Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square” and blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.
In the past five years, Turkey has veered from what was once a promising path of liberal democracy — and the European Union can pull it back.
The recent massive street protests in Istanbul started as a backlash against the government’s plan to develop a beloved park into a shopping mall, but they also reflect popular frustration at the country’s authoritarian turn, made clear in the rise of crony capitalism, intimidation by government forces and the centralization of power in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was just a decade ago that then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the main reason his government was pursuing wide-ranging democratic reforms was the possibility of fully joining the European Union. But as that prospect has faded, so has the drive toward democracy in Turkey.
Even before the AKP came to power in late 2002, the party’s leaders determined that E.U. membership was the best means to resolve Turkey’s perennial culture war between Islamists and secularists. With a legislative majority, the AKP quickly abolished the death penalty, wrote a new penal code, changed anti-terrorism laws to make it more difficult to prosecute citizens on speech alone (though critics claim the changes do not go far enough) and significantly expanded political rights. The country also saw tentative steps toward granting Turkey’s Kurds, who account for 18 percent of the nation’s 80 million citizens, additional cultural rights, including the right to use the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education. The parliament also made it more difficult for the government to ban political parties and politicians — previously a common way for Turkey’s political elites to undermine their opponents.
The AKP also brought the politically powerful armed forces under civilian control. In the 1990s, the sway of the military was such that Turkish politicians touted their ability to get along with the senior command as part of their electoral campaigns. But in a series of swift changes beginning in 2003, mixed civilian-military security courts were abolished, officers were removed from boards that set education and broadcasting policies, and parts of the defense budget were brought under civilian oversight. In the most extraordinary reform, the parliament altered the composition and functions of Turkey’s National Security Council — the body through which the top brass had routinely influenced political decisions. Instead, the council was downgraded to an advisory board with a civilian leader and placed under the budgetary control of the prime ministry.
Taken together, these reforms — which Brussels had set as preconditions for Turkey to begin the process of joining the European Union — represented a significant boost for Turkish democracy.
The changes were wildly popular throughout Turkish society — among liberals who considered themselves Europeans, business leaders, Kurds, average Turks and Islamists. The military, which had long claimed to be a vanguard of modernization, simply could not afford to undermine the AKP’s European project because of the popular support it enjoyed. In October 2004, the European Commission concluded that Ankara had met all the requirements — the “Copenhagen criteria” — to begin membership negotiations and recommended that the Council of Europe formally extend Turkey an invitation.