In the parliament we have a prime minister justifying his abuse of power with the ballot box, and on the streets we have protesters demanding the resignation of that same PM — who was not only democratically elected, but by almost 50% of the votes —in the name of democracy. One thing that we need to notice in this picture is that there is serious confusion about the meaning of democracy in Turkey, both in the government and in the crowds.
As some protesters and media groups have put it, the events in Turkey may be compared to the Arab Spring in many ways, especially with the role of social media and the demands for “freedom.” But to compare the reasons behind the protests in Turkey and those nations, and to compare Erdogan to Mubarak, Qaddafi, or Assad would be a serious misinterpretation of both movements. Let's make something clear: Erdogan might talk and act like a dictator, but he is not an actual dictator and Turkey is not a dictatorship as the Arab Spring nations were at the time. Turkey has been a secular republic since 1923, and has had a multi-party system of parliamentary democracy since the 1950s.
This is not a “Turkish Spring,” and to call it that would undermine the meaning of both the Arab Spring and the current movement in Turkey. The Arab Spring movement was primarily a demand for a transition from an autocratic regime to a system of democracy. Turkey is not struggling to transition from a dictatorship into democracy, it is trying to transition from a weak, broken democracy into a healthy, functioning one.
What does that mean? To understand how we can “fix” the democracy in Turkey we need to first understand what democracy really means. Modern Turkey’s history of democracy has been stained with military coups against elected rulers, shutdowns of political parties, power-grabbing leaders, and early elections. Now there are countless protesters calling for the prime minister’s resignation because of his reckless political moves, attempt to control our institutions, and most importantly, his dictator-like attitude. Although these growing concerns are very real and noteworthy, is early election really the solution for Turkey’s wounded democracy? The PM’s resignation would not only fail to yield any of the results these protesters want, it would be nothing more than yet another stain on our political history. What we need to do is call for a reformed Justice and Development Party, or to raise our voice as we address our concerns in the next elections. Unless we approach such situations with respect for true democratic values, we can’t expect the establishment of a healthy democracy in Turkey.
On that note, the protesters are not the only ones who seem to be overlooking the meaning of democracy. Judging from his remarks on the protests in Taksim Square, Erdogan seems to be confused about what sort of powers his title grants him and what it does not. In a real democracy, the rule of the majority does not mean undermining the rights of minorities. Erdogan cannot ignore the demands, needs, and rights of the people who have not voted for him. No section of a population within a democratic society should fear the impact of the policies of its elected government on their private rights and personal freedoms. It is more than natural for the opposition voters to disagree with the policies of a ruling party, but to fear the consequences of these policies on their private affairs is a different story. In a true democracy, all citizens need to be able to live under the rule of any elected leader, including those they have not voted for, without feeling a threat to their civil rights.
Unfortunately this scenario has never been true for the people in Turkey, which has led to the coups d’etat of 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. Although these coups have been called for and championed by many, the military rule has resulted in painful consequences for Turkey, and as we can see today, they have not provided long-term solutions to our problems with democracy. Now Turkey has a much larger middle class, a growing economy amidst economic and political crises in the region, and a more serious role on the international stage. These conditions are close-to-perfect for Turkey to achieve great things, but leaders need to understand that the country can only do so if it adopts the values of a real, healthy democracy. And the way to do that is not by overthrowing an elected party from power. It is through the establishment of solid institutions that ensure protection of our democratic values and freedoms of expression, press, and assembly. It is through open criticism of the government and its policies without fear of persecution. It is through politicians who understand that they are not in power to serve those who elected them, but for the nation as a whole.