January 08, 2012, Sunday

Turkey's achievements and failures

Last month I attended an international conference in Dohuk called “The future of the Middle East in light of recent political developments” -- organized jointly by the Ministry of Culture and Youth of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the University of Dohuk -- and gave a talk. Below are some of the points I made.

I regard the Arab Awakening as important for our region (and perhaps for the entire world) as the end of the Cold War. It will perhaps take many years and create much turmoil before the Arab peoples' revolutions lead to the establishment of representative governments that respect basic rights and freedoms. One of the arguments put forward in the debate on the future of the countries in the Arab Awakening is that the achievements accomplished by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government during the last decade have made Turkey a model, or a source of inspiration, for the Arab world.

The fact that Turkey, under the leadership of the Muslim democratic AKP, has been able to achieve remarkable growth in its economy, significantly strengthen its democracy and pursue a multi-dimensional foreign policy that has enabled it to say “no” to the United States and Israel surely lends credibility to this argument. It is, however, necessary to draw lessons from Turkey's failures as well as its achievements.

Turkey was basically a protectionist command economy until the 1980s, pursuing an import substitution industrialization strategy. With such an economic system it was unable to achieve sufficient growth and suffered chronic economic crises of different varieties. Liberalization and globalization of the economy were only gradually achieved, and an open market economy was finally established by the AKP government. The result of this was a threefold increase in the size of the economy and a twofold increase in per capita income. Turkey's economy is not, however, without problems. A large current account deficit, low rate of domestic savings, generally low level of education and severe income disparities are some of these problems.

I regard foreign policy as the area in which the AKP government's achievements have far exceeded its failures. It can be argued that Ankara, under the AKP, has on the whole managed to balance its relations with the West and the rest. The Cyprus problem remains unsolved, however; accession negotiations with the European Union are stalled, and normalization with Armenia has not made progress.

Turkey's failures weigh more heavily in domestic politics. It is true that Turkey has managed to make significant moves from a kind of electoral democracy under military-bureaucratic tutelage towards EU norms, as attested to by regular reports from the European Commission. But Turkey is far from having achieved a liberal and pluralist democracy. It is true that coup attempts have been averted and that the generals accused of involvement are now on trial. But most of the constitutional and legal provisions that assign the military tutelary powers remain intact. Military schools continue to imbue officers with Kemalism, that is, the authoritarian secular nationalism, the ideological basis of the tutelary regime.

It is true that intellectuals are increasingly bold in criticizing the old regime. Legislation resulting from the infamous anti-terror law and the penal code that significantly restricts freedom of expression, however, remain in place. Courts use detention as a penalty, in conflict with the rule of law; nearly half of the increasing numbers of inmates in Turkish prisons are not convicts, but suspects under arrest. In his trip to the countries of the Arab Awakening last fall, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defined secularism as equal freedom of religion for all people, including atheists. Turkey is, however, far from establishing such a secular regime. The state, in line with Kemalism, continues to monopolize religion and set restrictions on religious freedoms.

And yes the AKP government has brought an end to denial of the Kurdish identity and taken some important steps towards recognizing it. This is why nearly half of Turkey's Kurds vote for the AKP and continue to see it as the only hope for the country. But Turkey is far from recognizing the identity rights of its Kurdish population. It is true that the AKP government has acted like no previous government in taking steps towards negotiating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to end violence. It is, however, recently signaling unwillingness to move further towards recognizing the Kurdish identity and intent to revert to the old policy of seeking a military solution to PKK insurgency.

It is clear that, unless Turkey uses legislation and its new constitution to redefine itself as a citizens' state that stands equidistant to, and guarantees the rights of, all religious and ethnic groups, it can neither be a true model nor a source of inspiration for the Arab world.

Previous articles of the columnist