There is a heated debate in Turkey these days over whether the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furthering democracy or rolling it back.
Optimists argue that, thanks to the defanging of the long-dominant military, Turks now enjoy real democracy for the first time. Others, however, argue that Mr. Erdogan is becoming increasingly authoritarian after a decade in power and that Turkey is less free every day.
Either of these opposing views can be persuasively substantiated — if one carefully cherry-picks facts, which is what both Mr. Erdogan’s supporters and detractors regularly do while ignoring all evidence to the contrary.
If one looks at the rights of Kurds or of Christian minorities, for example, one will find plenty of reasons to praise Mr. Erdogan. He has carried out the most liberal reforms Turkey has ever seen on these issues, such as reopening historic churches, launching talks between government representatives and Kurdish militant leaders, and permitting schools and television stations to teach and broadcast in the formerly banned Kurdish language. In addition, laws have been amended many times to advance women’s rights and the protection of minorities to conform with European norms. The recent lifting of the ban on the Islamic head scarf, which was forbidden in public institutions, should also be seen as a step forward for religious freedom.
But if one looks at the freedom of the press, the picture turns dark. As documented by various international organizations, the Turkish media has become less and less free in recent years. A few anti-government papers still exist, but in the established mainstream media, whose owners feel obliged to please the government, dozens of writers who were too critical of the notoriously thin-skinned Mr. Erdogan have lost their jobs. As Bulent Kenes, the editor of Today’s Zaman, a conservative-leaning paper that used to support the prime minister, wrote in a scathing column last week, there is a “new media order” in which criticizing the government is becoming more and more unsafe.
The simple fact, that neither side wants to accept is that Mr. Erdogan’s government is advancing democracy on some levels, while curbing it on others.
This is happening because while Mr. Erdogan is a passionate defender of electoral democracy (he keeps winning), he is not terribly fond of liberal democracy. Some key principles of political liberalism, such as limited government, checks and balances, and a fully independent press, do not seem to count for much in his political vision. In fact, some members of his team have openly described these as unnecessary constraints on the “national will,” which is represented by whoever wins at the ballot box. (They might have been further persuaded by the American government’s recent shutdown, which didn’t exactly cast the system of checks and balances in the most glowing light.)
Mr. Erdogan’s patriarchal personality plays a role in all this as well. He sees himself as a loving, caring father to his nation — an attitude that resonates here. The upside of this vision has been 10 years of enormous advances in the economy, health care, education and transportation. The downside is that when his opponents don’t universally praise his achievements, he perceives them as disobedient children who deserve to be reprimanded. This has led to public outbursts about critical newspaper columnists and this summer’s heavy-handed police crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The irony is that despite many liberals’ opposition to his rule, the Erdogan era has in fact advanced a number of unmistakably liberal causes. His Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., came to power in 2002 with a bold message of change. The “Old Turkey” was too militaristic, too nationalist and too oppressive. The A.K.P. vowed to liberate not just its own voting base — the religious conservatives who feel they have been humiliated by a zealously secularist elite — but also all marginalized groups, such as the Kurds, Armenians and Greeks.
This is why much of Turkey’s intelligentsia — which always dreamed of liberal democracy but never had the mandate to build one — supported Mr. Erdogan. That is also how the “Islamist-liberal alliance” became the bête noire of the old elite, which includes former army generals who are now in jail for planning a coup against Mr. Erdogan.
Some Turkish liberals still support Mr. Erdogan for dismantling the “Old Turkey,” but others have abandoned him, arguing that his “New Turkey” has created new problems that are piling up as the years pass and as power corrupts those who wield it.
At a time when no major opposition party seems capable of offering a better vision, it is naïve to hope that liberal democracy will emerge from any single party or some revolutionary moment. Rather, it will come through gradual reform. When Mr. Erdogan takes steps like the “democratization package” he announced on Sept. 30, he should be supported. When he takes illiberal steps like cracking down on peaceful protests or demonizing opponents with extravagant conspiracy theories, he should be criticized. The recent Turkey Progress Report by the European Commission is a good example of such balanced, objective analysis.
And for all the A.K.P.’s illiberal tendencies, it is worth remembering that the staunchly secular pre-Erdogan era, which some nostalgic Turks still portray as a bygone democratic idyll, was in fact much less free in almost all respects.
Contrary to the alarmism of those who long for the old days and attack the current government at every opportunity, Turkey is not on the path to becoming another Iran or Saudi Arabia — or something like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But it certainly is not a fully liberal democracy yet.
To make it one, Mr. Erdogan and his allies must accept that they can’t advance democracy merely by taking pride in correcting the misdeeds of their predecessors. They also have to look hard at their decade-old rule, recognize their mistakes and then correct them.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.