The West’s choice

The West’s choice

Emma Bonino, Howard Dean and Ana Palacio
An indispensable member of NATO and an EU accession candidate, Turkey shatters the notion that liberal democracy and western values are at odds with Islam. Yet, Turkey today presents us with a puzzle. 

While its Western allies have been plagued by economic malaise, Turkey’s economy has quadrupled in size in the last ten years and its credit rating has been upgraded three times since 2008. It has made significant progress in carrying out much-needed infrastructural developments and in passing political reforms and key social policies. Its international relations and soft power capabilities have improved dramatically. Most critically, Turkey has turned into a reference point and a source of inspiration for the Arab Spring. At the same time, the state of Turkey’s liberal democracy is slipping. 

Looking back, the reforms enacted by Prime Minister Erdoğan in the period between 2002 and 2004 have been widely embraced and applauded. Within Turkey as well as abroad, we were among the many who expressed vocal support for those reforms. Most notably, we publicly opposed attempts by the Turkish armed forces and the Constitutional Court to deny Erdoğan and his party the space and legitimacy to govern Turkey as its democratically-elected government. Yet, having presided over Turkey’s impressive leap forward, Prime Minister Erdoğan today exudes an air of supreme confidence and an increasing intolerance for dissent. 

One worrisome sign has been the disturbing practice of holding media owners responsible for the editorial practices and content of their print media. Similarly alarming have been the developments with the Doğan Group, the largest and most pluralist media group in Turkey, which has been openly vilified and fined exorbitantly. The remaining majority of Turkish media owners seem to have drawn their lessons from the Doğan affair and, as a consequence, a troubling practice of auto-censorship has emerged. In a recent study, all of the 67 mainstream journalists who were interviewed reported a practice of routine self-censorship. History can inform us of the numerous ways in which a subdued public debate and lacking media independence can have a catastrophic impact. A case in point has been the absence of media vigilance in the U.S., as it sleep-walked into the disastrous war in Iraq.

The trends we see today in Turkey indicate the system of checks and balances is being progressively neutralized and eroded. One such example has been the looming threat of the Turkish Academy of Sciences losing its ability to select its members. Above all, we are most concerned bona fide journalists and academics, such as Nedim Şener and Büşra Ersanlı, are held in detention on non-credible charges. We are dismayed that members of the AKP government have attempted to defend these illegitimate detentions and have invoked respect for the judicial process. Respect for the judicial process cannot be a disguise for groundless charges and fabricated allegations. If respecting the judicial process in the face of gross violations and absurd allegations is to be the benchmark, then we made a grave mistake in 2007 when we objected loudly to the case for disbanding the AKP, or when we took a forceful stance against the proclaimed verdict the AKP stood as the center of anti-secular activities. 

A vibrant democracy requires a good legislative framework to serve as its hardware. But, it also needs a proper disposition among its leadership and an inclusive public discourse; that is its software. We are deeply concerned Turkey is increasingly losing the software capability conducive to a pluralist civil society. 

Turks have repeatedly expressed their wish to join the European Union and to achieve the highest levels of economic and political success. Along with many others, we have advocated for the EU to approach these negotiations in good faith and have worked to retain the credibility of Turkey’s accession progress, driven by a deep conviction Turkey will meet the accession criteria and become a member of the European Union. Turkey is part of the European project and as such, it will be judged by the highest European standards. However, Turks now need to hear from their friends about the health of their democracy, beyond the narrowly-conceived foreign policy positions. 
We cannot and should not turn a blind eye on Turkey’s internal rule of law shortcomings in exchange for its constructive leadership and willing intervention in handling the strategic challenges of the day, such as Syria. We know too well the most certain way for the West to squander its moral capital would be to allow the cardinal tenets of liberal democracy and open society to take the back seat to short-term geostrategic concerns. The day Western institutions no longer serve as a reference point for Turks in articulating their aspirations, or when the Western model is no more the standard bearer of a free and prosperous life, would be an epic loss for the West. While we are conscious there are other Western countries themselves wanting in this commitment, two wrongs rarely make a right. 

As forceful advocates for Ankara’s involvement in the Euro-Atlantic space, the status and wellbeing of a vibrant democracy is and must continue to be our unwavering priority in Turkey. 

*Emma Bonino is the vice president of the Italian Senate. Howard Dean is the emeritus chairman of the National Democratic Party in the US. Ana Palacio is the former foreign minister of Spain.