Thank God we saw these days! Turkish national days finally purged of military-dominated and compulsory celebrations held in big stadiums, found not only in isolationist, totalitarian regimes such as North Korea and Iran.
This year May 19, Youth and Sports Day, was marked joyfully and colorfully with the participation of civilians in the streets and squares. Symbolic yet significant progress has been made in Turkey's ongoing democratic normalization. One cannot agree more with the headline carried by some newspapers: “Iron Curtain Torn Down,” as such mass demonstrations conducted with full military discipline were characteristic of former Iron Curtain nations.
Those who seek to understand what sort of Iran Curtain mentality had been ruling in Turkey until very recently, despite its being part of the Western bloc, should have a look at the case of North Korea. Those social groups unhappy with all sorts of democratization, demilitarization, democratic change and transformation must frankly accept that what they advocate is close to North Korean-style governance and social organization.
I am frequently referring to North Korea because I have just returned from its closest neighbor, South Korea. North Korea, where the Iron Curtain rules are still firmly in place, continues to impose all sorts of pressures and tyranny on its own people and to suffer from occasional problems of hunger and famine, while South Korea, which has stuck to democracy since 1987, is sporting the agility of a dynamic Asian tiger in all areas. The success story of South Korea, where per capita income nears $32,000, and the misery of North Korea, where people are descended from the same blood lines, sharing their history and culture, are enough to prove the cost of sustaining an Iron Curtain-style administration and also what is to be gained by maintaining a democratic regime. I don't think it would be flawed to argue that democratization has the highest share in the success of South Korea, a $1.6 trillion economy.
South Korea's experience closely parallels that of Turkey in that its democratization process has frequently been interrupted by military interventions, but today, thanks to democratic conventions and institutions firmly in place, the military's influence over politics and society has been largely trimmed in the country. South Korea achieved this despite all sorts of threats, including nuclear ones, from North Korea, a country which sees its raison d'etre as hostility to South Korea. Today democracy is in full bloom in South Korea, a presidential system where one can observe separation of powers and a system of checks and balances implemented almost as meticulously as in the US. The full implementation of democracy has eliminated the risk of a military intervention entirely.
I had the opportunity to make a comparison between Turkish and South Korean experiences of military coups and democracy during a recent one-week visit to Seoul, where I was able to participate in and observe meetings and conferences held in parliament, the Constitutional Court, Bar associations and universities. The program was organized jointly by Istanbul Cultural Center, an organization promoting Turkish culture and working to improve bilateral relations between Turkey and South Korea; Korea-Turkey Business Association (KOTUBA); Seoul University; Kyungpook National University; Ajou University and Hangang Law Corporation.
During these meetings, I sadly realized that some members of the Turkish delegation confused Turkey's democratization progress with the attainment of true democracy. Many people are quick to note that the Turkish democratic transition started in 1876 when the first constitution was drafted, or in the 1830s when some democratic steps relating to local administration were made. The flow of argument then moves on to frequent coups that have interrupted the country's democratic progress. However, in my opinion, Turkey has never experienced a fully-fledged democratic government that can be considered the culmination of the country's democratic journey. What Turkey has enjoyed so far, and is currently enjoying, consists only of an ongoing process of democratization. It wouldn't be strange, I don't think, to argue that a country where democratization is the never-ending talk of the town has not attained true democracy yet.
During my time in South Korea I witnessed an argument that aptly summarizes the foregoing analysis, and answers the complaints voiced by some members of the Turkish delegation visiting South Korea about frequent interruptions to Turkish democracy. As we were visiting Lawyers For A Democratic Society (MINBYUN), a Civil Society Organization (CSO) of activist lawyers, MINBYUN President Seon-soo Kim remarked, "If democracy ever comes, it won't go away.” This was engraved in my memory as a foolproof test of democracy, and a strong manifesto for what needs to be achieved in order to establish true democracy.
We need to discuss at length this mind-set that blames the frequent interruption by military coups for the fact that democracy has not yet come into full bloom. In this context, can we really claim that Turkey has had a century-long experience of democracy? At best we can say that Turkey has been making efforts to achieve true democracy during the last 100 to 150 years and has been unable to implement an ideal democratic system. Therefore, we must discuss why the progress made by the Adnan Menderes-led Democrat Party (DP) between 1950 and 1960 or the strides in democratization of Turgut Özal between 1983 and 1993 failed to institutionalize a true democratic system in Turkey. As Seon-soo Kim aptly noted, we need to understand a democracy that easily retreats before military-led anti-democratic groups is not a true democracy.
With this in mind, the drafting of a constitution by civilians for the first time must concentrate on enshrining a democracy that "won't go away," and securing indestructible guarantees for such a democracy. As Osman Can, a professor of constitutional law, puts it, this constitution in the making will form the skeleton of a political system that will govern the country for many decades to come. If you design it like the skeleton of a bird that proudly flies with its strong wings and perfect anatomy then Turkey can fly. But if you build it like the skeleton of a reptile Turkey will continue to crawl into the future.
I think we, as the citizens who will share the country's destiny of flying or crawling, are entitled to demand a constitution that will build a democracy that will never go away again.
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