Turkey’s rise is attributable to a bunch of factors, but one of the primary ones is the image of Turkey as a democracy. When the AKP took over, they did a good job of making Turkey more democratic in a number of important ways as part of the EU accession process, and the world noticed. For a decade, Turkey has been heralded as a model of Muslim democracy and been held up as a successful example of how a state can transition from a military-dominated polity to one where the elected civilian government is the ultimate accountable body. Turkey has played up its democratic status at every opportunity, and is has been taken as a given that Turkey is a democracy, one that has its own issues to overcome but certainly not a state that is in danger of authoritarian backsliding.
Two columns this weekend make me wonder if we are coming to a tipping point where outside observers are no longer going to give Turkey’s democratic status the benefit of the doubt. In the New York Times, Tom Friedman (who probably represents conventional elite opinion better than anyone aside from Fareed Zakaria) had a rambling column that managed to work its way to Turkey by the end, and what he had to say about Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP was not kind. He concluded his column with this:
The A.K.P.’s impressively effective prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not only been effective at building bridges but also in eliminating any independent judiciary in Turkey and in intimidating the Turkish press so that there are no more checks and balances here. With the economic decline of the European Union, the aborting of Turkey’s efforts to become an E.U. member and the need for America to have Turkey as an ally in managing Iraq, Iran and Syria, there are also no external checks on the A.K.P.’s rising authoritarianism. (Erdogan announced out of the blue last week that he intended to pass a law severely restricting abortions.)
So many conversations I had with Turks here ended with me being told: “Just don’t quote me. He can be very vindictive.” It’s like China.
This isn’t good. If Erdogan’s “Sultanization” of Turkey continues unchecked, it will soil his truly significant record and surely end up damaging Turkish democracy. It will also be bad for the region because whoever wins the election in Egypt, when looking for a model to follow, will see the E.U. in shambles, the Obama team giving Erdogan a free pass and Turkey thriving under a system that says: Give your people growth and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.
In the Guardian, Mehdi Hasan unloaded on the Erdoğan government, describing Istanbul as gripped by a “climate of fear” and noting government pressure on the media and prosecution of ordinary citizens for criticizing state education policy and insulting Islam. He recounted how the authorities detained some of his colleagues and read through his tv program’s scripts to find anything that might be objectionable, and conveyed the opinion of some that Erdoğan is “Putinesque.” Hasan summed up with the following:
Those of us who have long argued that elected Islamist parties should not be denied the opportunity to govern invested great hope in Erdogan and the AKP. But what I discovered in Istanbul is that there is still a long way to go. The truth is that Turkey cannot be the model, the template, for post-revolutionary, Muslim-majority countries like Tunisia and Egypt until it first gets its own house in order. To inspire freedom abroad, the Turkish government must first guarantee freedom at home.
It comes as no surprise to veteran Turkey watchers that the government’s authoritarian tendencies are increasingly bubbling to the surface. Plenty of folks have been sounding the alarm for awhile, but Turkey’s image has remained as a democracy that is successfully struggling to shed a legacy of military coups and acrimonious ideologically charged politics. That people like Friedman and Hasan are starting to sit up and take notice of some of the more egregious problems signals to me that Turkey is entering a dangerous place. Once Turkey and Erdoğan start to get lumped together with Russia and Putin – a comparison that I would note is completely inappropriate at this point – it will present a whole set of challenges for Turkey’s foreign policy and severely set back relations with the U.S. and Europe. I get the sense that Turkish economic growth has led Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to think that Turkey is indispensable, and that the rest of the world needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the rest of the world. This is pretty clearly an overreach, and Ankara should be more mindful of the fact that Turkey’s democratic status is massively important to its new preeminent position. Taking this lightly or underestimating how vital it is that Turkey continue to be perceived as solidly democratic is a bad misstep, and the AKP government needs a serious course correction before it’s too late. David Ignatius can write as many glowing paeans to the Obama-Erdoğan relationship as he likes, but the fact remains that the U.S. holds all non-democracies (aside from the oil producing ones) at arm’s length, and Turkey will be no different should it continue to crack down on basic freedom of expression and harass political opponents. Reputational costs are important, and if the narrative takes hold that Erdoğan is consolidating power and turning Turkey into a one-party state, he will find that his power inside of Turkey is unchallenged but that his power on the world stage is diminished.