Until the end of 1990s, Turkish diplomats serving in Europe
had dedicated most of their careers to dealing with criticism about human rights violations and the democratic deficit in Turkey. Then came the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and gave a big boost to the democratic reforms that had already been initiated by the preceding government.
Obviously, there is no going back to those nightmare years. It is, however, equally obvious that there are certain setbacks; starting from the very concrete problem of long detention periods that have landed several journalist
in jail, through to the less obvious problem of government pressure on the media that leads to self–censorship.
Turkish diplomats posted abroad need not worry. The U.S. and Europe
are absorbed in their own problems. Furthermore, Turkey’s democratic deficit suits their wish to slow down Turkey’s entry to the EU.
However, the ones who should start worrying are those posted in the Middle East. Some of them have already started encountering questions from civil society representatives about the democratic deficit in Turkey. Middle Eastern societies questioning anti–democratic developments in other countries? That certainly is a positive development for Arab societies.
I can’t say the same for Turkey. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
was bragging that Turkey was far ahead of the EU countries in fulfilling the Maastricht economic criteria, criticism of Turkey’s decades-old democracy by Arab societies that have only recently started out on their democratic experience is certainly depressing. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is criticized by Turkey for his authoritarianism, even told al–Arabiya (while explaining why there wouldn’t be riots in Iraq similar to those in the Middle East) that there were freedoms in Iraq and that no politicians or journalists were in jail!
It is no coincidence that you no longer hear talk about Turkey being a good example, or a source of inspiration for the Arab transition to democracy. That should not be surprising; just as the Middle Eastern countries are trying to get rid of “one man rule” and establish democracy based on checks and balances between executive, legislative and judicial powers, Turkey is going in the opposite direction. Not only is the prime minister seeking to change the country to a presidential system, but he is also on record complaining about the principle of separation of powers in Turkey.
Turkey’s capital in the West as a reliable partner during the transition of the Middle East toward democracy is fast eroding, my diplomatic sources are telling me. Actually, this is not only due to the democratic deficit in Turkey, but also because of Turkey’s dual image that came into being following the policies of the ruling party.
As was also discussed during the annual meeting of Turkish ambassadors last month, Turkey’s image in the Middle East appears to have been divided in two. On the one side, there are those who still see Turkey as a success story and a leader, while on the other side there are skeptics who are wary of Turkey’s leadership ambitions in the region.
The government needs to think more about this duality in perceptions about Turkey.