Turkey is a democracy with a tradition going back to 1945, when the authoritarian presidential regime set up by the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, gave place to a multi-party political system.
A traditional ally of the U.S., Turkey, has one of the healthiest democratic systems in the Muslim world, although with considerable deficits on the issue of the protection of minorities, human rights, and the freedom of the press.
System of Government: Parliamentary Democracy
The Republic of Turkey is a parliamentary democracy where political parties compete at elections every five years to form the government. The president is elected directly by the voters, but his position is largely ceremonial, with real power concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and his cabinet.
Turkey has had a tumultuous, but for the most part, peaceful political history after World War II, marked with tensions between left and right-wing political groups, and more recently between the secular opposition and the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP, in power since 2002).
Political divisions have led to bouts of unrest and army interventions over the past decades. Nevertheless, Turkey today is a fairly stable country, where the vast majority of political groups agree that political competition should stay within the framework of a democratic parliamentary system.
Turkey’s Secular Tradition and the Role of the Army
The statues of Ataturk are ubiquitous in Turkey’s public squares, and the man who in 1923 founded the Turkish Republic still bears a strong imprint on the country’s politics and culture. Ataturk was a staunch secularist, and his quest for modernization of Turkey rested on a strict division of state and religion. The ban on women wearing the Islamic headscarf in public institutions remains the most visible legacy of Ataturk’s reforms, and one of the main dividing lines in the cultural battle between secular and religiously conservative Turks.
As an army officer, Ataturk awarded a strong role to the military which after his death became a self-styled guarantor of Turkey’s stability and, above all, of the secular order. To this end, the generals launched three military coups (in 1960, 1971, 1980) to restore political stability, each time returning the government to civilian politicians after a period of interim military rule. However, this interventionist role awarded the military with the great political influence which eroded Turkey’s democratic foundations.
The military’s privileged position began to diminish significantly after the coming of power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002. An Islamist politician armed with a firm electoral mandate, Erdogan pushed through ground-breaking reforms which asserted the predominance of civilian institutions of the state over the army.
The Negative Side of Turkey’s Democracy
Despite decades of multi-party democracy, Turkey routinely attracts international attention for its poor human rights record and the denial of some of the basic cultural rights to its Kurdish minority (app. 15-20% of the population).
- Kurds: In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an armed rebellion for an independent Kurdish homeland in Turkey’s southeast. Over 30 000 were killed in the fighting, while thousands of Kurdish activists were tried for alleged crimes against the state. The Kurdish issue remains unresolved, but promising peace talks resulted in 2013 in a partial demobilization of the PKK.
- Human Rights: Draconian legislation used to bolster the fight against the Kurdish separatists has also been used to target journalists and human rights campaigners critical of the military and the state. Judges have used laws penalizing vaguely defined offenses, such as “denigrating Turkishness,” to shut down dissent, while mistreatment in jail is common.
- The Rise of the Islamists: The AKP of Prime Minister Erdogan projects an image of a moderate Islamist party, socially conservative but tolerant, pro-business and open to the world. Erdogan embraced the Arab Spring protests in 2011, offering Turkey as a model of democratic development. However, many secular groups are feeling increasingly sidelined by the AKP, accusing Erdogan of amassing ever more power and using his parliamentary majority gradually to Islamize the society. In mid-2013, frustration with Erdogan’s leadership style escalated into mass anti-government protests.