Is Turkey going to be another ‘illiberal democracy’?

Is Turkey going to be another ‘illiberal democracy’?

“The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” was the title of Fareed Zakaria’s much debated 1997 Foreign Affairs essay. Long before the Arab Spring, Zakaria was alarmed by the prospect of rising nominal democracies that did not have the politics and culture of liberalism, especially in the “Islamic world.” He claimed: “In many parts of that world, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and some of the Gulf States, were elections to be held tomorrow, the resulting regimes would almost certainly be more illiberal than the ones now in place.”

The so-called Arab Spring has proved what he said, especially in Egypt. Nevertheless, it is not only the Arab Spring and the Islamic world in general that poses a challenge for the future of liberal democracy.

After the end of the Cold War, we also witnessed another paradox: The rise of undemocratic economic liberalism. The rise of Chinese capitalism is the best known example, along with the small countries of “economic miracles” like Singapore and Dubai. Besides, the rise of Russian economic and political power has also shown us that the textbook case of “capitalist liberal democracy” is becoming mostly irrelevant. The idea that the dominance of capitalism throughout the world would also foster the rise of liberal-democratic politics and culture was pure delusion. On the one hand, the rise of economic liberalism has nothing to do with the rise of democracy and liberal politics, while on the other the rise of democratic procedures does not always lead to the rise of liberal politics of rights and freedoms.

At the beginning of the 2000s, Turkey was considered to be almost a test case of a non-Western democracy and was promoted as “a model country.” This was especially so for Muslim countries, as ex-Islamists had come to power through democratic elections and managed to realize a smooth transition from authoritarian secular modernity to a conservative but democratic one, while also realizing amazing economic growth.

Nevertheless, it seems that the so-called conservative democrats of Turkey increasingly lost their enthusiasm for democratization, after they managed to get total political power and started to dream of unchallenged political and economic power, both domestically and internationally. Recently, Prime Minister Erdoğan shocked many by stating his willingness to join non-Western alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), rather than the EU. In fact, it is only surprising in the sense that Turkey is one of the key members of Western alliances such as NATO. Otherwise, he sounds genuine in terms of his understanding of politics when he states that “we have more in common with the members of the SCO in terms of values.”

The political values that the present government cherishes are very much like the absolutism of Putin’s Russia, as well as the model of economic growth at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms in China. The issue is not the rise of “Islamic conservative” values, but rather the rise of the values of authoritarian capitalist countries. Islamic conservatism is an important factor, but only so long as it serves to repress the democratic and liberal cultures of rights and freedoms.

Finally, more than any other example, it is Turkey that proves the point of the end of the grand delusions of post-modern social and political theory - being not only a rising capitalist economy and declining democracy, but also being a Muslim country with a failed attempt at democratization. Turkey is therefore going to be a very good example showing the irrelevance of the thesis of “market economy as political liberator” on the one hand, as well as the paradoxes of hip sociological theories such as “non-Western modernities,” “life as politics,” and “Islamic democracy” on the other hand.