Turkey-taking democracy too far?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Echelon.


America’s diminished role in the Middle East has created a leadership vacuum that Turkey has sought to fill with a model combining Islam, secularism and democracy. US critics say Erdoğan’s popularity is subverting Turkey’s institutions and threatening its relationship with the US.



Turkey’s Place on the World Stage

Turkey was a founding member of the OECD and the G-20 and has been a member of NATO since 1952. In 2012, Turkey became the world’s fourth largest government donor of humanitarian aid, distributing US$ 3.5 billion in 2012. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) was founded in 1993, mainly to direct aid to former Soviet states along Turkey’s eastern border that had been part of the Ottoman Empire. TİKA now operates in 32 countries, including nine in Africa. Humanitarian aid was an efficient tool of foreign policy contributing significantly to a perception of Turkey as a peaceful mediating power.

Once, Turkey held the unusual position of a mainly Muslim country friendly with Israel. However, at the UN in October 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphatically stated his support for the recognition of a Palestinian state while also continuing his condemnation of Israeli behavior.

America’s diminished role in the Middle East has created a leadership vacuum that Turkey has sought to fill. When the Arab uprisings started in 2011, Turkey, with its remarkable economic growth and increased profile in global politics, offered the prospect of a successful model where Islam, secularism and democracy could coexist.

EU Bid

The ruling AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party), strongly supported Turkey’s application for membership to the EU. According to Eurostat, Turkey is the only country to have increased exports to the EU last year. Public opinion in EU countries generally opposes Turkish membership, though with varying degrees of intensity. In 2006, EC President Barroso said that the accession process would take at least until 2021.

A recent survey showed a large drop from the 73-percent in-favour response in 2004. Today, every third Turk is against EU accession, while ten years ago this figure was just nine percent. Many see the the long drawn-out accession process as a snub.

Turkey’s Economic Success

Turkey was one of the great economic success stories of the 21st century, overtaking China in overall rate of growth. Erdoğan came to power in 2003, after a decades-long struggle by Islamists against the oppressive tactics of the army and judiciary. The military had overthrown four elected governments since 1960. Exploiting the strong majority enjoyed by the AKP in parliament, Erdoğan stabilized and liberalized the economy, making Turks richer than they had ever been. Erdoğan restructured the economy and attracted more foreign investment in a decade than in the entire 90-year history of the Turkish Republic. The economy grew strongly for ten years, inequality shrank and Turkish companies became regional powerhouses. Turkey climbed from 71st to 44th in the WEF competitiveness table

Last year, the Turkish economic miracle came to an abrupt end with political violence in the streets of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. The lira became the third-most volatile currency in the world. In April 2014, the IMF said Turkey’s economy is set to grow 2.3 percent this year, reducing its forecast from 3.5 percent. It predicted a “sharp slowdown in private consumption” driven by the lira’s slide, the central bank’s emergency rate increase in January, and efforts to rein in bank lending. Growth last year was 4.3 percent.

Foreign investors would be deterred from investing in Turkish lira bonds knowing that Ankara has only $40 billion in central bank reserves (two months’ import cover), but has to refinance $210 billion of debt in 2014. Ten years of economic growth financed by massive credit expansions could prove risky. Turkey also has a $70 billion current account deficit. Scrutiny of Turkey’s credit rating is increasing after Moody’s put ten banks on review for a downgrade.

Rising wages have eroded the low-cost advantage enjoyed in textiles, furniture, white goods and automobile manufacture but productivity and skills are not good enough to switch easily to higher-value production. Turkey ranks at a lowly 69th in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings. Sri Lanka is at 85.

Triumphalism versus Conservatism

In May 2013, there were nationwide protests at plans to replace Gezi Park with a shopping mall. A Muslim youth movement calling itself “Anti-capitalist Muslims” had already articulated criticisms about hyper-development. The Gezi protesters were not the victims of financial crisis. They benefited from a decade of rapid economic growth but still expressed a malaise and they do object to the elite urban development projects undertaken by the AKP government. The Gezi Park movement seeks to defend public space against commercialization and the transformation of urban life into a mere generator of profit.

For all these problems, Turkey’s economy is still big, its citizens 43 percent better off than they were when Erdoğan came to power. Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote about this in his book The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power. Cagaptay dwells at length on the political and economic advances of the Erdoğan years, but he does not go into the tensions within Turkish Islamism, which are likely to define the country’s politics for some time, or the corruption that underlies the country’s capitalist successes.


The AKP created a state-supported bourgeoisie through distributing state resources to their cronies. The judiciary initiated a corruption probe against four of Erdoğan’s ministers and their relatives in December 2013. Police raided the homes of several sons of ministers and recordings have emerged on the internet supposedly implicating Erdoğan himself in dodgy dealings. The Government quickly tightened control through reassigning police officers, prosecutors, and judges, and enacting new laws to increase political control of the judiciary.


Instead of completing a consolidation of their democratic advances, the AKP government sought to dominate the Turkish political system. Many liberals withdrew their support from the party after the government harshly suppressed the Gezi protests. While Turkey’s press is theoretically free, Erdoğan’s government has imposed billion-dollar fines on media holdings hostile to the government, bluntly told editors how to tailor their coverage, and deported critical journalists. Reporters have been jailed. Twitter and YouTube have been blocked. Erdoğan has portrayed the opposition as traitors who live in lairs like animals.


The AKP’s authoritarian turn since the 2011 elections has much to do with the lack of a viable parliamentary opposition. Erdoğan has responded to criticism with sneers at the foreign media. He believes that he has an unassailable defence: the voters like him. The AKP retains strong support from Turkey’s increasingly educated new middle class. Ever since his party achieved power in November 2002, it has gone from strength to strength. AKP’s share of the vote rose to 47% in 2007 and almost 50% in 2011. Erdoğan has adopted a fiercely majoritarian attitude: so long as voters back him, he is entitled to do whatever he wants.

At the local elections on March 30, AKP won 46% of the nationwide vote. Far behind in second place was the centre-left, ‘Kemalist’ Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP, the Republican People’s Party), with just 26.15%. Leftist and socialist parties, together with democratic societal organizations, have called for a return to the streets and the strengthening of the extra-parliamentary struggle to overcome the AKP.

Regime Change?

Some in the USA are making noises about regime change for Turkey. Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman are former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey. They wrote: “Erdoğan has exploited Turkey’s partnership with the United States and his close personal relationship with President Obama to burnish his legitimacy.” They assert that Erdoğan is doing great harm to Turkey’s democracy. It seems likely that US strategists will be working behind the scenes to foster a new coalition based on the dynamic business class that is independent from the state.

Erdoğan’s reaction to EU and US criticism has become more dismissive. “The financial crisis, the global crisis, the Arab Spring and the events in Syria and Egypt show that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey does the EU,” He said that he was indifferent to the international community’s opinion – and that everyone would realize the power of the Republic of Turkey one day.