Turkish democracy: Battered but not yet sunk

The videos showing an unruly scene in and around Brookings last Thursday during the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan make for distressing viewing. The incongruity of what occurred—think Trump security meets Turkish nationalism—invites introspection about how scholarly institutions manage appearances by controversial leaders.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of the Turkish government in general and of Thursday’s security detail in particular. But lost in the melee—and in the past year of terrorism, arrests, and media closures—is the message that Erdoğan most needed to convey.

Dramatic changes in the geopolitical neighborhood now present the most serious challenge to Turkish territorial integrity since the founding of the Republic. With the aid of Western intervention, the wars in Iraq and Syria accomplished more for the Kurdish cause than decades of terrorism and negotiation. Since the addition of a second stronghold in Syria to the de facto Kurdish territory in northern Iraq, Turkey is paying a price for conflicts not wholly of its own making.

It is not quite a century since European armies last seized Ottoman territories or supported national Kurdish independence from Istanbul. Whether or not now is the moment an autonomous Kurdish state takes legal form, the model is being proven nearby under Western protection. It does not make things easier that this time it is not Western countries’ intention to hurt Turkey’s national interests. Adding insult to Erdoğan’s injury, in 2015 the Kurdish cause met unprecedented support among urban elites around Turkey—and the United States and Europe—for a political party (HDP) that spoiled Erdoğan’s institutional ambitions by denying him a supermajority in parliament.

The Turkish president is criticized for allowing feelings of personal betrayal to color his strategic relationships—for example with Israel and Syria—yet many in the U.S. foreign policy community also now react to him emotionally. Because their high hopes were dashed after Gezi Park and the Gülen scandals, he can do no good again. This fuels Erdoğan’s outrage: Turkey gets no respect for its current role absorbing waves of refugees or for “taking the fight to terrorists.”

Erdoğan alienated Western allies with a take-no-prisoners approach in domestic politics and bears some responsibility for the government’s disastrous relationship with the country’s two major dissident groups—one ethnic (Kurdish) and one spiritual (Gülenist). But that should not relax similarly robust democratic expectations of these groups’ own political behavior, and the impression of such a double standard is at the root of the Turkish president’s annoyance. The suicide bombs and illegal wiretaps his country endured have failed to capture the American imagination. Instead, he perceives friends who would tie his hands as he defends the rule of law against terror and treason.

The Turkish government should be discouraged from abusing executive power, squelching dissent, or other acts of overzealous majoritarianism and break the cycle of retaliation against political opponents. But it is bizarre to equate the Turkish president with former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez or Russian President Vladimir Putin: Turkish democracy is battered but not yet sunk, and its government is still not a strategic opponent—it remains a NATO member in accession talks with the EU.

The Brookings incident is said to have exposed the regime’s true colors and thin skin, and to emblematize how polarized and undemocratic Turkey has become in the last decade. But a lopsided and illiberal democracy also preceded AKP rule: a quarter century of single party rule followed by four military coups in as many decades, with strict limits on free speech and religious exercise. American enthusiasm for democratization in the region must include a commitment to remain constructively engaged when the spring recoils and conservative parties win power—including those who appear to abuse that power—through exactly this kind of visit.

Because last week’s scene unfolded in the same auditorium where a younger Erdoğan appeared as a promising democratic leader years ago, it is fair to ask which was the real one. He who walked down the aisle with files on 57 imprisoned journalists in March 2016? Or the Erdoğan who arrived in government with dossiers on negotiations with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, opened talks with the Alevi religious minority, and established a ministry for European Union affairs?

Critics now say that was all just a show and diversionary tactic that have finally given way to his true attitudes towards the proverbial “tram of democracy.” But with friends who are deaf to some of Turkey’s legitimate concerns it is fair to ask what may now be an academic question: Is President Erdoğan an ex-liberal who simply got off the tram, or was he mugged by reality while on board?