Is Turkey Really a 'Vibrant Democracy'?

It’s easy and tempting to think that a 99% Muslim country is going to turn toward Islamism. Yet this may be happening in Turkey despite the fact that less than 10% of Turks describe themselves as “fully devout” (KONDA’s “Religion, Secularism and the Veil in Daily Life” Survey). For tens of millions of Turks, religiosity is a private matter, an attitude parallel to that in the United States.


The problem is that there is a minority of pro-Islamists who have been allowed to take control of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, although at the ballot box, the party represents nearly half of the Turkish people due to a combination of the ineptitude of the opposition, the AKP’s  far superior organization, and its exploitation of state power.

Despite its claims to be a moderate centrist party “on the pattern of Europe’s Christian Democrats” and a good manager of the economy and foreign relations, there is much evidence that the AKP has increasingly been fundamentally transforming Turkey while tolerating rampant cronyism, which has effectively lead to a redistribution of wealth and power. Consequently, a small percentage of Turkey’s population — also only a segment of the AKP voters — have been politically and financially empowered at the expense of the rest of the Turkish people.

As a result of a highly centralized, top-down system, the party leader, in this case Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, practically chooses every parliamentary candidate. The parliamentary system allows him as prime minister to control both the executive and the legislative branches of the government. The current regime has advanced steadily to add control over the courts and media, and now even the military is under severe pressure.


In Turkey, the president is supposed to be above political parties once elected and has traditionally played such a role. However, that tradition appears to have ended with the 2007 election of Erdoğan sidekick Abdullah Gül by the Turkish parliament.

Before 2010, the judicial branch was rather independent. Corruption existed but the courts did balance the prime minister and the executive-legislative branch controlled by him.

In September 2010m the regime conducted a referendum that clearly violated the EU Venice Commission’s own Code of Good Practice on Referendums, which states: “There must be an intrinsic connection between the various parts of each question put to the vote, in order to guarantee the free suffrage of the voter.” Instead, however, popular provisions to increase freedom and democracy were used to gain a vote in favor of a text that included anti-democratic changes to the judiciary.

As a result, now the judiciary is all but controlled by the prime minister. It may appear that the system has become more democratic, but members of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges & Prosecutors are now chosen, for all practical purposes, by one man. With the prime minister controlling all three branches of the government, Turkey has taken a critical step toward a possible dictatorship.


There is more. Prior to the ruling AKP party’s takeover of Turkish politics in 2002, state institutions such as the YÖK (Higher Education Board) and Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs) were infected with considerable corruption. Each institution was controlled by a different special interest group. In the post-2007 era, all have been overtaken by pro-AKP interest groups. Nearly all formerly independent bodies have become attached to the government ministries. The lack of real checks and balances has placed the nation’s resources at the disposal of the prime minister and his government for full exploitation.

Yet despite this grab of growing power and its use to change Turkey’s system, much of the Western media has been touting Erdogan and the AKP as the new, improved “vibrant” democracy in Turkey:

Turkey is now a vibrant, competitive democracy…”

New York Times on June 8, 2010

A vibrant democracy that in spite of its imperfections is seen as an example of  reform in the region…”

Foreign Policy on May 26, 2011

A vibrant democracy with the rule of law…”

The Economist on October 21, 2010

A vibrant democracy… led by Islam’s equivalent to Christian Democrats…”

The same language has also been used by the AKP itself. Here is the Turkish president speaking to students at the College of Europe at Natolin, Poland, June 7, 2011:


Turkey is also becoming a source of inspiration of a vibrant democracy… in the region.

However, the reality may point to a situation quite different: Turkey has fallen from the 99th spot in 2006 to 138th in 2010 in the Press Freedom Index with more than 50 journalists jailed since 2007.

When U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone finally spoke up against the erosion of media freedom, he was bluntly told to mind his own business. The State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report indicates that “the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the government at times did not observe these prohibitions.”

Thousands of websites have been banned, and internet freedom is seriously challenged for the 35 million internet users in the country.

The goverment has even tackled Turkey’s scientific institutions, issuing a decree giving itself tighter control of Turkey’s two main scientific organizations: the funding agency TÜBİTAK and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA).

Hundreds of people have been jailed under the investigations called Ergekenekon and Sledgehammer, which began in July 2008 and July 2010, respectively. Yet not a single conviction has been achieved to date. Ergun Poyraz, first detained in July 2007 and the author of over eight anti-AKP or anti-Erdoğan books, has now spent four years in jail with no end in sight. This appears to be the pattern that will affect other victims.


Gareth Jenkins, one of the most knowledgeable analysts on Turkish political matters, writes:

Not only is the evidence in both cases deeply flawed, there are also increasing indications that much of it has been fabricated.

Turkey’s democracy is cited as an inspiration to Arab countries at the very moment when it is disappearing in Turkey itself.



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