Democratization and Relations with the EU in the AK Party Period: Is Turkey Really Making Progress?

Paul Kubicek
Content Type
Journal Article
Insight Turkey
Issue Number
Publication Date
Fall 2013
SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research
This brief commentary assesses the progress made by Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (the AK Party) toward European Union (EU) membership and democratization. While it acknowledges positive steps, it notes that the goals of EU accession and democratic consolidation remain elusive. One consideration is that the expectations or “goalposts” for both have moved so that, relative to the objectives of those supporting democratic freedoms and Europeanization, progress in Turkey has still been rather modest. While the democratization package of September 2013 offers some hope for democratization, it remains difficult to see substantial progress in terms of joining the EU.
Political Geography
Europe, Turkey
Over a decade ago, when the AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi [Justice and Development Party]) came to power in Turkey, hopes were high in many quarters that this was the dawn of a “new” Turkey. While the AK Party had Islamist roots and was distrusted by many in the secular establishment, its leaders boasted that the AK Party stood for “conservative democracy,” including a commitment to universal values of freedom. In the early 2000s, the AK Party was also arguably the most pro-European Union (EU) of all Turkish political parties, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaiming that Turkey would continue with reforms to meet EU criteria and aimed to make Europe's values “Ankara's values.” Much has happened in the past decade, but in 2013 it is still difficult to be sanguine about either the establishment of liberal democracy in Turkey, or, in particular, the country's EU bid. This is not to say that Turkey has not made considerable progress. It has. In some ways, the country has come further than was imaginable in the 1990s prior to the rise of the AK Party and the imposition of EU conditionality. However, new challenges and problems have emerged, making the goals of consolidating a liberal democracy and joining the EU as elusive as ever. This brief commentary will suggest that the “goalposts” for both democracy and the EU have moved so that, relative to the objectives of those supporting democratic freedoms and Europeanization, progress in Turkey has been rather modest. Put somewhat differently, Turkish EU membership was (in 2002) and is (today) a long-term and uncertain prospect and, particularly in recent years, Turkey has regressed on its path toward democracy. Positive Developments under the AK Party It would be unfair to portray developments under the AK Party in a wholly negative light. In the words of Ihsan Dağı, the AK Party embraced the language of democracy and human rights as a “discursive shield,” and mobilized popular support and worked with various groups in Turkish society to bolster its democratic legitimacy. This was not, however, merely rhetoric. Particularly during its first term (2002-2007), the AK Party accelerated reforms that were initiated under the previous government, passing constitutional reforms and EU harmonization packages covering issues such as freedom of expression and assembly, minority (e.g. Kurdish) rights, and the prerogatives of the military. Turkish civil society became more active. The AK Party government did face significant opposition, but the party – and Turkey itself – avoided a major crisis in 2008 when the Constitutional Court refused to ban the party, as had been done with some of its Islamic-oriented predecessors. Constitutional reforms as well as the Ergenekon and Balyoz court cases have weakened the power of the “deep state” and removed the threat of a military coup. The AK Party was re-elected in 2007 and 2011, gaining more votes in each election and thereby re-enforcing its democratic credentials. Among the party's objectives after its election in 2011 was the adoption of an entirely new constitution, one that it promised would create an “advanced democracy.” The early 2000s were also the “golden age” of Turkish-EU relations, as the EU employed conditionality—holding out the prospect of eventual membership—to encourage domestic political reform. For its part, the AK Party committed itself to adopting reforms in order to launch accession talks. According to Ziya Öniş, if one previously witnessed a “vicious circle of delayed reforms and slow progress toward full membership”, EU pressure helped foster a “virtuous circle” conducive to wide-ranging reform. These reforms were, in his view, “inconceivable in the absence of powerful incentives and pressures from the EU.” Guenther Verheugen, then the EU's Commissioner for Enlargement, praised the AK Party government and asserted that “the passage of reforms through [the Turkish] parliament show[ed] the strong determination of the Turkish government to get in shape for EU membership.” By 2005, Turkey had made sufficient progress to allow accession talks to begin. Ihsan Dağı surmised that the AK Party had “played a historically important role in consolidating democracy in Turkey and in integrating Turkey into the EU.”