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After Protests, Evaluating Turkey's Role As A Democracy


What started as a small sit-in last Friday to protest a plan to bulldoze a grassy square in Istanbul exploded into a series of massive demonstrations, the largest in Turkey for many years. In a response reminiscent of the Arab Spring, the government countered with water cannon and tear gas and dismissed the demonstrators as looters and extremists. Turkey, of course, is a democracy that many hold out as a model for the Islamic world. But in a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Steven Cook argues Turkish democracy is hollow. Steven Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us now from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you with us.

STEVEN COOK: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what do you mean by hollow democracy?

COOK: Well, Turkey is certainly a country that holds free and fair elections on a regular basis. It has a parliament that is meaningful - political institutions that are meaningful. But over the course of the last three or four years, there has been somewhat of an authoritarian or illiberal turn in Turkish politics in which journalists had been jailed and intimidated, business concerns that have not necessarily towed the government line in a variety of issues had been slapped with punitive tax fines or hauled into court for questionable reasons.

COOK: There has been efforts on the part of Prime Minister Erdogan and the dominant Justice and Development Party to write a new constitution outside of the constitutional committee that was charged with writing it. And that constitution is one that is tailored very specifically for Prime Minister Erdogan. There had been an accumulation of these kinds of things that add up to, essentially, reversals of some of the important political changes and democratic reforms that were made in 2003 and 2004.

CONAN: And someone have described it as a majoritarian dictatorship.

COOK: Well, certainly, although Prime Minister Erdogan doesn't actually enjoy a majority, he got 49.95 percent of the vote. But I guess that's as close as you're going to get. But, indeed, there is a sense that the prime minister and the government rule with very little regard to half the country that disagrees with their view of the world and their policies. He governs half the country and intimidates the rest, and we saw that on full display in his responses to the protests in Taksim Square or Ankara or Izmir or some of the other cities where there had been pretty significant protests by calling them - as you pointed out, the protesters calling them thugs, alcoholics, extremists and so on and so forth.

CONAN: And saying - when somebody said, we can bring out thousands into the street or even hundreds of thousands, I can bring out millions.

COOK: Well, that's exactly right. And that's the - that's essentially the attitude of Prime Minister Erdogan and the people around him. One of his advisers wondered how one could call Turkey authoritarian if he got 50 percent of the vote. Well, you know, you can remind the prime minister's political advisers that, you know, people like Hosni Mubarak got 86 percent of the vote. Of course, their elections in Turkey aren't rigged as they were in Mubarak's Egypt, but just because one got 50 percent of the vote does not necessarily make the country a democracy.

The important thing is the political institutions of the state are - had meaning and aren't rigged in favor of the people who happen to hold power at this moment, and that's precisely the kind of thing that the Justice and Development Party is doing in order to institutionalize its power for many, many years to come.

CONAN: Yet this is also - the prime minister, Erdogan, under his leadership the country has enjoyed an immense burst of prosperity.

COOK: That's absolutely the case. Turkey is the 16th or, by another measure, 17th largest economy in the world. Turks are wealthier than they've been in the past. And that is part of the secret to Erdogan's success. And that is why if there was an election today, I think there's no doubt that Prime Minister Erdogan would win. Perhaps he wouldn't get 49.95 percent of the vote, but he would certainly get a very large number of votes. There is a growing middle class of people who vote on one issue and one issue only, and that's on their pocketbooks.

Add that to a core constituency and the fact that the opposition parties are extraordinarily weak, don't have much to offer Turks in the way a positive vision for Turkey's future, and Prime Minister Erdogan, despite this being the greatest political crisis of his decade at power, would still prevail.

CONAN: Give us an idea of who is at these demonstrations, which groups. Are these the disaffected, the people who voted against him, the people who lost the last election, as he puts it?

COOK: It's certainly those people. There has been a contingent of secular urban but not all elite people who've come out who have felt hemmed in and marginalized over the course of the last decade. And they're - because their parties have been so ineffective in challenging the Justice and Development Party, they are now finding their voices in the street. Prime Minister Erdogan has wanted to finger the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, for the demonstrations. That's certainly not the case.

It's not out there as a party, although there are supporters of that party in the street. But there are many others as well. I think the kind of polling already that's been done of who's in Taksim Square shows that a majority of these people are secular-minded and that they oppose the Justice and Development Party. But there are also some, a smattering of people, who had supported the party in the past.

Primarily those are liberals who had determined that the other parties offered them nothing and threw their lot in with the Justice and Development Party, only to find that Prime Minister Erdogan had gone back on his words about a consolidated liberal democracy. But one more thing: I think it would be a mistake to pit this as secularists versus Islamists.

I think the demands of people in the streets to the extent that you can characterize them are about this authoritarian or illiberal turn in Turkish politics. Many of them say they just - they want their freedom. They want democracy. They want to have a voice in the political system.

CONAN: And is it fair to say that some of them are - let me put this another way. You cited there was a plot against the Erdogan government some years ago by elements within the military, among others the so-called deep state in Turkey that was used by the prime minister, this plot, to justify a number of actions since then. Is he going to use, do you think, this new crisis the same way?

COOK: Well, if past precedent is any measure, there is certainly the possibility that the prime minister does not come out of this crisis once it's defused in a way that is more pragmatic or conciliatory, but in fact that he may seek to crack down on these elements that have gone out into the streets. This is someone who has in the past not demonstrated a capacity for contrition. So it certainly is a possibility.

The problem right now is, is that the authorities have been unable to defuse the protests, and that's primarily because Erdogan himself has not gone out and made conciliatory words, although deputies of his has. I think that people are waiting for Erdogan to make a move and to hopefully calm the streets, and then Turkey can kind of re-evaluate where their next steps are, where Turks, their next steps are in terms of politics. But there's really no evidence that suggests that Erdogan is willing to do that.

CONAN: Twenty years ago, demonstrations this size, we would be waiting for the military to step in and say, wait a minute, things are getting out of control. We're going to have to take charge here.

COOK: That's true. Turkey had a history of coups d'etat in 1960, 1971, 1980 and again in 1997. And then beyond, under the threshold of a coup, the military was influential in a variety of ways in politics and played a very, very powerful role in the politics of the country. Beginning in 2003 and 2004, the Justice and Development Party had begun to bring the military under civilian control, which is overall a good thing. It helps create an environment to the emergence of a more democratic Turkey.

And since the revelation of this plot, they have gone after the military through the court system, and there are many retired and currently serving officers serving prison terms as a result. So the military's wings have been more than clipped. They don't have the capacity any longer to get involved in politics. The days when Turkish governments were brought down by the military are over. A changed in - at the prime ministry is going to come by the ballot box.

CONAN: By the ballot box and not by the demonstrations in the street either.

COOK: This is not the Turkish analog of the Egyptian uprising. As I said, Turkish political institutions have been - some of them, at least, have been hollowed out by the actions of the Justice and Development Party, but one thing that's been strong throughout the days of coups and returns to civilian control dating back to the mid-1940s, there has been a multi-party political system in which parties could contest elections. And those elections have been free and fair. And the expectation is that that is the way - the expectation of Turks, that is the way in which to change governments.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Cook, a senior fellow on Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote a piece with Michael Koplow, "How Democratic Is Turkey?" which ran in Foreign Policy on Monday. You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this description of this hollow democracy, as you describe it, then brings us to the example, the model of Turkey, which has been held out to the newly emerging governments in Egypt, in Libya and in other places as this is the way toward a Islamic democracy.

COOK: Indeed. It seem that once the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 and undertook these broad-ranging political reforms that here was an example of a Muslim majority country, an Islamist political party accumulating power, exercising that power in a officially secular political order. And to boot, they were successful economically.

And I think that many people in the Arab World see Turkey and understand that it has much to offer them. But the problem is just at the time that - not just the United States, but others were holding out Turkey as a model or inspiration for the Arab World - was when this process of hollowing out Turkey's democratic institutions begin, and that this illiberal drift in the Turkish - in Turkish politics was getting underway, yet people continue to hold out the Turkish model.

This is certainly not what people in the Arab World initially rose up against - rose up for. Turkey is certainly better than Egypt or Tunisia or Libya. But some of the things that Prime Minister Erdogan and the party have done are, in fact, reminiscent of the authoritarian moves that dictators in the Middle East had undertaken during their times in office.

CONAN: And this revision of the constitution, many believe that Prime Minister Erdogan wants a constitution that will allow him to be a much more powerful Turkish president.

COOK: That's exactly right. This has been a cause celebre in Turkey whether or not the Justice and Development Party will respect the interparliamentary committee that is drafting a new constitution, or will they try to go around this committee, which they take part in, and table their own constitution that has been written specifically to allow for a more powerful presidency that ultimately Prime Minister Erdogan would occupy that office, and he would exercise a range powers that the Turkish presidency does not have at - under the present configuration of powers in the country. And it would also allow him to stay in power for years to come.

CONAN: And so as you look toward the future of Turkey, what lessons do you think the prime minister ought to derive from these demonstrations which are, as you suggest, the greatest challenge in his political career?

COOK: You know, the prime minister during his first term in office between 2003 and 2007 was pragmatic, did seek consensus on important issues of the day. So it's clear that he has it within him. I think over the years the increasing, increasingly better electoral returns, a sort of detachment from the people, which is ironic because he made his political career on being close to the people - if he returns to that pragmatism, to that consensus building, if he understands somehow that in a democracy it is not just majority rules, that the voice and desires of the minority deserve a hearing as well, it will certainly put Turkey on a better path. But again, based on recent events, it's unclear that he is able to do that, which is a concern about the future path for Turkey's politics.

CONAN: And in terms of the United States, the prime minister has enjoyed a close relationship with President Obama. In recent days, American officials have called for restraint by Turkish forces against the protesters. But this is a country on whom the United States leans for help with Syria and with Iran as well.

COOK: It goes without saying that Turkey throughout has been a strong partner and a strategic ally of the United States. There is not an issue - an important issue in American foreign policy in that part of the world that Turkey is not involved in or touches on in either direct or indirect ways.

And I think that's why the administration has been somewhat reluctant previously to call Erdogan out on, for example, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. But at the same time, we should be able to work with a strategic partner and at least politely point out that the reversals in Turkey's democratic transition is not good for Turkey and not good for the strategic relationship.

CONAN: Steven Cook, thanks very much for your time, as always.

COOK: My pleasure.

CONAN: Steven Cook wrote the piece "How Democratic Is Turkey?" It ran in Foreign Policy. Again, there's a link to it at npr.org. He joins us today from a studio at the Council on Foreign Relations.

COOK: Tomorrow, an inside look at the lives of animators, and our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, joins us to talk about robot movies. If you'd like to nominate your favorite, send us an email, talk@npr.org, then join us tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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