It’s been about a week and a half since thousands of Turkish citizens went to the streets to protest the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Commentators in the United States and around the world took the protests as an opportunity to highlight the threat Erdogan’s authoritarianism poses to Turkish democracy. And indeed, it is high time that Erdogan’s foreign supporters acknowledge his dangerous disregard for free speech and the rule of law, as well as his generally derisive attitude toward dissent.
Yet the painful irony, for anyone who wants to see Turkish democracy prosper, is that if Erdogan had paid more heed to his critics, his government would not be on the verge of succeeding in a historic effort to end Turkey’s brutal thirty-year civil war with Kurdish separatists. Indeed, the government’s policy of reconciling with Turkey’s Kurds, and the terrorist organization that has for too long represented them, is just as unpopular as any of the actions that provoked the recent protests.
Four years ago the AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) abandoned its first effort to radically rethink the country’s approach to the Kurdish issue. The plan, which sought to increase Kurdish cultural rights, failed in the face of widespread opposition from some of the same people who are protesting today, inflamed by the same media organs that the government has now silenced. Subsequently, Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has become noticeably more progressive in its approach to the Kurdish issue. Still, the government faces widespread accusations of treason for sitting down to negotiate with jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. While even the most optimistic commentators hold their breath for fear that a tenuous peace process will once again fall apart, all the evidence to date is that this historic plan is proceeding apace. Last month thousands of Kurdish rebels obeyed orders from their superiors to quietly withdraw from Turkish territory. The Turkish military, for its part, allowed them to do so without incident.
It is difficult to overstate how transformative these steps will be if they succeed. For decades, Kurdish, Turkish, and Kurdish-Turkish families alike have experienced the pain of losing children on both sides of this conflict. A lasting peace will not only spare future families this pain, but also free Turkey of the terrorist threat that the government has repeatedly invoked to justify curtailing liberties in other realms.
The history of Turkey’s recent democratization has been full of such ironies. Several days before protests broke out across Turkey, Erdogan called the country’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a drunk. In doing so, he exercised a freedom to state the obvious that has been denied to Turkish citizens for almost a century. Unfortunately, he made this statement in defense of a law his government recently passed that would needlessly restrict these same citizens’ freedom to have a beer. (Tellingly, some secular critics who in the past might have felt compelled to defend Ataturk’s sobriety were content this time around to simply suggest that Ataturk had governed better drunk than Erdogan could sober.)
Much of Erdogan’s previous success has been a product of his skill at pitching policies to liberal and Islamist audiences at the same time. Overturning a ban on women entering schools while wearing headscarves was a victory for Islamic piety but also, in the government’s telling, for women’s education. Likewise, the government’s ban on public smoking was a Mayor Bloomberg–style health initiative that also enforced a religious injunction. More substantially, when orchestrating the ongoing legal case known as Ergenokon, the government took care to ensure that every round of arrests included at least a few high-profile individuals who were almost certainly involved in plotting a military coup among the other outspoken secularists and opposition journalists taken into custody. Of course, many outspoken opponents condemned Erdogan’s actions every step of the way, but they were easier to marginalize while more liberal voices gave his government the benefit of the doubt.
A decade ago Erdogan’s most vocal American critics were conservatives worried about his religiosity, while liberal commentators largely cheered for the Justice and Development Party in its campaign to curb the power of the military and bring Turkey into the EU. Today most media coverage appears to sympathize with Turkish protesters standing up against a government that has betrayed its promise and undermined its potential role as a democratizing force. Yet in his approach to governing, Erdogan has always taken as much inspiration from Vladimir Putin as from Mohammad. Only now, when his policies seem to draw on both inspirations at once, has he begun to gather widespread condemnation in the West.
In retrospect, Turkey’s political development over the past ten years is a reminder that countries seldom advance toward democracy directly, if at all. At best, they tack toward this destination like sailboats, moving forward in one dimension while regressing in another. There is, however, reason to hope that last week’s protest mark the start of a new tack. Previous anti-government protests have been largely the work of nationalists and secularists nostalgic for an era when military tutelage kept Islamists in check. To be sure, these constituencies were represented last week, but their presence was overshadowed by a larger number of protesters united in their desire for a more liberal and more democratic government. Moreover, many protesters were quick to denounce the illiberal groups in their midst. The prime minister and a cooperative media have, for their part, tried to draw attention to these illiberal elements, hinting that they are perhaps part of a conspiracy to topple the government. Indeed, having been the target of such efforts in the past, Erdogan and his supporters may genuinely believe such accusations, and think the threat to Turkish democracy justifies their heavy-handedness.
And this, ultimately, is why Turkey’s fate is in the hands of its citizens. It will be up to the country’s opposition forces to make it clear they want to build a more inclusive democracy. And it will be up to ordinary voters to make it clear that if Erdogan does not live up to his democratic rhetoric, they will seek a less power-hungry leader to build on the progress he has made.
Nick Danforth is a PhD candidate in history at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle East history, politics, and maps at www.midafternoonmap.com.