Is ‘bon pour l’orient’ governance enough for Turkey?
Turkey belongs to the Middle East. So said 58 percent of respondents to a recent survey conducted by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. At first I was surprised to see this result. Turks usually prefer to see themselves as being part of Europe. We constantly underline our country’s Europeanness, whether saying that we have the “biggest truck fleet in Europe” or trumpeting our membership in the Erasmus student exchange program. But perhaps things are now changing. The Kadir Has survey, conducted in the first half of December 2015, indicates the emergence of a new pattern. Let me elaborate.
Some 56 percent and 57 percent of the survey participants consider Turkey to be a democratic and modern country respectively. These results are telling. Of course, Turkey is quite democratic and modern compared to its neighbors in the Middle East. In terms of a modern, functioning market economy, the only two countries worth mentioning in this region are Turkey and Israel. All others have controlled economies. That is why, in the case of Turkey and Israel, trade can continue even though relations between governments sour. Of course, if they now start talking with each other, it will boost existing ties: The more open you are, the more modern you become.
The same is also true for democracy in our neighborhood. Israel and Turkey are the only functioning democracies in this pocket of the world. At this stage, you may be tempted to cite the flaws in both countries.
Harsh security operations may come to your mind - the Palestinian issue for the Israelis and the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Just this week, Turkish leaders had some strong words to say against a group of academics who signed a petition critical of the security policy and ongoing operations in the country’s southeast. The government is now encouraging legal action against them. Israel, needless to say, is deepening a policy of occupation and apartheid against the Palestinians.
These things are surely less than democratic, but it would be unfair to compare the region to Europe. According to Middle Eastern standards, Turkey and Israel are democratic. I think this is what the survey respondents had in mind too.
But recognizing this pattern made me recall the old “bon pour l’orient” diplomas distributed by some French universities during the Ottoman era. “Good for the East” meant that the diploma was essentially inferior and only allowed its recipient to ply their trade in the East. If you wanted to work in Europe, you would have to get a regular diploma. So just as professional standards were lower in the East then, standards of democracy and modernity are lower there today.
Is a “bon pour l’orient democracy” enough for Turkey? That is a question that needs to be answered by Turkish citizens. Just look at the graph in the World Bank’s “Turkey’s Transitions” report on governance indicators like accountability, control of corruption, government effectiveness, rule of law and regulatory quality. Turkey is definitely far better than the Middle East average when it comes to global governance indicators. But in all counts, Turkey remains far worse than the OECD average. It is also far worse than Korea. OECD countries are generally far richer than the countries of the Middle East when controlled for natural resources such as oil.
So Turks need to decide, sooner rather than later. A Turkey belonging to Europe could make the jump to higher quality – in terms of both democracy and economy – much faster. A country like China is so huge that it can create alternative models of modernization. But Turkey has no such luxury. It needs to make a choice between two worlds, and time is running out.
Figure 1. Worldwide Governance Indicators , 2013