Turkish People’s Democracy Test

May 21, 2018

The EU summit held in Brussels on December 17, 2004 decided that accession negotiations with Turkey would start on October 3, 2005. The process was accordingly launched at the Luxembourg Intergovernmental Conference. This was three years after the Justice and Development Party (JDP) had come to power when “democratic reform” was high on Turkey’s agenda. Our relations with allies were strong. Our relations with Russia were mutually rewarding and steady. Our relations with neighbors were characterized by a determination to open new avenues of cooperation reflecting shared interests.

At midnight on January 1st, 2005 Turkey knocked six zeros off the lira. The BBC reported that the change marked the end of dizzyingly-high denominations as five million lira – enough for a short taxi ride – and the 20m note, worth $15. “The new lira is the symbol of the stable economy that we dreamed of for long years” said Sureyya Serdengecti, then Governor of the Turkish Central Bank. At the time a dollar was worth 1.34 lira.

In early April 2009 President Obama visited Turkey. He addressed the Turkish Parliament and referred to Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy as Ataturk’s greatest legacy. Regional countries were looking at Turkey with envy.

In brief, we were riding a wave of optimism.

A decade later, JDP’s Turkey is only a shadow of its former self. With weak and submissive institutions there is profound worry that at the end of our democratic decline Turkey would turn into a party-state; that “democratic order” will be replaced by “state of emergency” and legislative process by “rule by decree”. Politics remain confrontational and extremely polarized.

According to a Pew Research Center Report of January 5, 2006, 65% of Turks preferred democracy over strong leadership (*). Yet, through the constitutional referendum of April 16, 2016 they replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with another, at the center of which is very strong leadership.

Turkey is bordering on regional chaos yet our external policies lack foresight, transparency and public scrutiny. At a time of rising international tensions and strained trans-Atlantic relations, we are behaving as if we are competing for first prize in an unpopularity contest. Countries which are still trying to work with us do so not because they embrace what we have come to represent but because we are neighboring Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey matters. Whereas the JDP put the emphasis on Turkey’s soft power in its earlier years, today it only stresses hard power.

No wonder, therefore, that people are gloomy. We Turks don’t know what tomorrow may bring not to speak of the months and years ahead. We are constantly on edge, anxious and worried. The negative impact of our democratic decline on the economy is becoming more and more visible with each passing day. Today one dollar is worth 4.53 liras, up from 1.34 in January 2005.

And finally, in appalling acts of ungratefulness and treachery, emboldened reactionaries are targeting Ataturk and his legacy.

The JDP has been in power for sixteen consecutive years and its leadership may have wished to earn itself a special place in Turkey’s history. To attain this objective, they did not have to gather an army, fight the victors of a world war, fight foreign invasion, rebuild the country’s foreign and security policy infrastructures and economy from scratch. All of that was achieved starting with our War of Independence under Ataturk’s leadership, the declaration of the Republic and the far-reaching reforms which followed and earned us world’s respect and inspired peoples fighting for national liberation. To earn itself a special place in history, all the JDP leadership had to do was to build on that solid foundation, keep Turkish democracy on track and the rest including continuing economic growth and a unique global status would have followed. Because, nowhere else are democracy, international standing and economic growth so inextricably linked. Sadly, the JDP squandered a historic opportunity.

The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are significant beyond candidates and political parties. They are about a fundamental choice between democracy or the lack of it because democracy is more than the ballot box. Bridges and tunnels cannot be substitutes for the separation of powers, rule of law, independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression. These elections are also the last opportunity to reverse the trashing of our parliamentary system which had put us far ahead of others in the Islamic world. Responsibility for the direction Turkey would take from June 24 onward will rest entirely with us, the people of Turkey and not with leaders, parties and external enemies.


(*) http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/pdf/250.pdf

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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