Turkey is going through turbulent times. In the wake of the attempted coup on July 15, 2016—fortunately unsuccessful, thereby averting the formation of a new military dictatorship—the country is heading toward an uncertain future.
The efforts of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) to deal with the experience of the attempted coup have proved seriously flawed, belying any expectation that Turkey might become a more democratic country after the attempt than before. These efforts are a manifestation of the massive social tensions that have encumbered the country’s political landscape for years.
A clear picture of this dynamic is offered by the recent Turkey report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project. Although the parliamentary election on June 7, 2015, paved the way for a minor democratic revolution, the resulting atmosphere of reform—reminiscent of the spirit of the 2013 Gezi Park protests—soon faded.
In its place, the terrorist threat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, resumed military clashes between the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army, and new terrorist attacks by radical Kurds led to the end of the peace process, an expansion of military operations in the previously revitalized southeast of Turkey, and renewed alienation between the AKP and liberal forces in the country.
Democratic quality in Turkey has been declining for years. The country’s deteriorating security conditions and the AKP’s inability or unwillingness to form a coalition government over summer 2015 are indicative of that decline as well as the profound rigidity of Turkish institutions. The system is not in a position to translate new social realities into political channels and decisionmaking processes.
The trend in Turkey toward curtailment of civil rights and political freedoms, which the SGI project highlights as one of the worst among all countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the European Union, reflects this dynamic. In recent years, the AKP has succeeded in becoming so entrenched in Turkey’s political system that it is no longer in the party’s interest to cooperate with other political forces to promote democratization in the country.
Furthermore, there are serious encroachments on media independence from an elaborate system of personal and financial interdependencies between media owners and the government. This political atmosphere makes it impossible to uncover corrupt practices on the part of government officials or hold the governing party to account—indispensable steps in the implementation of democratic governance structures.
The current system of power allows no room for judicial independence, either. In 2014, the judiciary was subjected to a new form of politicization, which all but stripped it of its power to stand in the way of the government’s abuses of power in 2015. This politicization is manifested in the ongoing criminalization of followers of the preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lives in exile in the United States. This process is a top priority on the agenda of the AKP government and of Turkey’s oppressive President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Compared with other OECD nations, Turkey is located in a turbulent geopolitical region and faces challenges that can be traced back directly to the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. By accepting over 2.5 million Syrian refugees, Turkey has already made a significant contribution to the refugee crisis, which other European states did not have to deal with until summer 2015. Given that no end to the war in Syria is likely in the foreseeable future, the Turkish government is faced with the task of integrating Syrian refugees into its education system and labor market.
On the positive side, in contrast to Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey did not experience a populist shift to the right that opposed the integration of Syrians. Ankara has taken initial steps toward international coordination with the EU on the refugee crisis, but the struggle against the Islamic State remains dominated by national security interests. Although Turkey is part of the alliance against the Islamic State, it is primarily concerned with its own battle against the PKK and its partner organization in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
However, this approach exposes a structural weakness in Turkey’s strategy. If the government had promoted the peace process in its own country, which would also have resulted in improved democratic conditions, it would not have to be so fearful of Kurdish military successes in Syria. The search for a way out of this precarious geostrategic position will occupy Turkey for some years.
The treatment of Syrian refugees, meanwhile, will in the future depend on Turkey’s economic performance. In this regard, the picture is mixed. On the one hand, the Turkish economy continues to enjoy robust growth, and the Turkish government is investing more in the research and development needed to reinforce the economic sustainability of the country’s growth model. On the other hand, Turkey succeeded in mitigating its chronic budget deficit only thanks to low energy costs made possible by Saudi Arabia, rather than structural adjustments in the Turkish economy.
What Turkey lacks compared with most other OECD members, and could set the stage for long-term political improvements, is a more clearly defined position on the expansion of renewables and development of a new environmental policy. In these crucial fields, Turkey is way behind its peers.
In spite of the failed coup attempt, Turkey has the potential to adopt a sustainable political model. But to do so, the government must convincingly address the issues hindering social and political coexistence and undertake real democratic reforms to empower excluded sections of the population.
This will be possible only once the AKP learns to share its power so as to strengthen democratic institutions. Until this happens, any positive economic developments will benefit only AKP followers, and the opportunity for lasting participation in social prosperity will be wasted.
Roy Karadag is a political scientist and researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies at the University of Bremen. He co-authored the Turkey report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s latest Sustainable Governance Indicators project, SGI 2016.