September 26, 2012

Turkey’s Erdogan Is No Jeffersonian Ideal

By: Elisha Maldonado

When talking about democracy in the Middle East, Turkey is typically held up as the shining example of how it can be done. On the surface, Turkey is that model.

It has had a few relatively free and fair elections and, in 2010, a national referendum was designed to bring its constitution up-to-date and in line with the European Union standards for membership (incidentally, it still isn’t up to snuff.) A decade ago, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, therefore, his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came into power, he promised an “advanced democracy.”

Again, to the outside world, that appears to be what the people got. It’s also, according to a July poll from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, what the people want. Of six predominately Muslim nations polled — Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Pakistan — a solid bulk in Turkey said they believed “democracy is the best form of government.”

And when asked if a good democracy or strong economy was the most important, Turkey and Lebanon alone chose democracy. Then again, the economy is not a chief concern for a country considered to be one of the world’s fastest-growing; April-released numbers show that Turkey’s GDP rose by 8.5 percent in 2011, following a 9 percent increase in 2010.

Turkish approval for its “democracy” perhaps can be closely tied to the people’s favorable opinion of Erdogan — the poll reported many in support of him. But Erdogan, who arguably views governing as his job alone, is not an exemplar of Western democracy.

The way the current parliamentary system works in Turkey is that a good lot of the decision-making power rests with the prime minister, who is the head of government. The president holds a largely ceremonial role as head of the state.

If the country made the transition to a presidential system — which in May, Erdogan said the country should start debating — the power roles would reverse.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s new willingness to see the presidency strengthened is not necessarily a democratic gesture, especially taking into account the popular opinion that Erdogan’s next bit of political chicanery is to prematurely end his tenure as prime minister before it is up in 2015, and announce a run for the presidency.

What it not so discernible is why Turks, who say that democracy is of great importance, would also be in favor of a leader who increasingly deprives citizens of some of democracy’s core values?

The reason AKP supporters want democracy, a source in Turkey said, is “because their notion of democracy is just as absurd as Erdogan’s.”

When the country’s once seemingly invincible military overthrew the Islamic government in 1997, a large portion of AKP supporters were suppressed, according to the source, everything that demonstrated their Islamic way of life was off-limits — head scarves, imam hatip religious schools, etc. Now, with Erdogan, the military policies have been reversed and AKP believes that equality and democracy have been restored them.

“Even if Erdogan officially became a dictator they would herald him for his ‘democratic rule,’” the source said.


Official or not, a dictator seems to be just what he is becoming.

“Not a day passes without Erdogan sparking a public debate out of the blue. When he detests a statute, calling it ‘monstrous,’ they tear it down,” Turkish columnist Oray Egin wrote for the Jerusalem Post in June. “The local municipality removes al fresco dining tables when Erdogan expresses his discontent with sidewalk diners.”

Erdogan’s assault on free speech, an inalienable right in a democracy, is also indicative of the prime minister’s authoritarian-leanings.

There are at least 100 journalists imprisoned in Turkey, more than China and Iran combined, and more than even Russia — most of them being held on no charges. The Turkish government argues they are being held on charges of conspiring with terrorists, not because of their writings.


The prime minister repeatedly demands that newspapers and editors reprimand or dismiss reporters and columnists critical of his administration. Earlier this month he declared coverage of the particularly sensitive Kurdish issue — the repeated denial to the Kurds’ appeal for their own state within the historical region of Kurdistan — “be ignored; there is no other way.”

This despite Erdogan telling the New York Times in September that, today, “Turkey is very different than Turkey was 10 years ago, when we first came to government. We are now going through a period where freedom of expression is at its peak.”

Another example of Erdogan’s heavy-handed influence can be seen in Friday’s sentencing of more than 300 military officers convicted of planning a coup to overthrow the government in 2003; the case is popularly known as Sledgehammer.

How else, in a democratic country of course, does an Islamist government rid itself of its Islamist-opposed military?

Lawyers, politicians and intellectuals tied to Ergenekon — allegedly an ultra-nationalist terrorist organization — have been charged with plotting an overthrow of government, despite questionable evidence and increasing suspicions that much has been fabricated.

Furthermore, thousands of Kurds sit on trial for alleged ties to terrorist activities; Erdogan is becoming paranoid, another symptom of a leader trying to tightly hold onto the reins of power.

People get the leaders they ask for, and if the Turks want Erdogan, that is their prerogative, but they can’t have democracy and the prime minister at the same time. They are just incompatible.

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for The International Business Times. Image via Big Stock Photo.