Turkey’s Uncertain Journey into the Future: It Ain’t the Arab Spring

Protests continue across Turkey.  There’s a lot of loose talk about the “Arab Spring” coming to Turkey, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was democratically elected.  One of his great accomplishments was dismantling the military-dominated “Deep State” system which effectively controlled the Republic of Turkey since its founding in 1923. 

Modern Turkey evolved out the ruin of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who took on the name Ataturk (“Father of the Turks”).  His image still dominates the modern nation.  He was a modernizer, not a democrat.  Those who followed him enforced a ruthless nationalism and secularism; the military routinely interfered in politics, effectively destroying the predecessor party to the AKP in 1997. 

These were not the “good old days.”  The military jailed, tortured, and murdered opponents.  The Kurds were brutally repressed.  Liberals of all sorts were prosecuted, fired, and threatened for their views.  Prime Minister Erdogan ended most of these abuses. 

Unfortunately, however, power seems to have corrupted the prime minister.  As I explain in my new article:

tragically, however, Prime Minister Erdogan has stopped acting as a liberator, and increasingly begun acting as oppressor at home.  His government has used preexisting security laws to prosecute civilians, including many journalists, as well as military officers for alleged crimes, some going back many years.  While those who in their time persecuted others deserve little sympathy, misuse of the law puts the liberties of all into jeopardy.  Warned the U.S. State Department in its latest human rights report:  “Broad laws against terrorism and other threats to the state and a lack of transparency in the prosecution of such cases significantly restricted access to justice.”

Particularly threatening is the prosecution of journalists.  Last year the Journalists Union of Turkey counted 94 reporters in prison, while another group figured that number at 104. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins cited “an extraordinary climate of fear among journalists,” leading many editors to expressly discourage criticism of the prime minister.

The government could respond to the latest protests by returning to the reform track.  If not, the public needs to solve the problem of unaccountable political power through the ballot box.  Ironically, Prime Minister Erdogan has made further democratic transformation of Turkey possible by breaking the military’s hold over politics.  Now it is up to the Turkish people to act.