It is quite difficult for foreign diplomats to make comments about affairs in the country where they are assigned. Indeed, under the diplomatic code of conduct such comments can even be cited as justification for a diplomat being declared persona non grata. Still, there are some issues that transcend all limitations, boundaries and conditions.
U.S. Ambassador John Bass was recently the guest of Turkey’s Diplomatic Correspondents Association for a “food for thought” event. He spoke openly about all issues, except of course remarks attributed to U.S.
President Barrack Obama after his recent reception of Turkey’s absolute ruler Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House. Certainly, a civil servant cannot comment on what has been said by the president of his country, and a diplomat cannot directly talk against remarks made by the president of his host country.
However, Bass made his point clearly with some excellently worded diplomatic overtures. He underlined, for example, that freedom of speech and media freedom were two important founding pillars of U.S. “constitutional democracy.” What was he implying with such repeated references to “constitutional democracy”? Of course, every nation must decide for itself what kind of constitution they might have, and how might its wording be. But there are still universal values and norms that every national constitution must possess if that country is to be called a constitutional democracy.
Which states are constitutional democracies? Of course, the trans-Atlantic community of nations – with no exceptions – as well as those subscribing to the Helsinki declaration, are all members of this big family.
Turkey is a fundamental member of both groups and is a key component of the European family of democracies. What about deficiencies? Well, foreign diplomats cannot indulge too much in these issues if they want to complete their tenure in a country without problems.
But anyway, could we still call a country a “constitutional democracy” if it is threatening to annul the citizenship of some of its people on the grounds they were involved in or even “supported” terrorism? Of course, the ambassador could not answer such a question and remain working in this country. But is it not strange that the last time Turkey stripped some of its people of Turkish citizenship was immediately after the 1980 military takeover? Has Turkey returned to the conditions of 1980, or even worse? Who is a terrorist? Who could make a clear description? If a government and president label every critic a terrorist or a spy, traitor or something similar, are the words of the president that terrorists must be stripped of Turkish nationality not deeply worrisome?
Turkey may well be in urgent need of a new constitution. The president certainly has a problem with the current charter; he has been systematically bypassing it. The government has been unable to defend itself from the tutelage of the president. A ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy is now able to publicly declare that his party has achieved a legislative, executive, and - of course - judicial unity of powers, and that the country has “full stability.”
That is a problematic declaration. Stability or full stability is something else entirely, but if the Islamists ruling the country only understand democracy to mean simply holding all powers in their own hands, then there will certainly be an incompatibility between “Turkish-style democracy” and “constitutional democracy” elsewhere.
It was strange to be reminded by Ambassador Bass that “at the national level” there is no legislation against “insults” in the United States. Is it not strange that in the American-style constitutional democracy, President Obama cannot file a suit and imprison his opponents just because he is unhappy or feels insulted over what some people may have said or written?
Of course there is a difference between an “unaccountable” supreme president, who has gathered all powers in one hand, and the president of a Western country, who is accountable not only to the Congress but can even be questioned by the high court. It would be a shame for Turkey to turn to a “Turkish-style presidential system” under the guise of “full stability” or “full government,” which the president and his supporters have been trying to establish.