Several times in its history, Turkey has been cast as a model for the Muslim world. The first time was after the end of the Ottoman Empire. Then, in 1991, again, Turkey was presented as a model for the Turkish republics of the former Soviet Union by the international community, which was very concerned about the transition of these new republics. More recently, after the Arab Spring had toppled several leaders and allowed Islamist parties to come to power, the Turkish experience was reexamined as a model the post Arab Spring countries. But since the beginning of June, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the main architect of this model has been seriously challenged by huge demonstrations in several cities of the country, it seems less relevant to talk about this model, which for some analysts, has in reality never existed. However, a more accurate analysis of the protests in Turkey might suggest that the protests are part of this model, suggesting that the dissatisfaction in Turkey is demonstrating the relevance of this debate.

What is the Turkish Model?

Bayram Balci
Balci was a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on Turkey and Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
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Direct descendent of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has always occupied a special place in the Muslim world. In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded a modern, secular state. Admittedly, the Turkish secularism he created was only relatively democratic, in the sense it was more a domination of religion by State than a real separation between the two institutions. However, although imperfect, this secularism granted Turkey a very privileged place in the Muslim world. Europeans have admired it and encouraged other Muslim countries to emulate it in their reforms. After the end of the Second World War, Turkish secularism was reformed, becoming more democratic and more respectful of religious liberty. The end of the cold war was another stage for the Turkish model, as it was portrayed by western countries as a exampling model for the new countries in the former Soviet Union. The Turkic Republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijanis were encouraged to modernize their countries and societies after the Turkish economic and political model, especially in the management of relations between Islam and State.

But the debate about this Turkish model is more intense since the current government has transformed the Turkish economy and society. Between 2002, when it came to power, and 2012, an Anatolian bourgeoisie has emerged, and the economy was boosted thanks to the dynamism of Anatolian Tigers, a term usually employed to designate the Anatolian businessmen. With an exceptional growth, an average of 8 %, the Turkish economy became the 17th strongest economy in the world. In the political field, very substantial reforms have been achieved, such as the reduction of the army’s control on society and politics, and real improvement, although not enough, of the rights for the Kurdish minority. Thanks to this self-confidence Turkey, has become more assertive in its foreign policy, and Ankara has demonstrated its capacity to resolve some conflicts in the Middle East. When the Arab spring started, the initial of Ankara attitude was hesitant and cautious, as Turkey had strong relations with dictators. However, after a short hesitation, Ankara supported the regime change in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Then, since the Islamist parties, comparable to the Turkish AKP, won the first democratic elections, the idea emerged in the international media and policy making circles that these new governments would be influenced by the AKP in their attempts to adapt their Islamic discourse to modern governance.

However, as the AKP and its leader have progressively abandoned their democratic values and adopted a more authoritarian style in the third term, after June 2011 elections, the architects of this Turkish model have seriously alienated and even exasperated some groups. There are several examples of this authoritarian and paternalist style we can cite. Erdoğan advocated legislation restricting the consumption of alcohol. And most irritating for the population was the prime minister’s insidious control on media. Last but not least, he has become unpopular with his ambition to change the Constitution and to become the next powerful president.

Because of this new authoritarianism, his opponents took the streets, demanding his resignation. The Turkish model, associating moderate Islam, democracy, and economic progress, was suddenly shattered. The inevitable question is if these popular demonstrations prove or not the failure of the Turkish model? For me, the answer is not. The recent events which are going on in Turkey demonstrate the possible improvement of the Turkish model.

How the new situation is a new stage of this model

What makes me optimistic about Turkey is the fact that the weakness of the political opposition has been compensated by public mobilization. In Turkey, the government became omnipotent, a sort of State-party because the opposition was not capable of controlling it. What is positive and makes me optimistic in the current events is the capacity of civil society, without the organized political parties, to challenge the government’s authoritarian policy. The existence of this civil society is something very positive for the emergence of a more mature Turkish democracy. Erdoğan’s main problem was his inability to understand the difference between winning an election and fostering a more balanced and consensual democracy. Hopefully the Prime minister now understands this lesson of democracy given by people in the street. At the same time, there is a risk of instability because the opponents in the streets are divided, and some of them are less democratic than him.

Moreover, this crisis in Turkey will certainly force the prime minister to be more democratic in his own party. Unfortunately, his very strong popularity made him deaf to his colleagues’ criticism and counsel. The new situation might allow the emergence of new figures in the AKP, something very important and healthy for the democracy.

Turkey is at a turning point, a new one in its history. If well managed, the current political crisis can give a new dimension, a new horizon for the Turkish democracy and for sure, we will continue to debate and develop the Turkish model.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy Journal.