The risk for Turkey is illiberal democracy

The risk for Turkey is illiberal democracy

These days, a plenitude of observers is discussing “where Turkey is heading.” Some of them are confused about the seemingly contradictory phenomena that are taking place under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. On the one hand, the political system is being de-militarized, and the power of the ballots is being consolidated. On the other hand, Turkey still is a country of “thought crimes,” with a growing number of journalists and public intellectuals in jail.

“What is really going on?” a foreign friend of mine asked me lately. “Is Turkey becoming more democratic or less democratic?”

In return, I said that this was not the right question. Turkey was undoubtedly becoming more democratic, I explained. But the real question was whether it would be a liberal or illiberal democracy.
An illiberal democracy, as best described by Fareed Zakaria, is a political system in which free and fair elections take place, but civil liberties are not fully protected and governmental power is not limited with liberal principles. It is a much better model than any dictatorship, but it is far from the blessings of liberal democracy, as found in many EU states. 

However, here is a key point that is often missed, and sometimes missed willfully: The reason to worry about illiberal democracy in Turkey is not what the AKP government has done in the past decade. Quite contrary, the problem is what the AKP government has NOT done: They have not reformed Turkey’s authoritarian laws on “state security” and the state-worshipping judiciary which implements these laws mindlessly.

This is the reason why almost 100 journalists are in jail now: Almost all of these people are charged with “propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization,” which is criminalized by Turkey’s draconian laws since time immemorial. 

The recent report by Thomas Hammarberg, the commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, titled “Administration of Justice and Protection of Human Rights in Turkey,” exposes this problem brilliantly. Mr. Hammarberg explains that problems relating to the justice system in Turkey are “long-standing, systemic.” He goes on to note that, in fact, the AKP government, “tackl[ed] some of these problems in recent years,” and “substantial constitutional, legislative, institutional and practical reforms… have already taken place.” However, he warns, “these reforms have not yet reached their full and desired potential.” 

In other words, the propaganda you would hear from the sworn enemies of the AKP – that Turkey was heaven on earth until a decade ago, but has turned into a dictatorship under the “Islamists” – is flatly wrong. The Turkey of the 1990s was much worse than the Turkey of today by any democratic and liberal standard. (For example, the generals who ran Turkey in the ’90s were not jailing the journalists that they found pro-PKK. They were rather getting them executed by death squads.)

Perhaps this is the way to summarize the situation: In the past, Turkey was both undemocratic and illiberal. (It was perhaps more “secular” than today, but, well, North Korea is secular, too.) Today’s Turkey, on the other hand, is more democratic yet still illiberal. 

Here, the trouble with the AKP is not that it is too “Islamist.” The trouble is that the governing party, which has clashed with a powerful state establishment for years and found the solution in liberal reforms, is now enjoying the very power that it once found menacing. As Andrew Finkel put it well in the New York Times, with a reference to the Lord of The Rings, this is a “Frodo Baggins moment” for the AKP: “It knows it should throw the ring of power into the fire, but the ring feels increasingly comfortable on its finger.”

And what will happen to that ring is Turkey’s question of the year. 

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