A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Cornelius AdebahrNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe
Both the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15–16 and the government’s reaction to its failure reveal an inconvenient truth: liberalism does not have strong roots in Turkey. That the country saw its last successful putsch in 1980 doesn’t mean that Turkey has traveled a similar way to, say, Spain, which shed its dictatorship in the mid-1970s. Only in 2002 did Ankara seriously embark on a path to European (including liberal) reforms under the first government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
From 2011 onward and after winning three consecutive elections and two constitutional referenda, the prime minister turned president has continued his quest to become a modern-day Atatürk with a Sultanesque ego. He has crushed both personal and political criticism, never hiding his disdain for the meager disapproval of his EU colleagues. Yes, the Gezi Park antigovernment movement in 2013 provided a glimmer of hope for an active civil society; but just like in some neighboring Arab countries, a strong (at times, deep) state prevailed. Yes, it was encouraging to see that normal citizens opposed the military during the recent coup; but soon the thugs came out, and a witch hunt against judges and activists with no relation to the army has begun.
Both the EU and the United States should take note. There’s no more liberal democracy to be had in Turkey as long as Erdoğan is in power.
Zeynep AlemdarFounder of the Women in Foreign Policy Initiative in Istanbul
Whatever happened during the night of the attempted coup on July 15–16, the entirety of which will be known only in years to come, Turkey needs to take a break from the polarization in the country and, first, lament the loss of lives. Since the June 2015 parliamentary election, internal strife, terrorist attacks, street fights, and the coup attempt have taken lives, and all types of violence are rampant in daily life. This is not a breeding ground for liberal ideas or democratic ideals.
Yet, as liberalism represents an optimistic vision, one can argue that liberalism can return to Turkey if politicians and bureaucrats work toward the appeasement of depressed communities and shy away from exuding anger. Moreover, this attempted coup has shown that neither the seculars nor the conservatives would like the army to intervene in Turkish politics. The fact that the military was divided over the coup also increases hopes that the Turkish people’s belief in the electoral system will be consolidated.
As liberalism prioritizes capitalizing on common interests and cooperation, Turkey might find a way to become depolarized, and power struggles between and within different ideologies, factions, and institutions might be settled through established mechanisms and transparent processes.
Bayram BalciResearch engineer at the Sciences Po Center for International Studies
It is incontestable that Turkey is going through a very authoritarian and illiberal period, a sad and disappointing tendency that started (coincidentally?) with the country’s engulfment in the Syrian crisis.
Just before the civil war in Syria, Turkey was still considered a relatively democratic, stable, and prosperous country that certain analysts viewed as an example for other Islamic countries. In June 2013, when the government was confronted with its first real oppositional challenge, the Gezi Park protests, its reaction was paranoid and repressive, to a large extent because of the impression that the protests were a response to the government’s policy on Syria. In other words, authoritarianism in Turkey will endure as long as the situation is chaotic in Syria. In fact—and this is what is most frightening—even an improvement of the situation in Syria will not be enough for Turkey to get rid of its authoritarianism quickly.
For liberalism to come back to Turkey, there is an urgent necessity for a more stable environment, new leadership at the head of the state, and a settlement of the Kurdish issue, which has been severely aggravated by the Syrian crisis. More time and patience are necessary for Turks and Turkey to return to liberalism. And last but not least, the country’s allies should provide Turkey with more help, patience, and comprehension in this dramatic process that could be long.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research
I am afraid not.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is clearly not interested in a democratic Turkey, and the Western world has finished its carrots. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s warning that reintroducing the death penalty would harm Turkey’s EU membership perspective would have worked ten years ago, but not today when Ankara is no longer interested (neither is the EU, for the matter).
NATO, of which Turkey is a prominent member, does not have a suspension clause for failure to respect democracy and human rights. On the contrary, it has a history of welcoming dictatorships, such as Salazar’s Portugal. The Council of Europe could suspend Turkey as it has done in the past, but would it matter now?
Turkey is key to slowing the influx of immigrants to Europe, while the United States fears losing control in the region, to the advantage of Russia’s influence. The West’s hands are tied.
Yet, leaving Erdoğan free to brutally imprison and purge thousands of people will end up destroying the last bit of credibility the Western world still has. The emperor is now naked, as the West de facto acknowledges that it cares for human rights and democracy only when this suits Western geopolitical strategic goals.
Koert DebeufVisiting research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford
Yes, liberalism can return to Turkey, but it will take leadership and vision. In the short term, the future looks bleak. If the attempted coup on July 15–16 had succeeded, the country would have plunged into civil war. Now that it has failed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will take this opportunity to execute two of his plans: purge the army of the followers of the Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen (and, in the slipstream, probably his other critics too); and install a presidential system with more power for himself. Erdoğan even suggested reintroducing the death penalty.
The EU’s foreign policy high representative, Federica Mogherini, reacted by saying “no country can become an EU member if it introduces the death penalty.” It’s not clear whether that would mean a suspension of Turkey’s EU accession talks or an end to the entire process. In any case, keeping the door open is much better than closing it forever, as this would kill liberalism in one of Europe’s main allies for a long time.
Polls show that 82 percent of Turks were against the coup. But 58 percent think Erdoğan should not remain in control of the government. The most recent Eurobarometer survey found that Turkish favorability toward joining the EU had increased since February 2016. Now, 33 percent of Turks are in favor of EU accession, while 55 percent are convinced Turkey would be better off in the EU. Thanks to the EU, Turkey has become a more liberal country. Keeping the EU door open is the best chance for liberalism to return to Turkey soon.
Thanos DokosDirector general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
Turkish democracy during the rule of the Kemalist establishment has been imperfect at best. The early years of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) raised hopes for substantial and irreversible progress in the fields of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and protection of human rights. Unfortunately, all such hopes have been erased by the last few years of increasingly autocratic governance by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Economic development, the skillful exploitation of religious fervor among the less privileged groups in Turkish society, and a weak, rather discredited opposition have allowed Erdoğan to comfortably win successive elections and remain the master of the political game in Turkey for the past fifteen years.
The cost, however, has been a deep polarization and division of Turkish society along pro-Islamic vs. secular fault lines. If Erdoğan’s first post-coup actions are any guide to the future, that division will deepen even further as he will try to cleanse the state mechanism of real and imaginary enemies and consolidate power by transforming Turkey into a presidential republic. Unless moderate forces in the AKP can prevent this, the cost may be extremely high for Turkish democracy and society (Turks and Kurds alike), as well as for Turkey’s relations with its traditional Western allies.
Ian LesserSenior director for foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Despite all of the extraordinary turmoil of recent years, culminating in the July 15–16 coup attempt, Turkey still has its liberals. But liberalism in Turkey has been under siege for some time, and the outlook is not good. In this sense, Turkey is unfortunately in the global mainstream of declining tolerance, mounting polarization, and the revolt against elites and elite projects. But in Turkey, these tendencies have slipped from politics to political violence.
In the wake of the failed military coup, Turkey’s embattled liberals will hope for a turn away from polarization and creeping authoritarianism. But recent events are far more likely to encourage a further crackdown on political opponents and a sweeping witch hunt that risks going far beyond the arrest of coup plotters and the ongoing struggle against terrorism from the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Over decades, Turkey’s transatlantic relationship and, especially, its relationship with the EU have been leading drivers of convergence with a liberal international order. That order is now badly frayed, and a more transactional relationship with Ankara in which Turkey’s internal situation is a less important factor is likely to be the order of the day for the United States and Europe. It is fair to ask whether liberalism can return to Turkey. A more pressing question may be whether liberalism is packing its bags in the West.
Kati PiriMember of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
Turkey’s coup attempt on July 15 shocked observers. Yet as it unfolded, something rare but important occurred. Turkey’s four main political parties showed unity by condemning the attempt, and thousands of people headed to the streets to protest against the coup plotters. Neither the political elite nor the public wanted the country to return to the past.
However, the first signs do not bring hope that democracy and the rule of law will be strengthened as a result of this episode. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to flex his muscles, and within a couple of days some 35,000 military personnel, police, governors, teachers, civil servants, and judges had already been dismissed or arrested. This process is likely to lead to more polarization and instability and pave the way to the repression of liberties in the name of cleansing the country of traitors.
Liberalism could return to Turkey. Despite the recent poor track record of the ruling party on respecting fundamental rights, there is an opportunity now to build on this rare solid political consensus to promote a form of inclusive, democratic politics. After years of division and polarization, a process of bridge building could be initiated. Hopefully, the government will be encouraged by the democratic showing of the population and won’t forget that in the biggest crises of the last century, the free media and opposition stood by its side.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Can Italians play cricket, Russians drink Pepsi, and Inuit surf? Sure they can. Is it probable that they will? Not so sure. From the Ottoman Empire to Atatürk, from stern military rule during the Cold War to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s soft Islamism, liberalism as defined in textbooks is not exactly à la carte in Ankara.
One may argue that liberalism is hardly felt very strongly elsewhere, with Donald Trump running for U.S. president, Marine Le Pen harrumphing in France, Beppe Grillo’s party ruling Rome, and Brexiteers still celebrating. Many Europeans admire the authoritarian vogue in Moscow, while few Russians or Chinese extol Europe’s liberal traditions. In quite a few Oxbridge and Ivy League colleges, alas, liberalism is a code word for oppression, pollution, slavery, and decadence.
How, then, can Europe peddle its out-of-fashion liberal bric-a-brac in Istanbul? I wish John Locke, Voltaire, and Isaiah Berlin would soon be discussed and praised along the shores of the Bosporus. But I am afraid the Azzurri cricket team will win the Ashes before that happens.
Marietje SchaakeVice chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations With the United States
The plotters of the thwarted coup on July 15–16 dealt a huge blow to the prospect of liberal democracy in Turkey. What a violent disservice to people and country. The only silver lining is the unified response against the attempted coup, coming from all parties and groups in Turkey. Yet this does not mean all are united in liberal democratic aspirations. The fear of a coup was immediately replaced by fear of the backlash it will trigger.
Mass arrests, proposals to reinstall the death penalty, crackdowns on the media—observers have seen this movie before. The president’s personal dismissal of the legitimacy of the constitutional court trumps the long list of blows the rule of law in Turkey has already endured. But never before were crackdowns legitimized by massive support for fighting a greater enemy.
Sadly, European leaders have been anything but clearheaded and outspoken. Since March 2016, implementing the EU-Turkey deal on migration has seemed their only objective. This has let down precisely those people in Turkey who have stood for the rule of law and liberal democracy. It also makes criticism much less credible, which will easily be framed as a lack of solidarity with a key ally.
Only by building on the fragile popular unity against the coup and by strengthening the rule of law does liberal democracy in Turkey have a chance of survival.
Ulrich SpeckIndependent foreign policy analyst
It appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is determined to make sure that no competitor is going to challenge him. However, political competition lies at the very heart of liberalism.
The question for the EU is whether it has the leverage to keep at least some space open for dissent and political competition in Turkey. The long-derailed accession process does not provide enough leverage. All observers know that the EU is not willing to let Turkey in, and they know that Turkey under Erdoğan is not willing to subordinate itself to the EU.
The EU should look for a new approach to Turkey beyond the accession process. It should offer Turkey some kind of association plus—something like the status that Britain may have after it leaves the EU. Association plus, which could also be offered to Ukraine, does not need to be the end of the road, and it should certainly not exclude future membership. But it would reframe the relationship and give the EU back some leverage.
Nathalie TocciDeputy director of the Italian Institute for International Affairs
Liberalism was not in good shape in Turkey before July 15. Over the years, Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments have been progressively losing the support of liberals inside and outside the country. The attempted military coup last Friday—coming on top of the AKP’s win in the November 2015 parliamentary election, the definitive end of the Kurdish peace process, and successive terrorist attacks—sealed the fate of liberalism in Turkey for the foreseeable future.
The idea of restoring liberal democracy through a coup is a contradiction in terms. The silver lining to the dramatic events of July 15 is that all political forces recognized this fact, a testament to their democratic maturity. Furthermore, had the coup succeeded, Turkey would likely have slipped into civil war. Half the electorate continues to stand behind President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ready to fight and die for him. A successful military coup in Turkey would have resulted in a bloodbath.
Yet the alternative does not bode well either. Erdoğan could have appreciated the democratic stance of the opposition, just as in 2013 he could have extended an olive branch to the Gezi Park protesters. But he did not then and will not now. He is now riding the wave, using a force against him in his favor. The attempted coup represents an unrepeatable opportunity to wipe out all opposition, further eroding human rights, the rule of law, and checks and balances in the country.
Liberalism may one day return to Turkey. But that day really is a long way off.