Europe and Democratisation in the Near Abroad (including, but not limited to, Turkey and the Balkans, 25 September 2003)


Yaşar Yakış

25 September 2003

Democratisation in Turkey has a different historical background as compared to many European countries. While democracy came in several European countries as a movement from the bottom, from the people itself or from quarters near the bottom, in Ottoman Turkish society it started as an exercise of intellectuals operating close to the rulers of the country, the sultans. The Ottoman perception of governance did not allow ordinary people to voice their expectations on how the country should be governed.

For the sake of our debate, democratisation in Turkey may be examined in 6 different layers or institutions of the country, namely: people, parliament, intelligentsia, government, military establishment and judiciary. Democracy developed with different speeds in each and every one of these layers.

  People:  Among the foregoing five layers of the Turkish society, I feel that the one that digested democracy in the best manner is the people itself. After all, it is only natural that people watch their own interest. But the success of democratisation at the level of people is not due in Turkey only to the greed or selfishness of the people to obtain its own interests. It is also due to the fact that, no matter how insufficient may be his level of education, it has grasped the universal sprit of democracy much better than many other quarters in the society and consequently plays the game of democracy in accordance with its agreed rules. The results of the general elections in Turkey, when analysed from this standpoint, are full of indications that supports this observation.

Parliament: Parliament in Turkey may be cited as the second best institution which has digested democracy. This is mainly due to the fact that the parliamentarians do not want to be distant from the expectations of the people they represent. Secondly, the history of frequent military interventions in Turkey made the Turkish Parliament more cautious in watching the rules of democracy.

Intelligentsia:  Like in many developing countries, intellectuals in the Turkish society have a notorious reputation of being cut off the people. Of course, all intellectuals of a country cannot be put in one basket and characterised as deficient. There are all types of intellectuals in the country. Many among them have a perception of a democracy tailored according to their own wishes and expectations. They believe that democracy should function exactly the way they perceive it and not as the majority of the people wishes it to function.

 Government: The government seems to be doing its best to help establish as good a democracy as it is possible in a country like Turkey. It is doing so especially to meet the commitments undertaken by Turkey to meet the Copenhagen political criteria for joining the European Union. The fulfilment of this important task will provide an unprecedented support to the political party in power in the single party government of Turkey. When such an attractive incentive is at stake, there is no reason why the government would not stick to such a goal.

Military: Military establishment in Turkeyhas a different place in the mind of the people as compared to many other countries. In Turkey, the military establishment has always been at the forefront of the westernisation efforts. The role of the army in liberating the country eight decades ego, the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who was a military himself and the high quality of training and education in the military colleges are some of the contributing factors to the consolidation of this image of army in the mind of the Turkish people. Even if legislative measures were taken by Turkey to reduce the role of the military, this image of prominence will continue to remain in the mind of people. Furthermore it is only natural that any establishment which enjoys a certain privilege in the society will not give it away willingly. Even if the influence of the army in the governance of the country does not disturb many Turks, this situation is in flagrant variance with the practice in almost all western countries. The role of the military is reduced in the western democracies to a minimum necessary for the external security of a country. This puts the Turkish military in front of a dilemma: Should the military give up their privileges or should it find itself in the position of an institution which hampers the westernisation efforts of Turkey?

Judiciary: Among various institutions, judiciary in Turkey is the one which is lagging behind many others as far as democratisation is concerned. This may be due to the fact that the judiciary is by definition an institution that protects the established order of the country. Political developments in the recent history of Turkey forced those who were in a position to shape the country’s democracy to give more power to judiciary with a view to protecting the country from the wrongdoings of those who hold power. But it appears that the power given to the judiciary exceeded its requirement. The difficulty is that, while other institutions may be forced or induced by the government to be more forthcoming in the implementation of democratic practices, judiciary cannot be moved easily since it is independent. An additional difficulty is that the most conservative part of the judiciary are the high court judges. In other words even if the junior judges in Turkey are trained in a manner to grasp better the basic rules of democratisation, little progress could be achieved as long as the higher court judges remain unchanged. Because the junior judges cannot decide contrary to jurisprudence created by the verdict of the higher court judges. On the other hand it is very difficult to convince higher court judges that they need further education in order to fill their gaps in the implementation of democratic rules in a country.

The foregoing assessment indicates that democratisation process in Turkey is in the right path, but it has several constraints that could not be overcome overnight.

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