[email protected]

June 02, 2013, Sunday

Turkey’s illiberal democracy in action

The events in Taksim have received wide press coverage internationally.

As I was watching police brutality against protesters, I asked myself whether foreign policy experts will still refer to Turkey as a model, or as the current government prefers it as a source of inspiration after what happened. We live in a world where the line between what is domestic and what is foreign policy is becoming increasingly thinner. It is therefore surprising that despite general consensus that in matters related to foreign policy Turkey is becoming more active and influential, there is absolutely no consensus about domestic dynamics in Turkey. A growing cohort is increasingly critical of Turkey's human rights problems, lack of media freedoms and absence of judicial independence. This glaring Turkish paradox of worsening authoritarianism at home versus influence abroad was nowhere more visible than in the way the authorities used disproportionate force against protestors in İstanbul.  

Given the growing perception that human rights are deteriorating in Turkey, it is time for supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to examine such accusations without dismissing them as malicious propaganda. The perception is growing that the old type of military or Kemalist authoritarianism is being replaced by a more civilian type of repressiveness. Is one type of authoritarianism really replacing another? To be fair, compared to the lost decade of the 1990s, what Turkish democracy has witnessed under the AK Party since 2002 is a major improvement. The system of military tutelage has come to an end, and the will of the majority of the people is represented in power. Yet, this alone, does not make Turkey a liberal democracy.  At best, what Turkey has become can be called a “majoritarian democracy” with continuing illiberal tendencies.

What differentiates a liberal democracy from one where elections determine the whole outcome are rights and liberties enshrined in the rule of law. Constitutional liberties, freedom of speech, freedom of association, minority rights, gender rights and checks and balances over executive power are still very problematic in Turkey. Such rights and liberties require steps beyond tutelage of the military. Yes, without Turkey's recently established civilian supremacy over the military, any discussion about authoritarianism or illiberal democracy would have been meaningless. The military has no role in a democracy to provide checks and balances. Such responsibility lies with Parliament, the judiciary, civil society and a free press. Turkey's standards leave a lot to be desired in all these areas. There is not much point in changing who is in power if fundamental rights and liberties are still curtailed by the new and supposedly more “legitimate” power center.

At the heart of the issue, the problem is the absence of a liberal mindset in Turkey. Liberalism is not just about the ballot box and elections. It requires institutions that will change the patriarchal and authoritarian political culture in Turkey. In the absence of liberal institutions and a liberal mindset it is very hard to address the structural deficiencies of Turkish democracy. Rights and liberties, checks and balances, respecting the “other” and dissent, respecting the freedom to protest as freedom of speech, these are all virtues of a liberal system. Unfortunately, today's Turkey, especially after Taksim, proves that it is still miles away from being a liberal democracy. Unless it becomes so, the risk for Turkey will be nothing less than the tyranny of the majority. 

Previous articles of the columnist