military, creating a structure not dissimilar to the British one.

In contrast, the AKP's attempts to wrest control of the state bureaucracy has been a major disaster as the AKP—lacking its own experienced cadre—turned to the Gulenists for new bureaucratic recruits. The Gulenists' bid for power had become increasingly apparent, sharply surfacing in 2012 during the MIT (Turkish Secret Service) crisis—and had broken down by 2013 when President Erdogan was targeted with corruption allegations that brought the resignation of four ministers. Today's frantic purge of Gulenists is trying to undo in a few months what the AKP instigated previously over the past decade. The question many Turks are asking is, which other religious order will take the Gulenists' place? Allowing this parcelling out of ministries among religious orders and meddling with the judiciary has fragmented and weakened the state. To compensate, the government has become more authoritarian; Turkish democracy has paid the price.

The current obsession of the AKP is to establish an executive presidency. This is awaiting constitutional reforms but is already de-facto in place with the imposition of emergency rule. The argument for an executive presidency is that it is a solution to the problems of the Turkish parliamentary-bureaucratic model. Turkish parliament—Mejlis—has frequently become dysfunctional because of the lack of democracy in the political parties. They tend to ossify around their traditional leaders, bringing deadlock to the legislative process. But, in a country where transparency and the rule of law remains weak, it is not clear why anyone would suggest further centralization of power around an executive presidency, rather than democratic decentralization and accountability.

In place of new political structures, many Turkish analysts argue, the government needs to tackle the core structural problems of the political system. One is patronage and the associated weak rule of law. Another is the need to find a balance between government and the religious orders—a system that gives the latter a voice but ensures secular democracy. The third is to move towards a resolution of the Kurdish question. This article deals with the first two.

As crises in the southern EU economies revealed, patronage and corruption is not just a Turkish problem nor has it only emerged with AKP rule. Already, the structural reforms after the 2001 economic crisis included privatization of state enterprises not only to boost productivity but also to curb the patronage exercised by Ankara. Since coming to power, the AKP has pursued an extensive privatization program that has largely closed off this source of patronage. But patronage has now morphed into other channels such as investment incentives, licensing and permits, procurement for government-led infrastructure projects, and the TOKI mass housing scheme. This situation is reflected in declining private investment and business demanding the government takes measures to ensure a level playing field.

Another structural challenge is the relation between the secular authority and the religious orders These religious orders, the biggest and oldest being the Naksibendi that hails from Central Asia, came to Anatolia with the Turkish tribes over a thousand years ago. Their lay preachers led peasant protests over centuries in Ottoman times, and they backed Ataturk in the war of independence. But they opposed the early Republic's hard French-style laicite; Ataturk's answer was to outlaw the religious orders, which merely sent them underground. They re-emerged in Turkish political life in the 1940s with the multi party regime and formed influential relations with all centre-right secular and Islamist parties. Banning these orders was a historical mistake but, as the Gulenist debacle shows, allowing them a central role in politics is equally disastrous.

There seems to be an awareness that the task is to bring transparency and accountability to these entities. At an extraordinary three-day conference held a few days after the coup attempt, The Ministry of Religious Affairs advised the religious orders to stay out of politics (and football match fixing!) and declared "competence, merit, science and freedom…the solution is transparency." Eventually, a socially acceptable role for the religious orders is likely to be found that will be an organic Turkish version of a secular democracy.

None of this will happen soon. More Gulenist-style debacles are possible. With a raft of corruption allegations languishing in parliamentary investigative committees, it is difficult to see the AKP leading a major transparency drive. It will also be difficult for AKP to reaffirm the importance of citizenship rather than religious identity, that has been shown to be so divisive. However, given the country's long (and as everywhere else tortuous) democratic tradition and the commitment of the Turkish people to democracy, something unique to Turkey is likely to emerge. It that may not look like French or U.S. models but will still deliver key principles of representation, transparency and accountability.

Mina Toksoz is an emerging markets economist and Turkish writer specialising in Turkey, Russia and the Middle East. who will be speaking on the panel Turkey: Is there hope for democracy? at the Battle of Ideas on October 23.