Turkish democracy didn’t die all at once in last week’s referendum; it’s been languishing for years. Why did so many in the West fail to notice?
Published in The American Interest on April 24, 2017
n April 16, Turkish voters narrowly approved a referendum that replaced their country’s parliamentary democracy with an “executive presidency.” Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, was quick to pronounce modern Turkey dead. “RIP Turkey, 1921–2017,” read the headline of the article in which he explained that the Turkish public “gave Erdoğan and the AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state and in the process raze the values on which it was built.”
He rightly noted that the powers afforded the new presidency are vast. The office of Prime Minister has been eliminated; the President, once titular, now has sole and unsupervised authority to appoint and dismiss most judges, all ministers and other high officials, as well as issue decrees with the force of law, dissolve parliament on any grounds, and command the armed forces. Cook wrote that the passage of the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu—the Law on Fundamental Organization—marked Turkey’s transition in 1921 “from dynastic rule to the modern era,” and this referendum, he added, brings the era to an end:
With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot. It turns out that Erdoğan, who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman.
Cook noted with disappointment that “Erdoğan is an authoritarian, like those found throughout the world.”
Yet this is the same Cook who five years ago claimed,
I think if you were you to trace back, over the course of the previous decade…you would see that the Justice and Development Party had done everything that it can—while it has at times been under siege from other political forces in the country—trying to forge within the contours of Turkish secularism, a more democratic, open country in a predominantly Muslim country…. I think you had, especially in the early years, in 2003 and 2004, the Justice and Development Party, a party of Islamist patrimony, pursuing more democratic and open politics. They’re an interesting twist on their predecessors, who railed against the West. Justice and Development under Recep Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, who’s now the president, sought to join the West.
Cook offered this optimistic assessment in 2012, following a massive wave of purges that targeted not only the military, but such figures as the physician Türkan Saylan, founder of the Turkish Leprosy Relief Association and steward of a charity devoted to the provision of education for girls in rural areas. She died in 2009 of cancer at the age of 73.* She had been accused of planning a military coup. As Cook spoke, many more innocents were languishing in jail. The Great Terror in Turkey had for years been underway.
I don’t single out Cook for special opprobrium. His name is just first, in alphabetical order, on a long list of experts who pronounced respectful ex cathedra encomiums to the AKP’s democratic instincts, often in near-identical language, throughout this period. This kind of praise, coupled with intimations that the AKP detractors were nothing but a bunch of rotten elitists who hated democracy, issued from a series of prominent think tanks, human rights organizations, university departments, and newspapers in the West. It poured forth, too, from the State Department, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, the IMF, the World Bank, the Council of Europe, and a long list of advisers on promising emerging-market investments. No English-speaking, literate Turk could regard these folk with anything but contempt. It is something of a mystery why this happened, and a torment; it is a story that we should try honestly to understand.
Perhaps the myth was connected to Turkey’s acceptance as a full candidate for EU membership, in 2004. “Turkey is changing in surprising and encouraging ways,” wrote the New York Times that year,
setting a constructive example for the entire Muslim Middle East. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamic politician who favors democratic pluralism, it has enacted far-reaching reforms that are intended to meet the exacting admissions criteria of the European Union.
Contra collective belief, though, the AKP did not enact these far-reaching reforms. The AKP collected the fruits of a process that had begun in 1999 in Helsinki and continued with previous parliaments’ passage of so-called harmonization processes. Those determined to defend the notion that the AKP in its early years did “everything it could” to bring to this long-suffering nation more democratic and open politics and to join it to the West must reckon with the EU’s progress reports during the years in question. In 2007, to choose a (typical) year at random, there are 62 instances of the words “no progress.” There were only 11 instances of “good progress” and these had nothing to do with democracy, openness, or other displays of democratic pluralism; rather, progress had been made in banking, insurance supervision, a transport infrastructure needs assessment study, a national innovation strategy and accompanying action plan, and a working group on the Credit Transfer System for Vocational Education and Training.
Yet still the Western party line remained unchanged over many years:
“Turkey is now a vibrant, competitive democracy….” —New York Times, June 8, 2010
“A vibrant democracy…an example of reform in the region….” —Foreign Policy, May 26, 2011
“Regionally, a vibrant, democratic Turkey no longer under the military’s thumb, can offer the Arab world a true model…. The Turkish model could also provide a model of how Islamic factions can coexist alongside liberal and secular groups, despite their clashing worldviews….”—Haaretz, August 15, 201
“A vibrant democracy…led by Islam’s equivalent to the Christian Democrats….” —Financial Times, September 15, 2011
“A template that effectively integrates Islam, democracy and vibrant economics….” — New York Times, February 5, 2011
“Turkey is poised to become one of the most successful countries of the 21st century, a model of Muslim democracy and a powerful force for regional peace… —Boston Globe, June 14, 2011
“One of the most remarkable success stories of the past decade…a vibrant democracy and dynamic economy under the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democrats”…—Financial Times, April 19, 20121
The Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP and widely (if meaninglessly) described as a “moderately Islamist” party, came to power in 2002, at which point the rubicund encomiums from the press and foreign spokesmen began. I began visiting Istanbul in 2003, moved there a year or so later, stayed until 2013, and left after the so-called Gezi protests, when, only then, the cheery music in the media fairly abruptly stopped.
The West’s collective assessment of Turkey throughout that time, displayed in official diplomatic statements, the mainstream press, and just as often in the specialized media, was notably weird and notably wrong. It was either the cause or the consequence of an exceptionally poor understanding of Turkey by Western publics and their policymakers. It resulted in the crafting of policies toward Turkey that were neither in Turkey’s interests nor the West’s, and helped, at least to some extent, to usher in the disaster before us today.
There were distinguished exceptions: Joe Parkinson of the Wall Street Journal deserves every prize he gets. Gareth Jenkins, above all, is an outstandingly informed and meticulous reporter. It seemed, though, that only specialists read his work, and if it had an impact on American or European policy, I couldn’t discern it. Mostly, the foreign media sounded to me—as it did to most Turks who could understand it—kind of insane. And on the diplomatic side, I observed, to put it bluntly, that if my intention were to ensure that my country be held in contempt by the better angels in the Turkish public, I would have behaved precisely as our diplomats did—of which more below.
A large part of the reason Western observers got Turkey under the AKP so wrong is probably that they were fixated on the wrong things. Those things had to do first with a war gone haywire in Iraq and then the Syrian civil war, both of which, seriatim, turned Turkey in American eyes into a subsidiary consideration of more central geopolitical concerns. It seemed unwise to many to reprove what we hoped would be a useful ally in a pinch.
Probably even more important is that after 9/11 a lot of people in the West got Islam, Islamists, and the like on the brain to the exclusion of nearly everything else. So it followed, sort of, that many came to see that the most significant thing about the AKP was its “moderately Islamist” character. Many were perhaps so thrilled that they didn’t begin hanging homosexuals from cranes that they uncritically accepted the rest of the AKP’s story about itself: It was opening up an ossified system that was, in its words, “radically secularist.”
There is much truth in the criticism that the system was ossified, and it was also true that it was unfair to the visibly pious. It was even true that developments deep within Turkish society, well described by Ernst Gellner’s term “neo-fundamentalism,” explained the AKP movement’s rise and legitimacy. But this was the wrong focus. The same tunnel vision caused others to dwell hysterically on the impending prospect of sharia, which never arrived, even as they failed to notice the bog-standard authoritarianism that did. They had sweated exotic dictionary bullets to learn words like taqqiya, and they were going to use them, damn it. The concept they really needed—kleptocracy—eluded them.
The AKP early on grasped the jargon of structural reform and the hypnotic power it had over the international finance community. Within a month of the AKP’s inauguration, the IMF declared Turkey a success story and the senior managers of the World Bank welcomed it as model for other Islamic countries. “While other Muslim societies are wrestling with radicals,” reported the New York Times, “Turkey’s religious merchant class is struggling instead with riches.” The government claimed that it had trebled the size of the Turkish economy in a decade. Everyone began repeating this, including the Economist, even though it was not only untrue, but absurd.
The government boasted at some point that Turkey had become the 17th-largest economy in the world. This too was repeated by everyone. Remembered by few was the fact that Turkey’s economy had become the world’s 17th-largest in 1990. Nor was it, as the government kept saying, the world’s fastest-growing economy. Turkey’s GDP growth during this period was a very average 4.7 percent a year, below the 6.2 percent average for middle-income countries. The period of AKP rule was just like the preceding 52 years as far as GDP growth was concerned; in both periods, the annual average growth rate was 4.7 percent.2 What made people feel so good, by contrast (so long as they weren’t in jail), was consumption—fueled by vastly more expansive credit.
The phrase “privatization,” too, so beloved by authors of investment-advice newsletters, really meant the sale of state assets to Erdoğan’s relatives and sycophants. Anyone who agreed in exchange to lend their political and financial support to the party could buy stuff up; anyone who didn’t, couldn’t. “Improving the investment climate” meant improving it for AKP loyalists. For everyone else, there were punitive tax fines and exclusion from public procurement and tenders.
Beginning in 2008, the government promoted policies to stimulate the consumption of durables. This created the appearance of an energetic population with rising purchasing power. Credit card and consumer debt stood at three percent of GDP in 2003; ten years later it was 21 percent. In short, the AKP ran the economy on construction, credit, and surging capital inflows, mixed with a dash of crime. It worked well enough, but was nothing like a miracle. Now the capital is taking flight again. Years were wasted, with nothing really to show for it but a bubble of unsold housing and a balding, furious Sultan in a thousand-room palace, busily scheming to kill his enemies.
Now, no doubt, the AKP’s Sunni majoritarian politics are a real part of the problem. But this element of the party’s nature has been for a very long time now overstated compared to its far more significant problem; to wit, Erdoğan’s drive to bring the entire Turkish state apparatus under his personal control. While Turkey under the AKP became dangerously different, it was not, mainly, because it became more Islamic. Islamist politics were not the end, but the means. Power was the end.
As Cook was right to observe, there was no golden period of liberal democracy prior to the AKP’s ascent; that too is a myth. But the AKP did change Turkey’s internal balance of power—arrogating it all to itself—with consequences the West now, at last, sees clearly. These consequences should not have been hard to predict. All the warnings were there. Yet the West accepted, for at least a decade, that Turkey was not only liberalizing, but doing so vibrantly, to such an extent that it deserved promotion as a model for the rest of the so-called Islamic world.
In promoting this line, Europe and the United States made a substantial contribution to the inflation of Turkey’s reputational bubble, with baleful consequences. To extend the economic metaphor, Turkey’s political stock traded at prices considerably at variance with its intrinsic value; much of this discrepancy was owed to our eagerness to purchase large volumes of that stock. Turkey failed to benefit from honest and deserved criticism, both in the form of pressure from the United States and Europe to genuinely liberalize—to which it might even have responded, given that we held many cards we never used. Likewise, foreign investors firehosed cash into the country in part because we insisted so ardently that it was liberalizing—the phrase “EU candidate country,” in particular, soothed anxieties—and this deprived the country of the stern but constructive criticism that properly informed markets might have offered.
“Everything seemed to be going so well in Turkey,” wrote Howard Eissenstat, Amnesty International’s Country Specialist on Turkey, in September 2013, “until this past summer when popular protests broke out and were met by a violent government crackdown.” 2013? Really? By 2011, wives and daughters of the military officers arrested in the Balyoz trials had been begging Amnesty International to take up the plight of their fathers and husbands. They had presented the organization with hundreds of pages of evidence of the trial’s legal flaws and improper procedures. Amnesty didn’t want to know. Perhaps coruscating condemnation from human rights groups would have shamed or deterred the government; that’s the raison d’être of such groups, after all, and it’s been known to work.
Nothing can be said to be “going so well” when a government is holding massive show trials. These trials could have been sound; the sinister events to which they were said to be a response really happened; a credible investigation that unearthed the truth about those years would have served the country. But the trials held instead were notable for their contemptuous—and obvious—mockery of the principles of sound jurisprudence. The international media—prompted or echoed by timid, blind, or corrupt Western politicians—found this unworthy of remark.
That the United States failed to express displeasure about this was particularly bizarre given that many of those arrested were senior figures in the Army and Navy. Turkey’s NATO allies had every right, if not an obligation, to ask what effect this would have on the alliance’s military preparedness. Clearly, it couldn’t have been enhanced with some 10 percent of the land and air force officers and as many as 80 percent of the naval officers charged with defending NATO’s southern flank in prison. Perhaps this question was posed in private, but journalists from NATO countries neither asked the question nor speculated about the answer. Our Ambassador, Frank Ricciardone, offered only that he was “confused” by the trials. I am sure he wasn’t confused when a senior AKP official retorted that he shouldn’t “piss on a mosque wall”—an idiom meaning, roughly, that his demise was coming and that he had hastened it.
In the wake of this past summer’s failed putsch, the government undertook a fresh set of purges, targeting a different group of military officers, bureaucrats, judges, and civilians. You’ve read all about these purges. But why, actually? That our media put these purges on the front pages when it was blasé to the point of stone silence about the earlier ones leaves many Turks with an odd taste. It doesn’t suggest to them that we’ve suddenly developed an abiding interest in the integrity of their justice system and the quality of their democracy. The conclusion they draw from this is wrong, but it is natural. They figure our boys lost. They reckon we’re infuriated by it.
When Westerners were suddenly appraised, in 2013, of Turkey’s alarming “democratic drift” and “democratic backsliding,” they were shocked, even though there was no backsliding to speak of. What in fact happened was this: The rift between Erdoğan and the Poconos-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who had worked together for years to attack their shared enemies, deprived the Prime Minister of the more sophisticated strategists in his external relations arm. Only then did Westerners learn that Erdoğan believed in something called “the interest-rate lobby,” or hear that a senior adviser subscribed to the theory that enemies of Turkey were attempting to kill the Prime Minister by means of telekinesis. The gist of these stories was that the formerly balanced and reformist Erdoğan had taken a sudden plunge off the precipice of lucidity. But tales of Erdoğan’s keen interest in a so-called interest-rate lobby and his intimates’ penchant for bizarre conspiracy theories could have been reported in tones of equally extravagant horror ages before. Why weren’t they?
Does it matter? Well, consider that 2013’s massive protests against the government, and the crackdown that ensued, came as a surprise to senior figures in the U.S. policymaking establishment. If we’d had in mind a realistic portrait of Turkey, we would have known this kind of explosion was possible and known how harshly it would be repressed. Turkish police had been behaving like this for a decade. The crackdown was bigger only because the crowds were bigger, but, said Senator John McCain, “None of us expected this in Turkey.” To be so misinformed is dangerous. Still, why would he have thought otherwise? He reads the same papers we all do. Thus Reuters from June 10, 2011:
A rising power with a vibrant, free economy and a U.S. ally that aspires to join the European Union, Turkey is held up as an example of marrying Islam and democracy and has been an oasis of stability in a region convulsed by ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. AK has also overseen the most stable and prosperous period of Turkey’s history with market-friendly reforms….
These news outlets were literally parroting the language the AKP used about itself. Here is the Turkish President at the College of Europe at Natolin, Poland, on June 7, 2011: “Turkey is also becoming a source of inspiration of a vibrant democracy…”
It wasn’t Turkey that changed during the Gezi protests, nor was it Erdoğan. What changed were the victims of the crackdown: This time they included foreign journalists, diplomats, and politicians. Previously, the police had confined themselves to brutalizing Turkish citizens. This time, too, the media began directing its bile toward foreigners in novel way, provoking Erdoğan’s base to insist that something be done about them. So suddenly it was reported that Erdoğan, the great liberalizer, had gone mad, even if the exuberant violence of the police crackdown was so predictable to people who lived in Turkey that they in fact predicted it.
The vibrant democracy lie was especially galling to Turks who were struggling against the strangling of democracy because it was so resistant to contact with reality. Perhaps it would have helped if everyone who applauded Turkey’s vibrant democracy instead complained with the same regularity that Turkish politicians enjoyed virtually unlimited immunities that made them untouchable and unaccountable, or lamented that the corruption and cronyism with which Turkey had long been plagued had become worse under the AKP. Turkish journalists were afraid to report on this corruption for fear of losing their jobs or their liberty, and many did. But foreign journalists could have stepped up to the plate, and they mainly didn’t. Only in 2013 did the Committee for the Protection of Journalists at last usefully declare Turkey one of the world’s largest jailers of journalists.
Ordinary citizens were muzzled every bit as much as professional journalists. Some were arrested and subjected to years of legal harassment for drawing cartoons, waving a banner, or recycling a thought crime on Twitter. These things happened before Erdoğan came to power, and he expanded the tradition on his ascent. What was galling, though, is that without repealing or changing in substance the laws upon which these arrests were predicated, Turkey ceased to be a country of concern:
“Turkey’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to Arab countries throwing off their autocratic yoke and their Western patrons…. the openness of the Turkish press cannot be denied.” —Middle East Online, June 16, 2011
Turkish citizens took to the internet with great enthusiasm as soon as it became possible for them to access it affordably. Their government took to restricting their access to it just as enthusiastically, becoming one world’s most comprehensive (and clumsy) internet censors. Throughout the vibrant-democracy years, the state indulged in extensive illegal wire-tapping. Personal information obtained from this surveillance was leaked to government-friendly newspapers to end rivals’ political careers or shape the public mood prior to their arrest. The AKP’s enemies, and Gülen’s, languished for years in pre-trial detention or trial under remand; the trials themselves became the punishments. The list of unsolved murders connected in some fashion with the state grew longer. Yet, thus sayeth the Economist on October 21, 2010: “Turkey is heading in a good direction. It remains a shining (and rare) example in the Muslim world of a vibrant democracy with the rule of law and a thriving free-market economy….”
During the vibrant-democracy decade, Turkey actually became a police state, in the simplest sense of the term: As the army’s visibility receded, the police replaced them in form and function. Foreign pundits and politicians heralded the military’s return to the barracks, but to those who confronted the Turkish state this was a distinction without a difference. Yes, political protesters were sometimes left in peace. But often, and increasingly, they were drenched by water cannon or choked in clouds of tear gas. During the Gezi protests, clouds of gas were visible from space, but long before, Turks had taken to publishing the #dailyteargasreport on Twitter. It was wise to consult it before heading out to buy groceries or take your cat to the vet.
So the real story throughout was that Turkey, a mildly authoritarian state as such states went, remained an authoritarian state. The flavor of this authoritarianism changed, it is true: Whereas before Turkey’s state-worship centered around Atatürk’s cult of personality, now it centers around Erdoğan’s. Turkey enjoyed a steady period of economic growth under the AKP—normal growth, but by no means the oft-reported “miraculous” growth. This, in tandem with the incompetence of Turkey’s opposition parties, enabled Erdoğan to stay in power long enough to transform the internal power balance of the country. And as the AKP managed to arrogate to itself powers that few parties had amassed in the history of the Republic, the swallowing by the executive of all rival power centers—the military, in particular—was hailed by the West as a democratic miracle.
Why would we have encouraged Turkey’s flawed but real parliamentary democracy to become a one-man regime that shares none of our values, one whose behavior is so erratic as to undermine our alliance? The cynical answer—believed by many Turks who can’t be judged insane for believing it—is that Turkish parliamentary democracy didn’t work for the United States either. Had Erdoğan been running a one-man show back in 2003, for example, he would have pushed through the resolution enabling the United States to invade Iraq through Turkey. Gülenist propagandists, and Americans on their payroll, made this point ceaselessly: Those secularists might look like Westerners, but trust us, we’re your real friends.
But surely someone, somewhere in the U.S. policymaking apparatus had to have been clear-sighted enough to see that if what we needed was a son-of-a-bitch of our own—to recall FDR’s famous (but maybe apocryphal) description of Anastasio Somozo—Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not the son-of-a-bitch we were looking for. Erdoğan? How could we have told ourselves, in all seeming sincerity, that this was a vibrant democrat and a model for the Muslim world to boot?
The luminous Natalie Portman is the meme of the moment on Turkish social media. “So this is how democracy dies,” laments Senator Amidala in one of the Star Wars prequels. “With thunderous applause.” But that is not right. There is thunderous applause among Erdoğan’s supporters, of course. But even officially, only 51.3 percent of the voters approved the referendum. Its opponents took 48.7 percent of the vote. The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none. The government stripped the election board’s power to sanction stations that failed to devote equal time to both sides. The leaders of the leftist HDP, the third-largest party in the parliament, are now in jail, as are many other members of the HDP. Countless Kurds displaced by war in southeastern Turkey may have been unable to vote.
Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. Istanbul, Ankara, and the rest of Turkey’s largest cities voted “no,” which doesn’t necessarily imply fraud, since Erdoğan failed to carry many of these areas in the most recent presidential elections, too. But it does suggest this referendum would have lost under normal circumstances. Thunderous applause this is not.
At least this time there’s hand-wringing in the West. The EU issued a statement devoid of the word “congratulations.” The constitutional amendments, it said, “and especially their practical implementation, will be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations as a European Union candidate country and as a member of the Council of Europe.” It would of course have been much more helpful had the EU murmured a word or two of disapprobation eight years ago, when these proposals were first mooted. The OSCE issued a withering report on the handling of the referendum, blasting the campaign, the media environment, and the government’s handling of voter registration and election observers. Too little, too late. Donald Trump became the first leader of consequence to call Erdoğan to congratulate him, but Lord only knows what that means; he’s probably playing Banach-space chess.
There was thunderous applause in Turkey, however—juxtaposed by almost total indifference in the West—when Turkey’s constitution, designed to maintain a balance among the parties, was dynamited by a constitutional amendment in 2007 permitting the direct election of the President. And thunderous applause, again—or well-mannered applause, at least—in both Turkey and the West for Turkey’s 2010 constitutional referendum, which was when Turkish democracy, what there was of it, really did die. This latest referendum was more like a burial than a murder, really. Why did the West—the media, the Turkey specialists, and a wide cohort of policymakers—pay so little attention to those earlier referenda? And yes, again, why did they herald them as democratic advances? In 2010 the European Union welcomed the approval of constitutional changes by Turkish voters, calling them “a step in the right direction.” The Spanish Foreign Minister said the referendum results sent a “clear signal of Turkey’s European vocation.” The Swedish Foreign Minister said, “This opens the European door.” The Council of Europe called it “an important step forward towards bringing the country closer to European standards and practices.”
The United States? We ritually praised the “vibrancy of Turkish democracy.” And here, really, we cannot absolve ourselves. No one appreciates more avidly than an American that the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary are essential to democracy. Any bright high school student should have been able instantly to see the problem with bringing so much of the judiciary under the control of the executive, abolishing the critical check on Erdoğan’s power, which is exactly what that 2010 referendum did.
That referendum, too, flagrantly violated the Venice Commission’s code of good practice for referendums by bundling the poison pill into a package of otherwise salutary or neutral amendments. Voters couldn’t choose the amendments they favored: It was all or nothing. It should never have been submitted to the public in that form. And it would have been easy for the EU to object to it on these grounds alone, just as it would have been easy for Washington to pressure the EU to object to it on those grounds alone, or to do the pressuring ourselves. Instead, the Obama Administration publicly applauded it. Said State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley on September 13, 2010: “The referendum was an opportunity for the people of Turkey to have a strong voice in the future direction of their vibrant democracy.”
Why? Carelessness? Did Obama think he couldn’t afford to irritate Erdoğan, given Turkey’s strategic importance? If so, why not ask the question that naturally follows: Given Turkey’s strategic importance, was it wise to praise a move toward tyranny in a NATO ally as a democratic advance?
Polls show that Turkey is one of the most anti-American countries in the world. This is a recent development; it wasn’t true in the 20th century. A roughly accurate explanation for this is that some 30-40 percent of Turks hate us because they are Islamists or communists and truly do hate our values. But a considerable number—perhaps just as many—hate us because they embraced our values but feel we betrayed them. They are correct.
At times like these there is an unmistakable tendency for faces to get long as memories get short. On Monday, April 17, the Guardian published a lament by Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar echoing the lachrymose verdict of Senator Amidala. “Turkey as we know it is over; it is history.”
The collapse of the rule of law that took place in slow motion after the Gezi Park protests has been followed by the erosion of the separation of powers and the annihilation of the independent media.
Baydar’s repetition of the fiction that the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the independent media were robust until the Gezi Park protests is unsurprising. It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Of course it’s gone down Baydar’s memory hole that he used to favor annihilating the independent media. But why has it also gone down the Guardian’s? The evidence, after all, is only a Google search away. Also just a Google search away: the dates on which the governing party took control of the police, the higher education board, the directorate of religious affairs, the Turkish statistics institute, Turkey’s science funding agency, and Turkish Academy of Sciences. That is how democracy dies—not with thunderous applause, but piece by piece, with widespread international indifference, or “mild concern” followed by grudging acceptance. This includes the indifference of many Turks who registered their objection to their democracy’s death by posting the Amidala meme. I know who some of them are and what else they did: nothing. They should have been fighting when they still could. Instead they rolled over. But I can’t really blame them. It was a juggernaut; they were just kids. Besides, who wants to wind up in a Turkish prison?
It was disgraceful, though, that those outside of Turkey, who were at no risk at all of winding up in a Turkish prison, didn’t notice, didn’t care, or applauded democracy’s death. The George Marshall Fund’s expert commentator on Turkey, Joshua Walker, after offering the obligatory paeans to Turkey’s vibrant democracy, surveyed the situation in 2011 and decided that “one-party rule does not necessarily equate to weakening democracy and can often be a welcome formula for consensus-building, economic success, and political stability.” That Cuba, China, and North Korea were the most notable examples of this welcome formula did not trouble him.
For once, Erdoğan was perfectly correct when he said the recent referendum merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs. His new palace, with its 1,100 rooms and toilets that are not made of gold (he’ll threaten to sue you for saying they are), had long since replaced the Turkish parliament. This referendum was actually more unusual for being widely noticed as a travesty than it was for actually being one.
Make no mistake: Turkey did this to itself. It’s an inexcusable conceit to imagine that everything that goes wrong in the world is somehow under American control and thus our fault. But we sure didn’t help. At every turn we misunderstood events, deliberately or through laziness; at every opportunity to speak when it might have made a difference, we were silent or said precisely what was least useful; we rewarded every step toward despotism with praise, indifference, or investment.
Had all the experts, politicians, human-rights monitors, and democracy-promoters spoken up before this and all the previous democracy-eviscerating lies and purges and referenda, who knows whether they might have made a difference? At least the West would have appeared to stand for something, to have principles. We were so quiet that you could be forgiven for thinking that this—one referendum, one day—is how democracies die. No: they die bit by bit, lie by lie. It’s hard to kill even a democracy of the imperfect sort Turkey’s was. It takes years.
The story of what really happened in Turkey still matters, even if it’s too late to help Turks. We all need to have a good think about how democracies die, because they’re dying like flies. It’s not too late to learn how it really happened. If we don’t, we can’t hope to draw the right lessons. These might apply to democracies still alive. They might even apply to our own.
1I am indebted to Okan Altıparmak for compiling this list.
2Tanju Yurukoglu, “Turkey: Taking Stock of a Decade and the Prospects for the Economy,” Eurasia Policy Associates (April 2015).