Cracks in Turkey’s image as role model

Development Policy,Inclusive Politics04 Jun 2013Bertil Videt

Turkey needs to address human rights and inequality to be a role model for emerging powers.

The regional impact of Turkey’s protests

Turkey has largely managed to present itself as a major success story in the last decade. With growth rates hitting double figures and acting as a role model of a Muslim democracy for volatile neighbouring Arab countries, Turkey has taken a lead as a both economically and politically emerging power.

At the time of writing, protests are still raging across this country of 75 million inhabitants, but we do not know if the movement will bring about any substantial change or fade out as we have seen with numerous forceful movements, like the Indignant Movement in Spain two years ago.

No matter what the outcome, these protests are going to have a long-lasting effect on the country’s international image. The movement is unprecedented for modern Turkey, both in terms of its size, its spontaneity and the broad range of people and opinions it represents. What started as small group in defence of a park in central Istanbul has now escalated into a nationwide movement, backed by strikes, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish stock market has seen its biggest loss in a decade as the market fell 10.5%. Istanbul’s borsa does however seem to be returning to normal more quickly than the streets of the city. Although the financial impact of the unrest might be short-lived, the political consequences are likely to last longer – and also affect Turkey’s newly found activist foreign policy.

Syria’s Information Minister Omran Zoabi displayed a feeling for sarcasm rare among representatives of oppressive dictatorships when he denounced the violence against Turkish protesters, saying: “If Erdogan is unable to pursue non-violent means, he should resign.”

Erdogan’s government, which has been in power since 2002, has largely supported the uprisings in the Arab World in recent years, and has been particularly vocal in its support for the Syrian opposition. With Erdogan presenting his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a modern and moderate proponent of political Islam, many Arabs have looked to Ankara as an example of how to combine democracy with their religious values.

Arrogantly branding the protesters as looters and extremists and saying that social media is ‘the worst menace to society’, while emphasizing that the gentrification project that sparked the protests will go ahead, Erdogan is both adding fuel to the fire and raising renewed doubts about his democratic credentials. Erdogan himself rejects claims that he is anti-democratic: “If they call someone who has served the people a ‘dictator,’ I have nothing to say.” It is interesting how these words echo the statements of numerous dictators, not to mention many democratically elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies, who seem genuinely to believe they do their best to serve their subjects. Erdogan was elected with almost 50% of the votes and can boast an average economic growth of 5% during his time in office. He has also made important progress on finding a peaceful solution to the conflict with Kurdish rebels, which is believed to have cost the lives of 45,000 people in 29 years of fighting. But Turkey is also the country with most journalists in prison, while allegations of torture and other human right abuses persist.

At the very least, images of the excessive use of force, together with an unconciliatory discourse towards peaceful protesters, are likely to cause cracks in Turkey’s moral leadership in the region. “Like many Turks, I think I feel betrayed because the Turkish model was supposed to be the most democratic in the whole Muslim world,” says Karim Benabdallah, a Tunisian activist and blogger, to the Financial Times. “I have defended the Turkish system for years when we talk about democracy in the Muslim world. It’s supposed to be democratic but it isn’t.”

Under Erdogan’s leadership Turkey has undergone some important changes and the country has taken on a more confident and independent role in international politics, as the prospects of EU membership faded away. The impressive growth rates of this period have not trickled down and both inequality and unemployment remain alarmingly high. Lack of prospects for the future, poverty and unemployment were exactly the factors that triggered the Arab spring – and are important in alienating large parts of the Turkish population. If issues of inclusiveness in growth and inequality are not addressed along with an improved record of basic human rights, such as freedom of expression, women’s rights, LGBT rights, rights of refugees etc, it is hard to see Turkey remain a role model for the Muslim world, or indeed other emerging powers.