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July 01, 2012, Sunday

Puzzling Turkey

“When the Bush administration sought permission to transit its Iraq invasion troops through Turkish territory in early 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara's soon-to-be installed prime minister and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) bluntly refused.

Their bold defiance of America's will won plaudits around the Arab world, not least from Syria.”

This start to an article by Simon Tisdall in the Guardian, titled “Turkey learns who its real friends are -- so much for ‘strategic realignment'” (June 27, 2012) shows how wrong you can be of your analysis if you get your facts completely wrong (many other fragments in the rest of the article are also exemplary of shallowness, based on misreadings of Turkey's complex political reality).

Some time ago I was at a meeting in which the baffling aspects of Turkey's history, sociology and politics were presented and discussed. The deeper it was dealt with, the more surprised our foreign guests (journalists, political experts and academics from Europe) became.

On the way out after the conclusion, I overheard a conversation between two foreigners. “What do you think, confusing, isn't it?” the lady said. The man responded, “Well, I am still confused, but on a higher level!”

A new article by Steven Cook and Michael Koplow of Foreign Affairs magazine is therefore very timely and spot-on to raise such confusion to new heights. Written by two real insiders, it manages also to take a sharp snapshot of Turkey 2012, filled with lessons to all those who look at the fresh realities with yesterday's spectacles.

Titled “The Turkish Paradox,” the authors try to help us all to understand whether or not Turkey under the ruling AKP “would embrace or abuse democracy.”

They conclude that “what is becoming clear is that Erdoğan's strategy is to do both, simultaneously.”

The criteria the authors employ is hidden in Robert Dahl's (a Yale political scientist) definition of democracy: that it is defined by the extent to which citizens can participate in civic life and whether they can contest the government's power.

Cook and Koplow then line up examples: During the decade of its rule, the AKP has introduced a series of reforms that allowed more Turkish citizens to participate in the political process. Turkey's minorities have also benefited from AKP reforms. Kurds can now teach their language in private schools and universities and address crowds in Kurdish at campaign rallies. There is also a state-run Kurdish-language television station.

Other minorities, from Armenians to members of the Greek Orthodox Church, competed in last year's parliamentary elections for the first time in decades, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called for more Turkish Jews to serve as diplomats.

“These steps have allowed more Turks to participate in civic life than at any time in the modern republic's history,” the authors argue. “The recent parliamentary elections featured the most candidates ever. AKP legislation has overturned laws that prevented Turkish citizens from belonging to more than one labor union or collectively bargaining, filing requests for information from the government and traveling abroad without restriction. As a result, since the AKP came to power, Turkey's Freedom House scores for political rights and civil liberties have gone up, putting Turkey close to becoming a ‘free' nation, the highest ranking that Freedom House assigns.”

But, there is also the dark side: “But their power to contest the government has come under attack. Over the last five years, Erdoğan and the AKP have proved relentless in their targeting of anyone perceived to contest their power or be a threat to their dominance.”

Intimidating the media and public dissent in general is one aspect. Another one, “a dangerous trend,” is what they see as the “suppression of the armed forces” (in a sense that the downfall of the officer corps would lead to wider campaigns of harassment and punishment of the opposition in general). Also, its attempts to subject the political parties through legal cases of corruption and take-over of key institutions such as the Academy of Sciences cause concern. In general, AKP rule has tried to limit the ability of ordinary Turks to “question its power.”

“Turkey has thus become more open in some ways and more closed in others, allowing for greater participation and less contestation,” the authors conclude.

The next benchmark will be the new constitution. “Should the AKP successfully push for a strong executive without concurrent checks and balances, Turkey will sink more deeply into its paradox.”

It ends with a remark for all those who might be ready to jump into clichés and shallow conclusion: “Turkey will not likely revert to full-blown authoritarianism. But an autocratic slide will undermine its international standing, built largely on its democratization. Should Turkey's liberalization falter, the country may quickly lose that influence -- suggesting that there are consequences to having it both ways.”

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