On July 3, Egemen Bağış, the Turkish minister responsible for EU affairs, tweeted about developments in Egypt:

“It is hypocritical of those who tolerated Mubarak for decades to reject a leader chosen by two thirds of the public vote.”


MP Bağış’s views represent the position of the AKP government concerning Mohamed Morsi’s ousting on July 3.

The Turkish government views Morsi’s removal as president of Egypt as illegitimate, and has been consistently calling on the EU to define events in Egypt as a coup.

These efforts are unsurprising, not only because of positive relations between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP, but also because of the latter’s limited understanding of democracy as exclusively dominated by the ballot box.

During Turkey’s recent Gezi Park protests, this view was reflected in Erdogan’s speeches, which based the legitimacy of his government on his party’s victory at the ballot box.

The AKP is not unique in its narrow understanding of democracy; previous regimes in Turkey, largely under the tutelage of the army, held a similarly narrow view.

But transformations in Turkey’s social sphere demand institutional reforms and changes in how democratic processes function in the country.

Upon coming to power, the AKP raised expectations among many Turks about the people’s central role in governance processes. Since then, however, the party has dashed hopes for a more democratic and inclusive Turkish state.

In order for democracy to advance in the country, it must move beyond a focus on majoritarianism and elections. The government must realize that democratization requires changes in many aspects of state governance, most importantly at the legal and political levels.

A Changing Society – Democratization Through the People

For many years in Turkey, state-level support for democracy stemmed from a desire to accede to the EU rather than from a domestic swell of democratic feeling.

With all its different factions, Turkey has only recently started to consider the real meaning of democracy.

Historically, democracy has been a tool for different groups in Turkey to assert self-interested demands for change.

This focus on the instrumental value of democracy has served to advance exclusive group interests instead of improving conditions for all communities.

It has been uncommon, for example, for Sunnis to petition for Alevi houses of worship to be recognized by the state. The Alevi are the largest non-Sunni Muslim sect in Turkey, whose theology and practices differ considerably from the dominant Sunni tradition

Similarly, it is unusual to find heterosexuals fighting for the rights of Turkey’s LGBT community, or for non-Kurds to participate in pro-Kurdish political activities.

Before the AKP government came to power, Islamists groups that demanded the ban on headscarves be removed used democracy to justify their call, but were more circumspect in demanding rights for other communities. Certain secular actors that called for freedom of expression did so only for a narrow range of opinions that met with their approval.

In the past few years, all parts of Turkish society have been learning, practicing, and struggling to cultivate a deeper appreciation of democracy. But, partisan agendas continue to dominate this exercise.

The AKP has, for instance, realized that particularistic demands for a more religious society will not be successful unless they are expressed through a broader demand for liberalism.

Similar dynamics are found among secular groups.

Since the AKP’s rise to power, secular groups have been forced to engage with Islamist demands as well as increased religious expression. As Islamists have adopted the rhetoric of democracy, secularists have had no choice but to recognize religious demands and rights so as not to lose their democratic/liberal credentials.

Against this backdrop, the limits of democracy have been quite evident in Turkey.

The AKP’s demands for religious freedoms have superficially recognized Jews and Christians while ignoring the Alevis. After eleven years in power, the AKP has yet to grant the Alevi’s Cem Evi (where Alevis practice their religious cem ritual) the status of a house of worship entitled to state protection and funding.

Ethnic issues have also been a major red line in Turkey.

After years of ignoring the subject, Turks have finally started openly discussing the “Kurdish issue.” This shift was triggered by the war in Iraq, a rise in attacks by the Kurdish PKK over the past few years, and the AKP government’s Kurdish opening, which was based on a bid for more votes from the eastern and southeastern regions.

Increased national discussion of the Kurdish issue was also spurred on by pro-Kurdish political parties, which shifted their demands away from a push for separatism to a call for recognition and civil rights inside Turkey.

In light of these developments, Turks ran out of excuses as to why Kurdish identity did not deserve recognition. Still, tolerance and inclusion continue to be elusive within Turkish society.

There are signs, however, that the future of Turkish democracy may be bright.

A new generation of politically conscious individuals has emerged, which is challenging the democratic practices of Turkey’s old parties and contributing to intellectual and political discussions between different groups in the country.

A new brand of Islamic liberals has started to criticize both secular and Islamist politicians. These loosely connected intellectuals, writers, students, and businessmen make up a new kind of pious Turkish Muslim citizen. In the past few years, they have highlighted the demands of religious communities, as part of a liberal rhetoric that also acknowledges the demands of other communities. Although most are supporters of the AKP, they are not shy of criticizing the government.

More recently, the Gezi Park protests gave voice to a more pluralist, liberal secular youth. Since the arrival of AKP, secularism in Turkey has been seen as an authoritarian concept.  Indeed, the country’s secular rhetoric was dominated by older politicians who clung to power by utilizing an obsolete understanding of the concept.

Now, young people, especially those that came of age during the 1990s and 2000s, have found a platform to voice their vision for Turkey – a society organized by secular principles that respects and ensures the freedoms of all communities in the country.

These young people have the potential to transform the traditional rhetoric of secular politicians, which has largely remained trapped within the authoritarianism of the 1980s and that blindly and narrowly focused on laicism, the strict rejection of religion from the public sphere.

The emergence of groups like anti-capitalist Muslims, who underline social and economic injustices while keeping their religious identity, and the vast gatherings in Istanbul for the LGBT Pride Walk are other examples of how Turkish society is transforming and moving beyond a superficial and particularistic appreciation of democracy.

The AKP is the victim of its own discourse, and has yet to catch up to this change. It has had three consecutive parliamentary terms and eleven years to make substantial democratic reforms. Instead, it has chosen to tackle only those problems that serve its interests.

Strengthening Democracy: Moving Beyond Elections

Elections may be the most concrete and symbolic examples of democracy. But, if voting is the only real way for citizens to express themselves, then democracy has failed before it even begins.

Democracy means being able to influence policymaking, to come together with like minded individuals who share the same frustrations and lobby for change, to access a range of opinions and analyses, to ensure freedom for all, and to protect the country from the tyranny of the majority.

Only under these circumstances, can elections bolster democracy.

In order to strengthen Turkish democracy, there are significant challenges with regard to the country’s constitution, laws, and judicial and political system that must be addressed.

The Constitution

By establishing the social, economic, and political borders of public activism, a constitution plays an important role in the political development of a country.

Turkey’s 1982 constitution allows for a very narrow spectrum of political activity, does not permit for deeper and more pluralistic forms of democracy, and emphasizes territorial and national integrity.

The Constitutional Court’s strict and narrow interpretation of this latter principle has led to the dissolution of many political parties, which has prevented diverse voices from entering mainstream politics in Turkey.

This provision has also served as grounds for restricting individual rights and liberties and failing to recognize “minority” groups.

Thanks to this constitution, the status quo in Turkey is prevented from deviating from the path of Turkish nationalism, Sunni secularism, and economic liberalism.

Discontent with the 1982 constitution is shared by all of Turkey’s political factions, and has led the AKP government to initiate a process to draft a new constitution.

The prospects for further democratization in Turkey depend highly on the constitution that will emerge out of this lengthy process.

So far, there have been several bumps in the road. In particular, the AKP has proposed a number of amendments to the constitution, which serve its own interests.

In particular, its efforts to replace the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential one have raised suspicions about the group’s non-democratic and particularistic interests in the drafting process. The AKP’s insistence on a presidential system has caused many other articles, which were agreed upon by the remaining major political parties, from being approved.

Domestic Legal System

Beyond the constitution, Turkey’s laws place a significant hurdle in the way of fostering a more democratic environment.

For example, while an improvement on the earlier version of the legislation, the new anti-terror law, passed under the AKP government in 2006, includes a broad definition of “terror” and still leaves wide room for judicial interpretation of terror–related activities.

Under article 7 of the 2006 law, those who carry the emblems, pictures, or signs of a terrorist organization or chant slogans “in a way that will show support for the organization” will be punished with prison sentences.

The law has been used to imprison many Kurdish activists, marginalizing them from the country’s political and social spheres.

The law on political parties has several similarly controversial articles. Articles 78 to 81 include a long list of prohibitions that reflect the law’s limiting nature. It includes regulations that restrict a political party’s ideology, aims, and rhetoric. Article 78, in particular, prohibits parties that aim to privilege one group over another.

This clause has been used by the Constitutional Court to prevent many communist and pro-Kurdish parties from participating in political life.

Pro-Kurdish parties have also been banned on the grounds that they have “created” minorities in Turkey, which is prohibited by Article 81 of the law.

Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which criminalizes insulting Turkishness, as well as the institutions of the state, has been used as a pretext to keep public voices homogenous. The law has been used to imprison journalists accused of insulting the Turkish nation. Despite amendments in 2008, which removed “Turkishness” as an entity to be insulted, the law remains problematic.

While laws like these must be reformed, the court’s approach to legal interpretation must also be improved.

Through many of their rulings, Turkey’s courts have aimed to prevent civil and public discussion of issues threatening the Sunni – nationalist status quo.  For instance, the judiciary’s narrow interpretation of Article 301 has prevented many ideas that challenge this system from being expressed in the Turkish media. This has not, however, caused those issues to disappear from society.

The Electoral System

The electoral system itself must be amended. The 10% threshold parties need in order to win seats in parliament is a significant flaw in the system. By preventing many smaller parties from entering the legislature, this framework keeps Turkish politics within a structure consolidated by the country’s 1980 military coup.

The AKP has yet to tackle this issue. A new package of democratizing reforms is being proposed by the parliament, including the possibility of campaigning in Kurdish and entering public offices with a headscarf.  Yet the 10% threshold remains off the agenda.

Intra Party Democracy

Intra-party democracy is a significant but often overlooked factor in ensuring that government institutions are subject to the people’s will.

In Turkey, improving intra-party democracy is conveniently ignored by all political parties, where membership is determined more by personal connections than merit.

While intra-party democracy has been a problem since the formation of the Turkish Republic, both the AKP and its chief rival, the secularist CHP, have compromised it further over the past decade.

The previous head of the CHP, Deniz Baykal, held his post from 1992 until a scandal about his private life forced him to resign in 2010.

With regard to the AKP, there are numerous examples of intolerance for differing opinions within the party. Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly dominates the AKP, making unilateral decisions, and calling the AKP “his party.”

The Ballot Box Is Not Enough

Elections are extremely important in a democracy, giving citizens an opportunity for direct involvement in government. But, the broader system is just as, if not more, important in determining the democratic credentials of a country.

In addition to the legal and political system, other areas such as education, social justice, media, and civil society contribute to a pluralistic, democratic society.

In the 21st century it is no longer possible to imagine a homogenous nation-state. Co-existence among different groups is crucial and depends on a governing system that accommodates difference. Such a system will not flourish or grow, however, if democracy is defined narrowly as elections.

Whether in Turkey or elsewhere, we must be careful not give democratic authenticity to regimes that merely rely on the ballot box for legitimacy.


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