Turkey: Neither West nor East, but up

During a speech by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an AKP campaign rally on 5 June 2011.
During a speech by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an AKP campaign rally on 5 June 2011.
10 June 2011 – El País (Madrid)

Contrary to the EU, wading through a sea of economic troubles, an increasingly confident Turkey goes to the polls on the 12 June. This emerging political and economic power, and not Europe, is fast becoming a model for the nascent democracies of the Middle East.

After years discussing whether Turkey is in Europe or Asia, if it was turned westward or eastward, we have finally found the answer. The question was wrong. Turkey is not heading east or west: it is heading upwards. In just one decade the Turkish economy has quadrupled in size, from 200,000 to 800,000 million dollars (550,000 million euros), tripled its per capita income, which rose from 3,000 to 10,000 dollars, cut public debt from 75 percent to 40 percent of GDP and has seen its risk premium fall to well below those of most countries in southern Europe. Meanwhile, the EU is stagnating and many doubt if, instead of progress, Europe’s future will be marked by decline and a regression in the living standards that Europeans have been taking for granted.

While Europe was debating whether to take in or keep out Turkey and allowed itself the luxury of ignoring or even openly despising the country, the Turks challenged all the stereotypes and forged a success story. Some even speak of "Islamic Calvinists" to describe the new, successful and proud Turkish entrepreneurial class that has emerged in the most dynamic cities of Anatolia. That poor and illiterate Turkey that has so often been painted for us, supposedly full of ignorant Anatolian peasants eager to storm the fortress of Europe's welfare state, is no longer there.

On the streets of Rabat, Tunis and Cairo, Europe has ceased to be the model. The new model is Turkey, a country that proves you can be both Muslim, democratic and prosperous, and even have a foreign policy not subject to the dictates of the West. Emerging from a Mediterranean region riddled until recently with submissive authoritarian regimes, Erdogan's Turkey points very well to a future of proud and independent democratic regimes that will not hesitate to point the finger at Europe and publicly embarrass the continent when Europeans apply double standards towards Israel, open markets, human rights, nuclear proliferation or immigration.

Never before have the Turks lived so well and faced the future with such optimism. Small wonder that no one doubts the Islamists of the AKP will win an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections this coming Sunday. The only question (and source of concern) is whether they will get the 367 deputies (out of 560) that will allow Erdogan's party to amend the Constitution unilaterally, without the need to hold referendums, and so give a new twist to the screw of what many perceive as the dangerous drift towards authoritarianism that has been manifesting itself in recent years.

Will Turkey drift to authoritarianism?

To date, the prospect of EU membership has had a highly beneficial impact on Turkish domestic politics. For the Islamists, Europe meant a guarantee that the military would not intervene in politics, as they had done frequently in the past. For the military and secular and liberal forces, it meant than the Islamist majority would not impose their values on them or restrict human rights and individual freedoms. But as the bonds with European have been steadily weakening, now that the accession negotiations are completely blocked and every day there are fewer Turks who believe that membership will eventually come, the scope of action for the Islamists of the AKP has been growing.

Therefore, although the Turkey of today is infinitely more democratic, rich and stable than the country that became a candidate member in 1999 and began accession negotiations in 2005, many fear that such a resounding majority would allow the Islamists to cast off from the democratic pier that Europe had lashed them to. Thus, while for many Arabs Turkey is the model, the Islamist AKP is not necessarily the European ideal as we understand it. Some even maliciously insinuate that the European model of Erdogan is the other European archetype – the Russia of Putin, an authoritarianism disguised by free elections and with the mass media and entrepreneurial class completely under the thumb of political power.

If Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism comes true, it will confirm that the European Union, thanks to its awkwardness and myopia in managing its relations with the country, has blown the most incredible strategic opportunity that could ever have been conceived of to help turn Turkey into a lighthouse that would radiate democracy throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa.

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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