For the past few years, there has been a general optimism about Turkish democracy in Western capitals, especially in Washington, thanks to the economic strides made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P.
These optimists, and even those who admit that Turkish democracy has its shortcomings, tend to subscribe to the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset’s famous modernization theory — the idea that greater democratization follows automatically as a country becomes more prosperous. Turkey has been growing rapidly and steadily over the last 11 years, the theory goes, so perhaps all we need is patience. By this logic, Mr. Erdogan’s own economic success will inexorably bring an end to his authoritarian style of government.
But modernization theory has had little success in explaining the rise of democracy around the world. My research with Simon Johnson, James A. Robinson and Pierre Yared has shown, for example, that countries that have grown faster don’t show any greater tendency to become democratic or to consolidate democratic institutions that already exist. A few cases where democracy has followed rapid growth, as in South Korea and Taiwan, did not occur automatically but as a result of a combative political process — and a far more violent set of confrontations between the military and protesters, trade unionists and students.
And it has little relevance to this week’s protests in Turkey.
Even before the brutal suppression of the demonstrations, the belief that Turkey was on its way to becoming a mature democracy — a role model for the rest of the Middle East — had already become untenable.
As the A.K.P. consolidated its power, dissent was tolerated less and less. Judicial institutions lost the little independence they’d had, and an array of critics of the government, ranging from former high-ranking military officers to journalists, are now in jail, in most cases without having had a fair trial (According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has now surpassed China for the number of jailed journalists.)
The bulwarks of democracy have not exactly distinguished themselves during the past week’s events. There has been hardly any criticism of the prime minister from within his own party (except a mild rebuke from President Abdullah Gul).
The main opposition party, which was established by the Turkish republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, still seems trapped in a time warp — focused solely on defending the nationalist, secularist ideology of the Turkish state.
And the Turkish news media still seems cowed into submission, so much so that it did not report much on how the small protests against a new shopping center on one of the few remaining parks in Istanbul turned into a spontaneous mass movement challenging Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Indeed, while CNN International was reporting live from Taksim Square, the local channel, CNN Turk, which is partly owned by Turner Broadcasting, was airing a program on penguins.
Even so, what began as peaceful protests by a few hundred demonstrators in Taksim Square could define Turkish democracy for years to come — for two reasons.
First, democracy doesn’t just take place at the polls, especially when the choices on the ballot are as unappealing as they have been in Turkey. British democracy came of age in the 19th century partly as a result of protests in the streets, which not only led to the enfranchisement of the previously disenfranchised but also to the formation of the Labour Party, offering new options to voters. Large numbers of people pouring into the street in several Turkish cities, even in the face of heavy-handed police action, may be Turkish democracy’s coming-of-age moment.
Second, there is a real chance that these protests, and the political movements that they might spawn, will transcend the deep-rooted but stale political divisions of the last two decades, divisions captured pithily by Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he said in 1998: “In this country there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks. Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks.”
In Turkey, these terms have nothing to do with skin color. “White Turks” are the well-educated, wealthy secular elites who see themselves as the defenders of Ataturk’s legacy. They are often associated with government bureaucracy, the military and big businesses in major Turkish cities. “Black Turks” are those that the White Turks look down upon as poorly educated, lower class and trapped by their piety. Elites tend to view them as peasants or being unable to shake off their peasant heritage.
Although the Turkish military periodically used religion as a weapon in its struggle against the political left, particularly after the 1980 military coup, by the 1990s the most important challenge to the secular elite’s rule came from religious conservative parties, who unabashedly represented the Black Turks.
In 1997, the military toppled a government led by the A.K.P.’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, which was subsequently shut down by the constitutional court. It similarly threatened the A.K.P. in 2007, with the Constitutional Court again following at its coattails and threatening to ban the party because its religious outlook violated the Turkish Constitution.
Particularly troubling for the secular elite was the fact that the wife of the new president, Mr. Gul, wore a head scarf, something banned in public spaces by the Constitution.
Since 1997, these divisions have defined Turkish politics. The military failed and the A.K.P. withstood the challenge. Turkey has become more democratic in the sense that the previously disenfranchised have become empowered. But it has not taken many steps toward liberal democracy. On the contrary, Turkish society has become more polarized between supporters of secular orthodoxy and the A.K.P., which, under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, has used its newly acquired power to exact revenge on the military, secular elites and its other critics with increasingly authoritarian certitude.
This week’s protests are unlikely to topple the government or even force an about-face by the prime minister. Their import lies in their symbolism.
Suddenly, there is a diverse group of people pouring into the streets to demand not handouts or policy concessions but a voice in Turkish politics. The protesters are not hard-core opposition supporters wishing to turn the clock back to the secular orthodoxy of yore but young urbanites frustrated by the A.K.P.’s increasingly unresponsive monopoly on power.
As in 19th-century Britain, if the ballot box doesn’t offer the right choices, democracy advances by direct action.
The danger in Turkey is that hard-liners in the A.K.P. will use these events to further divide society. They are already painting a picture in which the protests are an attempt to claw back the newly acquired powers of the previously disenfranchised, labeling the young men and women in the streets as alcoholics, looters and leftists.
These hard-liners have been aided by the Turkish news media, which, with a few exceptions, still obediently toes the party line. In the short run, they may well succeed, further polarizing Turkish politics and cementing the A.K.P.’s control over state institutions.
What makes these events a turning point, however, is that the discontent of a large segment of the Turkish public is now out in the open, and even if the Turkish media continues to ignore it, the knowledge of this discontent will spread.
The genie is out of the bottle. Neither it nor Turkish democracy can be put back.
Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at M.I.T., is the co-author, with James A. Robinson, of Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy and Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.