What did the West get wrong about Turkey?

What did the West get wrong about Turkey?

An experienced analyst, who has for years worked on Turkey monitoring the investment environment for a major international financial entity, was disappointed after speaking to a number of decision-makers in Istanbul’s financial world. The analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he asked all of them about the situation of the free press in the country, but observed that it was not on their radar as a big risk. “We manage risks for investments,” he added, saying he believed that problems of the free press and free judiciary should be of concern to all. 

The difference between Turkish investors and their Western colleagues is that, in this region, people usually think it is better to close deals by shaking hands with one person after finding a way to reach the source of power, for their short-term benefits. They tend not to think that if and when that single source of power says “no,” it will be an absolute “no,” after which it may be difficult to claim for your rights in an independent court or voice your complaints freely in media. In Western democracies independent courts and a free press are valued because of the simple fact that everyone recognizes that they may need to access them one day.

That is the reason why Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister responsible for the economy, has been saying for years that Turkey needs to pass a judicial reform package to attract more foreign investment. Since Babacan first raised this issue in 2012, the state of Turkey’s courts has not gotten any better, with many worrying examples that they are under political influence. Babacan, who has been working as an advisor to the outgoing prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, is unlikely to be included in the economy team of the new prime minister, due to be elected at a snap ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) congress on May 22, with the blessing of President Tayyip Erdoğan.

There is increasing criticism - inside and outside Turkey - that the political system is heading for one-man rule. This criticism upsets Erdoğan. Actually, he has a point here, because in fact he has never hidden his intentions about wanting to shift to a strong presidential system with centralized executive powers and fewer checks and balances. That has been an open policy, especially after the presidential elections in 2007.

But Turkey’s friends and allies in the West, the U.S. and the European Union, preferred not to see it - just like those describing themselves as “liberals” in business, academia and the media. They are now the ones who are complaining that there are very few people left that the Turkish government is willing to listen to. From U.S. President Barack Obama, who in 2009 cited Erdoğan’s Turkey as an “example” to the Islamic world, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is now cooperating with the Turkish government because she has to, but who does not hide her discomfort about the quality of democracy in the country.

In Western eyes, what is wrong with the course of Erdoğan and Erdoğan’s Turkey? In the past there were simplistic diagnoses of the problem of democracy in Turkey, perhaps sourced from old orientalist habits. Ankara’s friends and allies in the West, like many “liberals” within the country, believed that the political overenthusiasm of the military was the only problem facing Turkish democracy. They thought that if that political-military enthusiasm could be curbed, an advanced democracy could prevail in Turkey, making it a good partner for the West. 

Well, nowadays nobody is talking about the political enthusiasm or political interventions of the military, but Turkish democracy is still not without major problems. 

Judicial independence and a free press, as key components of a checks and balances system, are not only good for the quality of Turkish democracy and the Turkish economy. They are also good for the West, because a Turkey within the Western system cannot be seen as part of the problems, but rather part of solutions.