The democracy in Turkey is often regularly cited as a shining example for the Muslim world, which indeed it is. There are very few other Muslim countries that come close. Yet today more and more people are beginning to question democracy in Turkey. At the same time as Turkey has become increasingly self-confident, with a strong economy and an ever-more powerful role in its region and beyond, there are concerns that democratic values and freedoms have begun to slip.
A few days ago, a colleague of mine from the European Commission mentioned this to me. Out of all the EU institutions, the European Commission has always been one of the strongest supporters of Turkey’s accession process. Colleagues there have always warmly welcomed all steps taken to further democratize and modernize the country. Therefore, when these guys say they are concerned, it is a signal that something is not quite right.
With all due respect to the important role that Turkey is now playing in its region and in particular in relation to the Arab awakening, there should never be a trade-off with democratic standards and values. However, it seems that Ankara has had its ego pumped up so much by Washington and the European External Action Service -- how Turkey is their “conduit” towards to region, in particular when it comes to dealing with Syria but also Iran -- that Turkey’s leadership now seems to be giving the impression that it believes that because of the important role it is playing it has been given something of a carte blanche to do what it likes. However, while in Brussels there is concern that democracy seems to be slipping, the EU has virtually no leverage over Turkey these days, so it seems there is little they can do about it.
Having won three consecutive elections, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feels very strong and confident -- perhaps at times even invincible, which sometimes seems to be reflected in his policymaking. A number of recent events have created concern: These include the watering down of the role of the new ombudsman and Erdoğan’s desire to ban abortions. The prime minister described abortion as tantamount to “murder,” a “crime against humanity.” This angered women’s rights groups and sparked a big debate. In Turkey around 10 percent of pregnancies in 2011 ended in abortion. Turkey’s health minister has now proposed a change in the abortion law, which rights groups fear could lead to a total ban.
There remains much concern about the freedom of the media. Unfortunately, as of January 2012, there were around 97 members of the news media in jail in Turkey. According to the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS), this exceeds the numbers detained in China. All those arrested have been charged with activities other than reporting. This is sad news for a country that has a strong history of freedom of the press yet is now listed by Freedom House as being only partially free.
In the EU questions continued to be asked over the ongoing Ergenekon trial, which began in 2008. This was not the case in the beginning when it was viewed very positively, when those people that had thought they were untouchable had a rude-awakening. Now more than 250 people -- including generals, politicians, academics, rights activists, journalists and even students -- are being investigated on charges of belonging to a clandestine terrorist network. According to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, around 60 active generals and admirals are behind bars, making up more than 19 percent of the Turkish military’s top brass.
Of course I am not saying that Turkey is heading into a danger zone. This is not the case and in other areas positive steps continue to be made. There are, for example, the third judiciary reform package, which includes amendments to Article 250 of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK) regulating specially authorized courts, renewed efforts to solve the Kurdish issue and ongoing efforts for a new constitution.
At a time when the West is praising Turkey as a model of democracy for the Arab world, Ankara needs to adhere to the democratic values that it is promoting to the populations of Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. One of the reasons that so many of the populations of the Arab world look to Turkey is because of the levels of democracy -- freedoms and liberties that have existed in Turkey for a long time. There is no doubt that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been extremely successful in bringing about change to Turkey and has broken many taboos of the past. I therefore hope that Turkey will remain on a democratic path and not take too many detours.