The AKP’s narrow win, Turkey’s big loss

The AKP’s narrow win, Turkey’s big loss

Turkey’s impressive democratization process began in late 1999 after the European Union approved Ankara’s full membership candidacy to the bloc at the historic Helsinki Summit. As a diplomatic correspondent who has been covering the troubled relationship between Turkey and the EU for more than two decades, I had the chance to observe all phases and all dimensions of this bitter process. 

Turkey’s three-party coalition government under late Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit - frequently recalled by today’s government as an example of unstable and weak rule in Turkey - accomplished a set of very significant reforms in under three years, including the abolition of the death penalty in 2002. 

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued this process after it took power in late 2002. Through substantial steps, it initially showed a very successful performance in Turkey’s democratization process. That helped remove Turkey from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) monitoring mechanism in 2004, followed by the launch of full membership negotiations with the EU in October 2005. 

At the time, today’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the head of the AKP government, Abdullah Gül was serving as deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Cemil Çiçek was the justice minister, and Ali Babacan was the deputy prime minister responsible for the economy. All these figures, as well as many others in the cabinet and respected institutions like the Foreign Ministry, were fully involved in the historic transformation aiming to turn Turkey into a first-class democracy. 

Turkey was able to open a number of chapters between 2006 and 2010 as a result of this democracy agenda, despite the negative impact of former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the ongoing Cyprus problem. 

These were the years when both Turkey’s democratic improvement and economic growth were applauded in the international community, which awarded it with temporary membership of the United Nations Security Council, the two-term chairmanship of Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at the PACE, the top position at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the co-leadership of the Alliance of Civilizations initiative, etc.
Today’s Turkey, however, is far from its democratic glory days. The perpetual degradation of democratic norms and fundamental freedoms in Turkey over the last five or six years have gradually reversed and ruined democratic and diplomatic achievements made in the early years of AKP rule. 

The PACE decision to reinstate monitoring process on Turkey after 13 years is a clear and symbolic indication of this downgrading, which would further complicate the country’s relationship and accession process with the EU.  

There is no doubt that the PACE decision will have a strong impact on the EU’s approach toward Turkey, particularly after a disputed referendum that overhauls the country’s governance system into a model that the Venice Commission has described as a move towards “one–man rule.” 

Under these circumstances, many European diplomats - most importantly the EU Commissioner responsible for enlargement, Johannes Hahn - have become much more vocal in their bid to introduce a new model and perspective to Turkey-EU ties, obviously shelving the former’s full membership ambition. 

These calls for a new perspective in ties with Turkey are mirrored by President Erdoğan’s suggestion before the referendum that Ankara could suspend political and administrative ties with the EU and focus only on economic partnership. 

It should be of concern that Erdoğan’s planned talks with the EU’s top two officials, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, in late May, seem to be focused only on this very pragmatic angle of ties. If this perspective continues, it would eventually lead to Turkey being able to formally drop all its democratic obligations toward European institutions.  

This constricted scope in Turkey’s engagement with Europe and the contemporary world may please the Turkish leadership and some European partners. However, it would not be welcomed by nearly half of Turkish public opinion that courageously and openly expressed its demand for more and healthier democracy in the April 16 referendum.  

It is now time for all visionary politicians in Turkey and in Europe to be wise and avoid turning the ruling AKP’s narrow win in the referendum into Turkey’s greater loss.