In the past five years, Turkey has veered from what was once a promising path of liberal democracy — and the European Union can pull it back.
The recent massive street protests in Istanbul started as a backlash against the government’s plan to develop a beloved park into a shopping mall, but they also reflect popular frustration at the country’s authoritarian turn, made clear in the rise of crony capitalism, intimidation by government forces and the centralization of power in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was just a decade ago that then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy audience that the main reason his government was pursuing wide-ranging democratic reforms was the possibility of fully joining the European Union. But as that prospect has faded, so has the drive toward democracy in Turkey.
Even before the AKP came to power in late 2002, the party’s leaders determined that E.U. membership was the best means to resolve Turkey’s perennial culture war between Islamists and secularists. With a legislative majority, the AKP quickly abolished the death penalty, wrote a new penal code, changed anti-terrorism laws to make it more difficult to prosecute citizens on speech alone (though critics claim the changes do not go far enough) and significantly expanded political rights. The country also saw tentative steps toward granting Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 18 percent of the nation’s 80 million citizens, additional cultural rights, including the right to use the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education. The parliament also made it more difficult for the government to ban political parties and politicians — previously a common way for Turkey’s political elites to undermine their opponents.
The AKP also brought the politically powerful armed forces under civilian control. In the 1990s, the sway of the military was such that Turkish politicians touted their ability to get along with the senior command as part of their electoral campaigns. But in a series of swift changes beginning in 2003, mixed civilian-military security courts were abolished, officers were removed from boards that set education and broadcasting policies, and parts of the defense budget were brought under civilian oversight. In the most extraordinary reform, the parliament altered the composition and functions of Turkey’s National Security Council — the body through which the top brass had routinely influenced political decisions. Instead, the council was downgraded to an advisory board with a civilian leader and placed under the budgetary control of the prime ministry.
Taken together, these reforms — which Brussels had set as preconditions for Turkey to begin the process of joining the European Union — represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.
The changes were wildly popular throughout Turkish society — among liberals who considered themselves Europeans, business leaders, Kurds, average Turks and Islamists. The military, which had long claimed to be a vanguard of modernization, simply could not afford to undermine the AKP’s European project because of the popular support it enjoyed. In October 2004, the European Commission concluded that Ankara had met all the requirements — the “Copenhagen criteria” — to begin membership negotiations and recommended that the Council of Europe formally extend Turkey an invitation.
After such an auspicious beginning, however, relations between Turkey and Europe soured. Bureaucrats on both sides contended that the problems were related to human rights violations, the occupation of northern Cyprus and the expenses Europe would need to pour into Turkey should it become a member of the union. But Turks sensed that Europe was having second thoughts about the prospect of admitting a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim. Erdogan and Gul spoke bravely about carrying on with reforms through what they called the “Ankara criteria,” but as the prospect of European membership seemed to dissipate, the pace of change in Turkey slowed, and in important areas such as personal freedoms, reforms actually reversed themselves.
The pragmatism and emphasis on democracy that marked Erdogan’s early years as prime minister gave way to a policy aimed at institutionalizing the power of the AKP. Constitutional changes allowed the Turkish leader to pack the courts and the bureaucracy with his supporters. The Turkish police — never a model of professionalism — seemed to be in the service of political forces rather than the people. The power of the state was used to punish or intimidate big business through massive tax fines. Journalists self-censored for fear of ending up like colleagues who were fired or arrested when they found themselves on the wrong side of the AKP. Improved macroeconomic performance came with crony capitalism, as economic policies largely benefited the AKP’s support base. And Erdogan is still seeking to write a new constitution with enhanced powers for the office of the presidency, which he hopes to pursue after his term as prime minister ends.
After the immediate controversy over Gezi Park is defused — through, perhaps, an act of contrition by Erdogan — the E.U. must return to Turkey with renewed vigor. It is decidedly not in Europe’s interest for a neighboring country of 80 million and an important economic partner to drift inexorably from the values that many Europeans and Turks hold dear.
It’s easy to argue that the E.U., with its sclerotic economies, has nothing to offer Turkey or that Turks, disgusted at Europe’s prejudice against Muslims, are no longer interested in joining a club that doesn’t want them anyway.
Still, there remains a reservoir of support among Turks for the European project. While only 33 to 40 percent of Turks support full E.U. membership — and only 17 percentbelieve it will actually happen — developments in Brussels can sway Turkish public opinion. At the height of the AKP’s E.U. reform program, support for the E.U. ranged around 70 percent, and membership remains an important component of self-identity for many Turks.
The legacy of Ataturk’s goal of “raising Turkey to the level of civilization” plays a role, but more important, many Turks do not see a contradiction between being Muslim and being European. One of the legacies of the AKP during Erdogan’s first term as prime minister (2003-2007) was that it proved Turkey could be more Muslim, more European and more nationalist simultaneously. So it is likely that popular support for E.U. membership would surge in Turkey once again — if Brussels extended a welcoming hand. Reinvigorating the relationship would also be good for the E.U., giving it a new sense of purpose and mission during a time when many question its future.
The European Council should take up the recommendation of the European Parliament to reinvigorate relations with Ankara. A gesture from Europe that gives momentum to Turkey’s accession could have a dynamic effect on Turks and their politics. Although Erdogan continues to enjoy significant support among Turks, there is no doubt that the Gezi Park crisis has weakened him. A renewed negotiation process that is both credible and popular will oblige him to pursue a more pragmatic path at home.
Positive signals from Brussels would also offer an important, face-saving way for Erdogan to return to one of the AKP’s early success stories and allow him to further his greatest ambition — to be a transformative figure, albeit not in the way he has sought in recent years. The combination of the popular appeal of Europe and Erdogan’s diminished power would compel him to pick up where he left off in his first term and again take up the mantle of reform and democratic change. It might just result in a new civil and democratic constitution, and bring millions into Turkey’s streets to celebrate Erdogan rather than demand his political demise.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square and blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.