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How Liberal Will Our Democracy Be?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
There is only a week now before Turkey’s next general elections. Almost everybody seems certain that the winner, again, will be the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Yet less people are certain that the AKP will continue to be the reformist party it once was.
I will tell you what I think about this as well. But first, let me tell you how we came here. There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the past nine years Turkey went through under the AKP has been an era of democratization. The Kemalist elite, and particularly the Kemalist military, which used to dominate the political system by keeping elected politicians under its thumb, has gradually lost its power. In other words, the very basic definition of democracy, that rulers should come to power via free and fair elections, has been consolidated. We do not expect military coups or judicial coups anymore.

But as Fareed Zakaria showed very insightfully, democratization of a country should not be the only political concern. It is also crucial to check whether the democracy we are speaking about is liberal or illiberal. A liberal democracy makes sure that the “general will” does not work in a way which curtails the liberty of the individual. In an illiberal democracy, however, a government backed by a majority can do things, which threaten the rights of the minorities or dissenting individuals. From that perspective, the AKP has actually not done too badly, especially in its initial years. Many liberal reforms, most of which have been demanded by the European Union, have been realized by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his team. So, Turkey has become a freer country for Kurds, non-Muslims, foreign investors, or public intellectuals who dared to “insult Turkishness.” But that initial liberalism of the AKP began to decline gradually, after the first three or four years of its rule, for various reasons. First of all, the party lost the motivation to prove itself legitimate to the world and to Turkish society. They gradually grew more self-confident, and thus less reformist. The bigger reason, perhaps, was the attack of the Kemalist establishment, to which the AKP had to respond, and respond decisively. The attack began to culminate in the year 2006, and reached its zenith 2007, when the military issued a threatening memorandum against the government. Erdoğan remained defiant, and went to general elections, which he won by a staggering 46 percent of the votes. But soon the establishment attacked again, by the infamous closure case the chief prosecutor opened against the AKP. The party barely survived, and learnt an important lesson: It had to disestablish the establishment. The controversial cases of Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, both of which are politically supported by the AKP, should be seen within this context. I am among those who think these cases have had some excesses, such as the arrest of journalists like Nedim Şener and Ahmet Şık. But the cases were not legally bogus, as the opposition claimed, and they were politically necessary for the survival of our democracy, as most liberals agreed. However, the fact that AKP has been targeted by the establishment by undemocratic means, including some little-known assassination schemes against Erdoğan, had a bad affect. The party began to perceive even some of the legitimate acts of opposition, such as protests by workers or students, as an “Ergenekon plot.” And it began to rely more and more on the police to counter them, a sign of illiberalism rather than liberalism. A third reason for the illiberal tendencies of the AKP is the classical leader-domination within Turkish politics, and the character of the leader in question: Tayyip Erdoğan. He is very brave, creative and hardworking, but he is also combative rather than cooperative, defiant rather than consensual, and angry rather than calm. This is a matter of personality, not ideology: President Abdullah Gül, whose worldview is hardly different than Erdoğan, has a much more reconciliatory character. What all this means is there is room for concern for the emergence of an illiberal democracy in Turkey, and the AKP needs to be pushed into headings toward a liberal one. The problem is not that the AKP has an Islamist “hidden agenda,” as the secularists have believed in paranoia. The problem is just an age-old rule of politics: Concentration of too much power in the hands of anybody, Erdoğan, Atatürk, or someone else, leads to authoritarianism rather than liberalism. One piece of good news is the new direction of the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or CHP. They sound much more reasonable now than they used to be, and criticize the AKP from liberal grounds rather than illiberal ones. It is still a very immature transformation, and we need to be convinced by its genuineness. But it certainly is better than nothing.

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