Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Stimson Center

In the past few years, Turkey has played an increasingly important role on the world stage and in particular, the Arab world, where it has supported democratic uprisings in the region and become an attractive model for Muslim countries undergoing transitions. With increasing repression at home, however, there seems to be a widening gap between Turkey’s international image and its domestic record. The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) won its third straight parliamentary elections this past June, but has veered away from the reforms that made the party so popular ten years ago. Indeed, the imprisonment of journalists, Kurdish activists, and other government critics threatens to undermine the tremendous strides Turkey has made on its path toward democracy. Now as Turkey strives to become a regional power, it is important to take stock of Turkey’s own democratic credentials. What is the state of Turkey’s democratization process? After ten years of single party rule, what are the dynamics between the AKP and other centers of power? How can the U.S. capitalize on its improved relations with the AKP government to play a constructive role in Turkey’s democratic development?


Sinan Ciddi
Executive Director, Institute of Turkish Studies

Howard Eissenstat
Assistant Professor, St. Lawrence University;
Turkey Country Specialist, Amnesty International

Ambassador Ross Wilson
Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council

Moderator: Daphne McCurdy
Senior Research Associate, POMED

For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF


Daphne Mccurdy introduced the topic to the panel, summarizing the current state of Turkish politics. Turkey’s role in the region is expanding and Turkey has recently received a lot of positive attention do to its “dynamic” foreign policy. However, “we should not lose site of the developments of their [Turkey’s] own democracy,” said McCurdy. A series of arrests and subsequent detentions have called into question the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) commitment to democratization.

Dr. Sinan Ciddi delivered a series of criticisms concerning the AKP’s behavior with regards to the promised development of a new constitution, the state of judiciary, and the National Intelligence Organizations’ recent wave of arrests. He stated that the AKP’s dominance of Turkish politics has “shocked even the most speculative of analysts.” The same analysts have begun to project Turkey as a model for the transitioning Arab countries to follow due to its ability to develop a strong, secular national government that is built on economic strength. However, Ciddi is skeptical of the idea that Turkey can and should be used as a model to be exported internationally. “Three quarters of the constitution implemented in 1982 has been amended,” according to Ciddi who referred to the process as a “sham.” Cidi said he was “skeptical” that the AKP promise of a more open society, increased civil liberties, and minority freedoms will ever come into fruition due to suspicion surrounding the intentions of the party and the general feelings of the public that the government is attempting to expand its own power by transforming the political body from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Ciddi stated that the real opposition to the AKP is the judiciary, which he said has challenged the authority and has even threatened to “shut it down.” In response, the AKP party has attempted to change policies on the appointment of judges and prosecution figures. In doing so, Ciddi believes that the government has corrupted and politicized the judiciary “in order to get its own way.” Ciddi briefly discussed the “Ergenekon” controversy in which the AKP has arrested multitudes of high profile leaders, academics, students, and journalists for unsubstantiated charges of attempting to “bring down the government.” Unwarranted arrests, Ciddi said, are “deteriorating credibility” of the AKP in the electorate. The AKP, said Ciddi, is focused on “bringing down the opposition” instead of focusing on democratization.  Other controversies such as the alleged split between the AKP and the Gulen movement have been discussed in the press but nonetheless remain unsubstantiated.

Howard Eissenstat credited the AKP party with making huge strides in political and economic development. “Close to 100% of the Turkish people believe that free elections are the only way to have a government,” said Eissenstat. Over the last 20 years, the AKP party members have proven that they are not Islamists and Putin-style cronyism does not permeate their bureaucracy. According to Eissenstat, much of the problems the AKP faces are “intrinsic of Turkish political power.” He believes that the AKP’s turn to nationalistic/militaristic rhetoric is historically characteristic of Turkish politics. Eissenstat alleged three parts to the latest crackdown on political dissidents. First, he contended that the initial arrests did prosecute actual criminal activity, but he sees the latest crackdown as a result of hysteric investigation that “has gone badly off the rails.”Secondly, he noted that thousands had been arrested for affiliation with violent movements or individuals, but have not plotted or perpetrated a violent crime. The arrests are wide-ranging, people are detained without trial or access to evidence, and more and more are being held for being critical of the government. Finally, he concluded by saying that the AKP party is creating a “culture of censorship” as media outlets become increasingly hesitant to criticize the government.

Ross Wilson discussed Turkey on two fronts: Turkey as a model in the region and internal issues of democracy and human rights. Wilson said Turkey’s history is “much too troubled to wish that model on anybody.” However, the model is nonetheless successful and thus makes it an attractive aspiration of the people in the Arab world currently undergoing political transitions. Turkey has achieved an “astounding” amount of economic success and developed a representative government. However, Wilson stated that Turkey still is “not a liberal democracy” and reminded the audience “not to lose sight of Turkish politics as being ‘a contact sport.’” Wilson voiced serious concerns with respect to human rights abuses. The attacks on the freedom of the press, with hundreds of journalists sitting in jail, stretch the credibility of the party. “The most effective driver of democracy in Turkey are the Turks,” said Wilson. The “vibrant debate” that exists on all issues in Turkish society is an encouraging sign, according to Wilson. Wilson concluded saying that the U.S. role, although complicated, needs to be aware of “becoming partisan” in Turkish political battles. He clarified this position responding to a question about how the U.S. could capitalize on AKP dominance. He stated that the U.S. should speak with a “high degree of generality” concerning issues like freedom of the press, and should refrain involving itself in micro-level issues, which Wilson said could be construed as “U.S. meddling.”

The panel answered questions from the audience concerning the rights of women and minorities in Turkey, allegations concerning the dispute between the AKP and Gulen movements, and prospects for intervention in Syria. Eissenstat stated that while women’s rights have improved, women still face an increase in violence and prejudice with respect to equality in society and the judicial system.Wilson responded to a question concerning the prospect of military intervention in Syria. He said that while “military-led regime change” is not an option, Turkey may be looking at setting up humanitarian corridors in the periphery. Ciddi concurred and said that any intervention would involve the use of Turkey as a “credible source” and said that through support of the international community, Turkey’s apprehension of intervening would be alleviated. Eissenstat “does not see the Turkish military going across the border,” but noted the extent to which the intervention movement was supported by some constituencies in the AKP base.