Turkish Democracy: A Model For Other Countries?

When protests broke out in Egypt this year, lots of talking heads invoked the same comparison: Could Egypt transition to democracy using the Turkish model?

Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 73 million people, and an increasingly active power in the Middle East. It occupies a unique position in the region: political, historical, even geographic.

Everyday, thousands of Turks pass through the turnstiles and take an intercontinental ferry ride across the Bosphorus, the strait that bisects the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul. On the western side is Europe; on the eastern side, Asia. It is one of those landmarks of Turkey that underscore its role bridging East and West.

In this season of anti-autocratic uprisings in Arab countries, Muslim Turkey is cited so often as a model for how democracy might evolve in those states. So how is Turkish democracy evolving at home?

AKP Party: A Model Itself

In the Silivri, an outer suburb of Istanbul, a government minister named Egemen Bagis is on the stump, campaigning for parliamentary elections in June. The ballroom ss packed with supporters of his party, the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

But behind the podium, on a poster, are two portraits: on the right Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the AKP, which in the Turkish context is considered an Islamist Party; on the left was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic a man who was militantly secular.

Bagis tells the crowd that since the AKP came to power nine years ago, one third of the country's schools have been built, as well as one fourth of the hospitals. Airline ticket sales, he says, are up over a hundred fold; something that used to be a luxury is now something for the people.

A major reason that people speak of Turkey as a model is the AKP itself — to be legal and successful in constitutionally-secular Turkey, Islamists had to renounce ideas like imposing Islamic law.

Bagis, who worked in New York City as a translator for many years, describes the AKP's religious component as a brand of social conservatism.

"AK party is a conservative democratic party. The way we look at religion — not only Islam but also other religions — is religion is an individual phenomenon," he says. "It is the role of the government to make sure that individuals have access to practicing their choice of religion."

The Ergenekon Criminal Case

The Istanbul suburb of Silivri is also home to a Turkish courthouse and prison where the most important criminal case in recent Turkish history is unfolding, very slowly and very secretly. It is the Ergenekon case. It alleges that a ring of military officers and their accomplices were plotting a coup against the AKP government — the government that Bagis serves in. In fact, the Turkish Army always used to step in when it felt that Turkey's pro-Western, anti-communist or secular principles were in danger.

Bagis told the crowd in Silivri that's all changed and the Ergenekon case is a sign that democracy is working.

In Turkey, he says, this kind of political case is not unique.

"My party was prosecuted with an intention to be banned," he said. "We did not like the decision — the financial penalty that the court enforced on us. But we obeyed it. And now we have to give the prosecutors a chance to prepare their case — their indictment — and then explain to the people what actually these people are being indicted for."

This Ergenekon case is a hugely contentious subject in Istanbul.

At a tea house beneath the landmark Galata Tower, Hugh Pope — an English journalist and author who has lived there for years and now works for the International Crisis Group (ICG) — says he's seen the contention firsthand.

"I was at a dinner party where the subject came up with intelligent members of the Turkish Istanbul elite, if you like, and very soon everyone was shouting at each other," he says. "There were pro-AKP and anti-AKP in this dinner party eating and drinking the same food and unable to talk in a civilized way about a subject, which probably none of them have direct knowledge of. It reminded me exactly of a London dinner party discussing fox hunting."

If Bagis thinks it's a fair and democratic fight against these political foxes, his friend Asli Aydintaşbaş vehemently disagrees. She is a newspaper columnist. Two journalists were detained last month, accused of being Ergenekon accomplices.

The journalists say they were just doing their job. It's not really clear just what the prosecutor says they were doing.

"This is my problem with this investigation. The indictments don't make sense," Aydintaşbaş says. "My take on this whole thing is that the problem with the current government is not that they turned out to be too Islamist. They turned out to be too Turkish. We're in 2011. The entire Middle East is screaming out freedom, so we can't be slipping behind in our democratic standards. We are an EU candidate."

European Union Candidacy

In fact, Turkey has been a European Union candidate for decades — an unsuccessful one.

Here's an irony of being rejected so long by Europe. To meet EU standards, Turkey has changed. The minority Kurds have more rights. There hasn't been a coup in this century.

"It is the EU that has forced Turkey to come to terms with a concept of minority rights, basically language rights, cultural rights," says Omer Taspinar, a Turkish specialist in Washington. "It is thanks to the European Union that Turkey has reformed its human rights agenda, its legislative process. And I think the EU has done also wonders in terms of civil military relations. One reason why we can no longer think about a coup in Turkey is cause I don't think the military is interested in being blamed for basically ending Turkey's chances of becoming a member of the European Union."

Here's another ironic twist to the tale of Turkey's unrequited love of the EU. These days, the very southern European countries that entered the EU when Turkey didn't — Greece, Spain, Portugal — are reeling from burst property bubbles and outrageous deficits. Turkey's economy is booming.

Turkey, led by a party that is more at home in the Islamic world, has turned to the region as a source of trade, investment, and tourism.

The buoyant economy makes the coming election even tougher for the AKP's opponents.

The main Turkish opposition group is the Republican People's Party, the CHP. Binnaz Toprak, a sociologist who will make her debut this year as a CHP candidate for Parliament, talks strategy with a CHP leader. The CHP is the party of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. For decades, it was Turkey's only party and it used to be staunchly — many would say intolerantly — secular.

"Secularism was interpreted quite militant — very much in the French tradition of control over religion rather than the separation of religion and state," Toprak says. "The transition to democracy did cause problems."

Toprak says there is now a political truce between secularists and Islamists. She says her party's new outlook is less about secularism, and more about closing the gap between rich and poor.

"We have a strong economy and yet there are 10 million people below the poverty level," Toprak says. "This is unacceptable."

'Turkey Is Unique'

So, is Turkey's way of democracy ready for export to the Arab world?

Pope of ICG says no.

"Turkey is unique," he says.

Just one example of what's unique about Turkey is its Ottoman-style marching band performing at the kickoff of a community soccer tournament. The men wear red or green caftans, huge hats, and shoes with curling, pointed toes. People speak of "the new Ottoman-ism."

Turkey has a long history as a powerful state. Pope says most Middle Eastern countries do not.

Yasemin Congar, a newspaper editor, says Turkey's neighbors would do well to emulate her country.

"You can see it in very simple things," Congar says. "I mean, you go to Egypt you will see they are watching Turkish sitcoms and Turkish TV contests and things like that. Again, in the Kurdish areas in Iraq they watch Turkish TV. So there has been an influence in that sense. Also, there is an admiration of the AK party because they have been in government for about 10 years now. And Turkey is economically successful. They will see a country that is dealing with its own taboos and that's questioning itself, which it never did. So in that sense, I wouldn't say it's a model, but it's an example."

And whether they think it's an applicable one or not, many Turks seem very pleased, even proud, to hear their country cited so often as a model for others. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.