The 'Turkish Model' of Democracy: Neither Moderate nor Democratic

Both U.S. policy and Middle Eastern Islamists have repeatedly held up the “Turkish model” as an ideal. As early as 2002, the Bush administration supported the Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model for democratic “moderate Islam.” Recently, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called Turkey an “Islamic democracy” in action.

During the last year, Western governments and mass media have urged new, post-revolutionary Arab governments to follow the ‘Turkish model” as a way of achieving a moderate democracy. The problem with this approach is that the Turkish model is not so moderate, democratic, or admirable.

Since achieving power almost a decade ago, the AKP has built, step-by-step, a Putin-style permanent regime by knocking over institution after institution, changing laws to give itself more power, and intimidating opponents.

Now, the last two surviving institutions have received this treatment. Top military officers were forced to resign, and scores have been arrested and imprisoned on flimsy charges. In 2010 the AKP pushed through a series of constitutional amendments that included increasing the number of members in Turkey’s Constitutional Court -- its equivalent of a supreme court -- from eleven to seventeen, allowing the AKP to achieve a majority of its own supporters. The size of the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges (HSYK), the body that approves judges and prosecutors, was increased from seven to twenty-two appointees. AKP filled the positions with partisans, ensuring itself absolute power over the judiciary branch of government in Turkey.

Under the AKP, Turkey has become a world leader in imprisoning journalists, students, and politicians of opposing viewpoints exercising their rights to free speech. According to the International Center for Prison Studies, the number of people in Turkey’s prisons doubled between 2006 and 2010. Close to half of them are being held without trial.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 “Global Gender Gap Report” measuring the gap between men and women in economic participation, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment, Turkey bottomed at 122 out of 135 -- down from 106 in 2006, and heading in the direction of Saudi Arabia. Consistent with this finding, Social Watch -- an international network of citizens’ organizations -- has stated that “Turkey's record on gender equality is inadequate and has substantially worsened under the Justice and Development Party (AKP).”