When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his latest package of democratic reforms, ultra-nationalist groups accused him of betraying the values of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, while Kurdish nationalists expressed frustration at the package’s perceived inadequacy. This polarized reaction is nothing new. Throughout his tenure, Erdoğan has been condemned by the three leading secular opposition parties for pursuing too much reform, and by Turkey’s minorities and civil-society organizations for doing too little.
But Erdoğan has navigated this difficult political landscape deftly, with a cautious reform style that aims to build consensus through compromises that actually work when enacted. His gradual yet persistent efforts have succeeded in mobilizing his conservative supporters to back progressive change. Indeed, it was Erdoğan’s backers (often described as “Islamist” in Western media), not the pro-Western secularists, who defended the return of non-Muslim foundations’ property confiscated by the republican regime.
Moreover, Erdoğan and his allies have advocated harsher punishments for hate crimes against Jews, Christians, Alevis, and Kurds. With mistreatment of non-Muslim minorities a common criticism of Muslim parties across the Middle East, Turkey’s quiet revolution suggests that, by reconciling people’s religious values with the need for change, Erdoğan’s tactics can be applied in other countries to win support for progressive reforms.
Every democracy requires such tactics. When US President Barack Obama could not implement his original vision of health-care reform, he sought to compromise with his opponents by basing the reform on a plan developed by a conservative think tank and implemented in Massachusetts by former Governor Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in last year’s presidential election. This willingness to seek consensus on what should be a broadly acceptable compromise is usually cited as a strength of American democracy (though, as the recent government shutdown demonstrated, compromise is becoming increasingly elusive).
But, when it comes to reform in the Arab world, Western observers have usually implied that reformers need to be revolutionaries, democratizing their systems quickly, heedless of others’ concerns and fears. If a country’s political system is not amenable to such a transformation, foreign powers may even seek to democratize it by force.
After the Arab Spring revolutions, for example, Egypt and Tunisia were expected to achieve comprehensive transformation within months. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was asked to rid the country completely of the institutions and values of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, while addressing the deep-rooted economic and social grievances that fueled the popular uprising. His failure to do so was cited as one of the main justifications for his ouster less than a year after he took office.
Turkey’s democratization under Erdoğan has offered a less exciting and revolutionary path, because it has been subject to the constraints of a multi-party electoral system, constitutional checks, and public opinion. Nonetheless, within a decade, improvements in Turkey’s democracy have achieved enough to help end the government’s long and bloody conflict with Kurdish separatist groups.
Erdoğan has been prudent, seeking to reform many institutions without undermining the dignity of their current administrators. His approach – to convince bureaucrats, opposition-party leaders, and the general public to support gradual reform – may seem to reflect cautious conservative timidity, but it has enabled the long-term success of his government’s measures.
For example, Erdoğan’s electoral base had to wait almost ten years before women regained the freedom to wear headscarves in state institutions, and even that came with many restrictions and exceptions. Similarly, discriminatory policies against Turkey’s Kurdish population were steadily reversed. Kurds now can use their native language in the media and in private schools, and Kurdish-language courses are optional in public schools. During the 1980’s, Erdoğan would have been arrested simply for suggesting some of the reforms that his government has achieved in the last decade.
To be sure, reforms are – and always will be – subject to harsh criticism, with old Kemalist elites clinging to the unitary and secular republican tradition and Kurdish nationalists seeking to eliminate all expressions of Turkish national identity from the political culture. Even so, recent polls show that more than 50% of Turkey’s electorate support Erdoğan’s gradual yet highly controversial reforms.
Erdoğan’s political style rejects both the legacy of Cold War-era ideological conflict and Islamist visions of maximalist social transformation. Demanding immediate, comprehensive democratization or social transformation fails to account for a country’s history, values, and preferences.
Ertan Aydin is a senior adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.