Advancing a Free Society

Turkey Gets Serious

Friday, June 17, 2011

The government of Recip Erdogan won a strong electoral victory last weekend, returning the Prime Minister to power for the third time and increasing its share of the vote to 50%.  But it fell short of Erdogan’s objective to have the AK party carry the two-thirds of parliamentary seats necessary to modify Turkey’s constitution, but the secular opposition also had its strongest showing in 30 years.  This will be a valuable restraint on a Prime Minister with tendencies toward creeping authoritarianism: the AK has been imprisoning journalists critical of the government, accusing the military of coup attempts, fanning anti-Kurdish sentiment, and threatening non-Sunni businesses with the powers of the state.

Many of us have been concerned that a more democratic Turkey would be a more islamist and less cooperative American ally.  That certainly has been the trend in the past several years -- beginning with the Erdogan government’s refusal to allow U.S. forces to transit Turkey during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, continuing with it refusing to sanction the Iranian nuclear program, provoking Israel over the Gaza blockade, and making excuses for repressive governments where Turkey has business interests.

Revolutions in the so-called Arab world have caused friction between Turkey’s internal democratization and external “good neighbor” policy.  It had to evacuate thousands of Turkish citizens from Libya as Gadafi sought to destroy the rebels.  Five thousand refugees fleeing Assad’s crack down in Syria are now encamped in tent cities within Turkey, Turkey’s government reportedly establishing a buffer zone inside Syria (as it had sought in Iraq).

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Davotoglu took a different tack.  Explaining Turkey’s new willingness to criticize its neighbors, he supported the Arab spring’s democratic aspirations: “regional people's demands are normal, rightful and legitimate. Meeting those demands will make our region a more stable, more democratic and more prosperous region. We are ready to do our utmost to help our region complete this transition process in a healthy way.”

The choices of the Turkish people and the Turkish government this week give greater hope for a maturing democratic society in Turkey, one that is skeptical of too much power concentrated in the hands even of a popular government, and one that sees the value of assisting democratic change in other countries that has been so beneficial in Turkey.

(photo credit: World Economic Forum)