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Arab Spring, 'model' debate and the Turkish experience

HDN | 7/13/2011 12:00:00 AM | Nihat Ali Özcan - naozcan@tepav.org.tr

Three distinct groups of people believe that Turkish democracy was built after the 2002 general elections.

Three distinct groups of people believe that Turkish democracy was built after the 2002 general elections.

First are some cunning Westerners. They present Turkey as an example in order to deal with events in the Middle East with the least possible damage and to pacify political Islamists. “Be patient, look at Turkey,” they say. “You can come to power without causing too much trouble.”

The second group is comprised of the region’s political Islamists. They identify with the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and entertain the idea of following the AKP path to power.

Finally, some Turks with over-inflated egos simply want to manipulate Turkish domestic policy.

Each country has a different democracy-building experience, determined by their unique history, geography, culture and psychology. Different times and conditions shape the beginnings of the journey to democracy. For a meaningful “model” debate, a quick glance at the history of Turkish democracy is compulsory. If the below-mentioned conditions are met, I cannot imagine why Turkey can’t be a model for the Arab world!

The first condition is self-confidence. To meet this condition, you need to find a society that inherited a six-century-old empire and never lived under colonial rule. Secondly, there is the definite mark of a leader at every stage of democratization, like today’s self-confident leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey was lucky to have an effective and pragmatic leader like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as early as 1923 who was not under the influence of personal, familial, tribal or sectarian interests. He did not perceive the world as divided between the Islamic and Western, but instead saw civilization as the common work of humanity. He was able to focus on the goal of “Westernization” with no external imposition, to reject both fascism and communism and to implement a series of legal, political and social reforms. His belief in secularism and gender equality was of great importance. Accordingly, he radically changed the status of women. He was followed by İsmet İnönü who enabled a peaceful transition to a multi-party system and transferred power to a new ruling party. Later, Adnan Menderes led Turkey into NATO. This opportunity not only provided security for the country, but also transformed Turkey into an ideological partner of the West.

Turgut Özal was the spark behind the formation of a free market, ensuring Turkey’s integration with the global economy in the 1980s. Under his leadership, the private sector became the driving force of the national economy. This radically transformed political, economic and social structures, internal dynamics, and the mindsets and expectations of the public, setting the stage for new actors coming out of Anatolia. In 1999, Turkey became a candidate for full European Union membership under Bülent Ecevit. Having this as an official state goal caused an internalization of “democratic values.”

Leaving aside historical accidents, such as coups and the issue of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, this brief assessment shows that leaders and historical continuity matter. Erdoğan claims that his professed objectives of “advanced democracy” and a “liberal economy” demonstrate his commitment to this continuity.

For those seeking a model, the question is this: Is Turkish democracy the work of the AKP? Or is the AKP the work of Turkish democracy?

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