Where is Turkey heading under Erdogan's ruling party, the AKP? The question becomes urgent following the approval of a constitutional referendum on 12 September with a majority of 58% in favor as opposed to 42% against.
In theory, the referendum is in many ways an advancement of liberal democratic rights in compliance with membership requirements of the European Union (EU). For instance, the revision of article ten upholds the principle of gender equality, whilst article twenty now ensures the protection of personal data and the right to privacy. It was for these reasons that the Enlargement Commissioner of the EU, Stefan Fule, praised the constitutional reforms as "a step in the right direction ... towards fully complying with the accession criteria." Meanwhile, the European Parliamentary deputy Richard Howitt affirmed that the referendum was a "sign of the population's support for reforms that will prepare the country for European Union membership."
However, in practice, the AKP is not only failing to implement the principles of liberal democracy as outlined in parts of the referendum, but it also appears to be reversing them. For example, though aforementioned article ten assures gender equality, the Turkish women's rights group IRIS points out that in 1994, 15.1% of women were in executive civil service positions, whereas under the AKP, the figure has declined and now stands at 11.8%. Indeed, no women serve amongst the nine main bureaucrats in the Turkish Justice Ministry, whilst in the high courts, whose judges have hitherto not been appointed by the government, there is a large number of female jurists.
Moreover, the percentage of women in the workforce has dropped from 34.1% in 1990 to 21.6% this year, something that cannot be explained solely by urbanization trends. This seems to fit in with Erdogan's philosophy that a woman's role is to stay at home and have at least three children.
Similarly, AKP rule has seen the increasing curtailment of freedom of expression and the right to privacy. With huge tax fines imposed on media outlets critical of the AKP such as Dogan and the imprisonment of journalists on allegations of coup plots, Turkey dropped twenty places in Reporters Without Borders' "Press Freedom Index" to 122nd out of 175 countries in 2009. In addition, the number of wiretapped phone calls, primarily against political opponents, has grown by around 50% annually since 2007 to a figure of 142,135 in 2009.
It consequently is not surprising that there was a sharp regional divide over the referendum. In all the prosperous provinces along the Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines, as well as Thrace, which contains the city of Istanbul, a majority voted against the referendum. In these places, where the influence of secularism is strongest, voters generally did not view the referendum as progress for liberal democracy but as a means for the AKP to implement further an Islamist and authoritarian agenda with the military and courts, both traditional upholders of secularism in Turkey, now curtailed. The former has been silenced owing to allegations of a coup plot back in March; the latter can now be reshaped by the AKP. Hence, the party now controls the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of the Turkish government and in effect has unchecked power, amounting to de facto majoritarian rule. Nonetheless, the real test to ascertain what bodes for Turkey's future lies in the AKP's plans to draw up a new constitution that is, like the referendum, supposed to be a further step towards EU membership.
Thus, will Turkey truly uphold liberal democratic principles the AKP claims to represent and head down the path of accession to the EU, or will it become an illiberal state more akin to Russia and strengthen its current tilt towards Iran and Syria? The present situation appears to suggest the latter, but that path would be of sad consequence for those inside Turkey and Western policymakers. Given the violence that broke out between AKP supporters and opponents in the days prior to the referendum, an unusual occurrence in political affairs in Turkey, further aggravation through majoritarianism of already deep tensions between the secular and religious would have terrible implications for Turkey's future. Meanwhile, for the West, retaining Turkey as a key U.S. and NATO ally is of paramount importance, yet such an asset would be lost if the country becomes a fully fledged illiberal, Islamist state.
Nevertheless, it is not inevitable for Turkey to transform into an authoritarian, Islamic republic. If the EU and other Western nations make it clear to the AKP that serious consideration of Turkish membership of the organization will require implementation on the ground of the liberal democratic notions it purports to espouse (reversal of which is unacceptable) and highlight the risk of provoking secularist resentment, then one of two favorable outcomes could well arise. Either the AKP will abandon its Islamist tendencies, or in next year's elections, many Turkish voters will turn to the secular, pro-European, and democratic Republican People's Party, now led by the charismatic social democrat Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Oxford University and an intern at the Middle East Forum.