Where Next for Turkish Democracy?

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
By Sebastiano Sali

One month ago, the people of Turkey gave a third consecutive mandate to the incumbent government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The landslide electoral victory marked a new record in the history of the Turkish Republic: no party had ever won three elections in a row, whilst also increasing their percentage of the vote. Support for the AKP reached 49,8 per cent in the June 2011 general elections. Despite this, the AKP won fewer seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Although Prime Minister Erdogan’s principal aim was to have 367 MPs to autonomously amend the constitution (or at least 330 MPs to avoid a compromise with the opposition and going directly through the popular referendum), Erdogan and the AKP missed both targets, gaining only 326.

Most analysts view this result as proof of the maturity of both the Turkish electorate and the Turkish democratic system. Turkey will have the benefits of a continuous, stable government, but the AKP has not won a superpower majority that would have balanced the political system in its favour. Thus, the “Turkish Model” has gained further momentum. Compared to other parts of the Middle East still burning under the rebellion wave launched by the Arab Spring, which brought instability and insecurity in many countries, Turkey reinforced its appearance as a stronghold of a highly functioning western democracy. However, danger is always lurking behind the corner.

In this case, danger has a precise name and date. The name is Hatip Dicle, a new MP elected as independent supported by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP); the date is 21 June, when the Supreme Election Board of Turkey ruled that he could not take his seat in the National Assembly because of his recent conviction for terrorist propaganda. This sentence, together with related street protests by Turks of Kurdish origin in the south-east of the country, would not come as much of a surprise if it were not for another reaction it triggered. As a form of protest against the sentence, the MPs from the BDP, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and some from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) did not take part to the opening ceremony of the legislature - those of the BDP did not even go to Ankara! -  refusing to taking the oath, thereby setting up the first boycott of that kind in the history of Turkey. In short, the new legislature could literally not begin because of the boycott of almost one third of the MPs, stalling parliamentary work and the entire Turkish political system. Not the most brilliant start for Erdogan, who in his post-election speech defined himself as the Prime Minister of all Turks. And surely this is also a hard hit to the Turkish model, for the first time in its life unable to regularly exert its democratic and parliamentary life.

No one in the opposition camp wants to be seen as responsible for stalling the parliament, but rather as a champion of democracy and participation. The independent pro-Kurdish leader Ahmet Turk, after his meeting with President Abdullah Gul, said it is pointless to be “marginalised and snubbed” in the parliament, unable to “contribute” to the political life of the country. Turk insisted that if that was the case, it would be better to stay outside. The Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu also immediately called the deadlock a “shame for democracy”, offering himself for talks to overcome the impasse. However he did not refrain from leaving his MPs the option of refusing to take the oath in solidarity with other party members currently in jail.

Regardless of what political leaders said, it took two weeks to overcome this impasse. Although in the meantime, the parliament was able to choose Cemil Cicek as its new speaker, almost all the non-AKP MPs did not participate in that vote, seriously undermining the representativeness and impartiality of Cicek’s appointment to his office. Turkey was lucky to reach an agreement over the “oath-deadlock” the day before the EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule paid his visit to the country. Although the agreement’s timing might have been accidental, such a political impasse- the first of its kind- was not the best business card to hand out to the EU.

Finally, what it is fundamental to learn from such a lesson is that Turkey cannot be considered a stronghold when it comes to democracy. The risk involved in long-lasting democracy related problems, such as the Kurdish issue or the situation in Cyprus, is that people get used to them and then tend to underestimate (or even worse to forget) their importance. This is a risk too big to run when democracy and human rights are at stake. The first parliamentary boycott in Turkey is there to remind us that Turkey is a well-functioning democracy with some well-established problems. Despite favourable comparisons with the much worse state of democratic rights in the Middle East, taking Turkish democratic integrity for granted would be a serious mistake. 

Moreover, it appears even more clearly than ever that a real evolution and upgrade of the Turkish democratic system would inevitably have to go through the resolution of key issues, such as the recognition of minorities, the understanding of the notion of citizenship and the resolution of several foreign policy issues. Having avoided a coup for more than twenty years and having had regular free and fair elections can no longer be enough for Turkish democracy. The flattering discourse of the Turkish model, other than having been dismissed by Turkish political leaders as well, is counter-productive. It could deflect the attention of those within and outside Turkey away from the urgent improvements that it needs to its democratic system. Thus, without forgetting that democracy in the Middle East can benefit from closer relations with Turkey, the attempt to impose a "Turkish model" on others would be a mistake that harms the Turkish system itself. 


Sebastiano Sali is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies Department - King’s College London. He researches on identity and foreign policy in AKP’s Turkey where he was Visiting Researcher at the M.E.T.U. of Ankara.


25 July 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis