What Turkey’s crisis means for the EU
by Katinka Barysch
Turkey has aborted its presidential election and called for an early parliamentary one. The army, it appears, is still on stand-by. Prime Minister Erdogan accused the country’s highest court of having fired “a bullet at democracy” by declaring the first round of voting on his presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, invalid.
As the drama unfolded, the EU remained largely silent – as it should. The current stand-off in Turkey is about secularism, about the mix of religion and politics, and about the role of an army that has traditionally seen itself as the defender of the Kemalist constitution. These are issues that the EU does not have much to say about. Individual EU countries would offer rather different answers. France would probably have a problem with a head-scarf wearing presidential spouse. The UK might well be more relaxed about it. All Europeans would abhor military intervention in politics. And few would share the army’s fear that a Gul presidency could tilt Turkey towards Islamism.
What matters for the continuation of the EU accession process is not who become the next Turkish president, but the way he is chosen. Democracy is about process, not personalities. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has rightly sent a thinly veiled warning to the Turkish generals to stay out of politics and respect the rules of democracy.
If the army interfered actively in the process, the EU would have to freeze the membership talks. The fulfilment of the political part of the Copenhagen accession criteria is a precondition for conducting negotiations. Turkey could not plausibly claim to have a ‘well-functioning democracy’ if unelected generals had the last say in politics.
But if the army keeps making angry noises but otherwise stays on the sidelines, the accession process can and should continue. Indeed, the current turmoil could be a sign that Turkish democracy is maturing. Turkey may be undergoing a necessary – though stressful – convulsion on the way to a more solid and stable democracy. It may be dawning on the generals that in a ‘well-functioning democracy’ they can no longer be the ultimate arbiter of who runs the country. If Turkey gets through the current crisis with its democratic institutions intact, it will have taken another important step towards becoming a mainstream European country.
Katinka Barysch is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.
Well said, Katinka. To focus a bit more on process -- Turkey does not have a well-functioning democracy in the most mundane and mechanical sense because of the 10% threshold for parliamentary elections, and this is central to what is going on right now. Despite winning 34% of the vote in 2002, AKP has controlled the government since then and was in position to elect the president of their choice. Meanwhile 46% of the electorate was disenfranchised in 2002 thanks to the threshold. I know coalition governments have their drawbacks but what Turkey has now is certainly worse. -Laurent
As a Turk, I cannot say I agree with laurent. It is only true that Turkey does not have a well-functioning democracy when you compare it to the Western democracies. You get a different picture when you compare it to Eastern (and Muslim) societies. But this is hardly because of the election threshold. On the contrary it is because of the military interventions, which were repeatead at least once in every decade (save for unsusccesful attempts). In my understanding, what has been going on in Turkey since the early 19th century is the struggle between the reformists and conservatives. Unlike the general belief (based on intentional misrepresentations in local and global media) Turkish society did not and does not have a problem with secularism or religion, even during the Ottoman years. Since the 19th century, the Turkish Reformists --whether they have been sensitive on religious issues or not-- have always insisted on market-oriented reforms in order to establish a Westernized society with free market economy but it has been the conservative army which stood against any type of change and transformation with the fear of loosing power. The secularism debate today is just a make-up, just like the military interventions in the past was cliamed to be against socialism and communism. You would not believe if I say that the army intervened in politics in favour of religion just a century ago. To give another example, all types of religious education was banned in the first decades of the Republic, then the first religious (imam-hatip) schools were established by the army in the 1940s, then religious classes became mandatory in every school, including the primary schools, in the 1980s after the coup d'etat by the army, and it was the same army which banned the graduates of religious schools from entering universities in 1997. The interpretation of secularism in Turkey (laiklik) is a Jacobean version of French secularism. Finally, I hope you know that those so-called secularist circles are also anti-American, anti-EU, anti privatisation, defending nationalist claims (sometimes inclined to racism). Keep in mind that it was the AKP government which established reforms towards democratization, while it was the army-friendly and secularist President Sezer who vetoed the reform establishing the religious rights for minorities in Turkey very very recently.
This is a good text. (Just like that "Wrong benchmark for Eastern Europe".) Much better than those BBC reports I had a pleasure to read on this blog recently.
Two points to remebmer in this case:
- This is a normal phase for Turkey.
- EU reacted good.
And I'll just add that as long as USA is out of Turkey, "functional democracy" will be achieved. Unfortunately it mihgt be too late for the Balkans.
Army generals, especially those who have been allowed to see themselves as defenders of Kemalism for decades now, do not wake up one day and 'dawns' on them that maybe it's time to stop thinking the way they do. The process of democratization can take root only when the generals themselves willingly stick to their barracks and army duties, because they see no role for them in the country's politics. Just as in other democratic countries. And for that to happen, for democracy to mature, the generals themselves must learn the meaning of true democracy, and then pass it on to their troops. Because right now, unlike the millions of Turkish civilians in the streets, they have no clue what it means.
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